There is no doubt that the WSL is going to be stronger than ever this season. When Everton are spending £100,000 on a France international striker and Manchester United are bringing in talent like Tobin Heath and Christen Press, you realise the league is growing. This week, some big moves are set to be announced before the season gets under way this weekend.
Pernille Harder, Tobin Heath, Lucy Bronze and Christen Press are all likely to be confirmed additions to the league. Chelsea have already added Melanie Leupolz and Niamh Charles, City have signed USWNT duo Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis on loan. They will all be stronger. In view of this summer’s transfer activity, the consensus seems to be that Arsenal will become the poor relations of the WSL’s big three.
I think that’s an over statement. All of Arsenal’s additions have been defensive- they have added full-backs Steph Catley and Noelle Maritz, goalkeeper Lydia Williams and 20-year old defensive midfielder Malin Gut and defensive signings don’t animate folk as much as attacking signings do. Here are some reasons that, in my view, Arsenal will be as strong as ever in the league this season.
THE SPINE REMAINS THE SAME
Arsenal’s first XI additions are both full-backs. The spine of the team is untouched and has played together for several years. Jordan Nobbs and Kim Little have started over 200 games for Arsenal, Jen Beattie and Leah Williamson at centre-half over 100. Lia Wälti is starting her third season at the club with Vivianne Miedema entering her fourth.
None of those players are new and it’s human nature to consider newer better. Arsenal’s spine is a match for any team and they can count on players such as Danielle van de Donk, Jill Roord and Caitlin Foord to come into it too if needed. Chelsea only added Guro Reiten to their team last summer and it was enough to take them from third to first.
Reiten was an excellent addition to the exterior of their team but their strong spine of Bright, Mjelde, Ingle, Ji and England stayed together and that’s where their real strength lay. This summer they will introduce Pernille Harder, Melanie Leupolz and continue the integration of Sam Kerr into the spine of the team.
Excellent players no doubt but it will be a challenge for Hayes to get them all singing from the same hymn sheet straight away [a very nice challenge, admittedly]. City, meanwhile, sold Pauline Bremer without replacing her [at time of writing], which means they only have one dedicated centre-forward in 32-year old Ellen White, who has a history of knee injuries.
In the Community Shield this weekend, City had no forward injuries but played Georgia Stanway as a false 9. They will have to integrate loan signings Mewis and Lavelle into their team as well. Again, they are quality players and that’s a nice challenge, but it’s a challenge nonetheless. How quickly City and Chelsea settle their new players into key positions will be critical. City will need to hope that Ellen White stays fit too.
ARSENAL HAVE ADDED TOO!
She doesn’t play for the USWNT and she isn’t a forward, but Steph Catley is certainly one of the many exciting arrivals into the league this season. Catley has a solid claim to be the best in her position in the world- Lyon tried to enlist her for good reason. Meanwhile, Noelle Maritz is 24 and has won 13 major titles during her spell at Wolfsburg.
I'm not a big fan of Hendrich either. You got yourself the only decent wingback Wolfsburg had besides Wedemeyer.
— Ellen Hanisch (@Ellen_Hanisch) August 30, 2020
“Over the past couple of seasons we’ve made very, very good attacking players into fullbacks, so we’re very, very lucky that Lisa Evans can play that role. We’re very lucky Katie McCabe can play that role,” Joe Montemurro told me a fortnight ago. “But there was always the intention of pushing them further forward.”
The two most obvious gaps in the Arsenal squad a year ago were dedicated back-up for Vivianne Miedema, which January signing Caitlin Foord now provides, and dedicated back up to Lia Wälti in defensive midfield, which summer signing Malin Gut provides. Evans and McCabe are free to play their more natural positions further forward and Arsenal have a pair of full-backs that have won all of Germany and Australia’s biggest prizes. Maritz is a past Champions League winner too.
Arsenal have not dropped a single point against any team outside of the WSL’s big three in over two years now. Everton and Manchester United are getting stronger which will make that task more difficult and the Gunners have undoubtedly struggled against quality teams with lots of power, like Chelsea and PSG.
Their record against the bigger teams needs to improve, though they have beaten Manchester City at home on four consecutive occasions now. But Arsenal’s real secret is their ability to unlock packed defences and play against deep blocks. Chelsea’s transitional approach has proved to be kryptonite to Arsenal in matches between the teams, however Hayes’ side drew with Brighton and Liverpool last season. [The additions of Harder and Kerr will undoubtedly help there!]
Arsenal, historically, have just not struggled against this type of team and this is the challenge they face most often. They beat everyone they should beat and usually comfortably too. Past performance is no guarantor of future performance, of course, but it is a handy indicator.
Chelsea’s depth sets them apart but Arsenal’s squad is deeper than it was last season and they won’t have to contend with the Champions League like Chelsea and City will. The last two WSL title winners jumped from 3rd to 1st thanks in no small part to a lack of European fixtures.
Any number of things could happen this season- in 2018-19 nobody would have predicted Chelsea would finish a distant third for example, but my view is that Arsenal will be very much part of the title conversation again and the eventual victor will be decided by small details.