Arsenal Women: why you shouldn’t write them off in the WSL title race

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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.

“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’S SUPERPOWER
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.

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Its the Arsenal

I thought i was the only one who was shocked by the commentary on the community shield final where we didn’t even get a mention as one of the teams challenging for the title, will only make our eventual triumph sweeter knowing they all underestimated us because we didn’t sign uswnt or high reputation players in positions we weren’t lacking in

Peter Story Teller

We’ll sweep in under the radar! Our new players might not have come from USA but they are top quality and strengthen and provide depth to what was already a good team when they were fit to play.

Magneto

Let’s hope Arsenal Women win the WSL title this season.

And I enjoyed your article about the Lyon Womens’ team in the Guardian today, Tim;I rarely see “hegemony” used in a footballing context, hehehehehe.

Fun Gunner

Thanks, Tim
As long as we get off to a fast start, return to free-scoring ways – from all over the pitch – and don’t drop more than three points against Chelsea or City, I fancy us. We have the talent and the automatisms. But I remain a little uneasy about our ability to stand up to those teams physically. Unless we look as if we are offering resistance to the challenges, the referee will not award the fouls. And I don’t want to see us bouncing off players we’re trying to tackle or hold up.

Peter Story Teller

I’m with you, Tim. Just because other WSL teams have signed “big names” does not mean that they will gel. Sam Kerr, Community Shield! I am sure she is better than that performance but for the hype when Chelsea signed her I am yet to be convinced that she adds much that Reiten, England and Ji cannot do. We have a solid squad and added what we needed to improve, 2 full backs and cover for Lia. All are top quality internationals and, fingers crossed, we have no long term unavailability issues which has cost us over the last couple… Read more »

Danny

Thanks for this Tim. Really useful information for newcomers like me.

Falooda

Nice summary Tim. Not sure I agree with you on your conclusion though. Like you said, the season will be decided by the small details like how Arsenal do against the top sides versus how Chelsea/City do against the so called “lesser” sides. And based on everything you stated here, it looks like Chelsea have made moves to address their weaknesses while the lower teams strengthening only negates Arsenal’s so called superpower. To me, the biggest issue remains unaddressed. The sheer lack of physicality in the side means we will always get outmuscled and outrun in those big games. Joe… Read more »

Fun Gunner

Other teams are getting more physical and more technical, too. I think we will face challenges similar to Chelsea more often than in previous seasons.

Falooda

The 4-1 may be an outlier but the general trend is not. I’m not saying I agree with people saying Arsenal are the worst of the top 3 but its a valid concern to have when they’ve lost the last 5 (or 6?) in a row to Chelsea and haven’t really troubled them. Even if you want to compare the outliers, I think we have to be honest and say the 5-0 happened as much due to Joe’s tactics on the day as it did because half the Chelsea team were injured. Joe had no such excuses when they trounced… Read more »

Stillberto

Did Chelsea have injuries that day? Don’t recall any. I’d say Arsenal certainly troubled Chelsea in the Conti Cup Final too. Personally think we’ve a better squad than City but I’m just not sure the physical thing is such an issue- I think it’s more to do with Chelsea playing a high press really well but we found a way around that in the Conti Final. That may be a portent for better things against them or Hayes might find another answer to it. I think the reality in the top 3 is that they’re all relying on the weaknesses… Read more »

Peter Story Teller

We stormed the Conti Cup final vs Chelsea and outplayed them. The reason we lost is that their goalie played a blinder and we lost their runner in the box to tap in a winner right at the end of the game. My concern for the coming season is we fell foul to the same problem against PSG; twice! We have the squad to win all the domestic competitions this season but need to tighten up on those defensive lapses that have cost us three goals in two (very important) games. Hopefully two dedicated full backs in Steph and Noelle… Read more »

Fun Gunner

Yep! The way the squad has been assembled, with multiple players covering each position, is so clever in principle it will be a shame if he can’t make it work in practice.

Falooda

100% agreed. I love the clear vision that Joe brings in (makes for a nice departure from Pedro Losa for sure!) but he can be too idealistic. IMO, that only works when you’re clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the league. As you said, the failure to use Foord (or even Nobbs earlier) was pretty concerning against PSG. No point in having a bigger squad if you simply can’t use it effectively.

Here’s hoping Arsenal being out of Europe this season helps with the workload!

Eeleen

I think this season will be important for Joe concerning big games. I don’t think speed and physicality will be as big of issues (if Beats will have injury problems when it will be) as questionable tactical choices by Joe in big games. PSG was always going to be physical game and we played our least physical starting 11 possible. If we replace Katie, Lisa and Beth with Steph, Jordan and Caitlin, we have much much more physical team on field, more strenght and more running. I don’t agree that we have been outplayed last years by Chelsea and City.… Read more »

Fun Gunner

Exactly. This is why we have to get off to a fast start *and* at least not lose to Chelsea or City. Chelsea’s spine is also largely the same as last year, despite the potential additions.

I’ve got to be honest. I’m not a big supporter of Joe Montemurro. He seems rather rigid in his philosophies and unwilling to be adaptable. He gives me Maurizio Sarri vibes?, especially when favouring players he’s already worked with over more modern talents.

I don’t think he will be the coach to take the side back to the glory days.

If he proves me wrong and manages to win the WSL come the end of this season. You can downvote me to oblivion.

Peter Story Teller

He’s already won it once and is still not out of the FA Cup. Not too shabby for somone trying to pick up the pieces left by Kerr and de Losa.
As for glory days, with the professional league that we now have I cannot see any one team being as dominant as Arsenal were in years gone by.

Tell that to Lyon, what number of titles are they on now??

But on a serious note, I’d very much like to be proven wrong during the summer.

Peter Story Teller

Accepted but the French league is not WSL. They only have 2 teams in it!
I’m not concerned by a majority of these journey (wo)man signings from the States. We have seen it all before with Carli Lloyd, our own HAO and even Jody Taylor (yes I know she is English but spent much of her career in USA) they breeze in, struggle to make the impact everyone expects, and go back home after 6 months for the next American season.
I hope that I am not proved wrong! 🙂

Eeleen

100% agree. Playing style in NWSL is so so different from Europe that doesn’t often seem like same sport. So players who only come for short period don’t probably adabt. Even Morgan and Rapinoe in Lyon weren’t specially good. Kerr’s difficulty in WSL is also for me connetcted to this.. she seems such a NWSL type of player. If she game to Europe to stay, she can probably adabt in long term. I personally am very happy that we didn’t jump on shortterm US loan train. What I am less happy about, is that it seems we are not trying… Read more »

Armchair

It’s certainly good that Arsenal added a couple of good outside backs this off-season as ManCity has added some attacking firepower in Harder, Lavelle and Bronze, to go with Kelly and Stanway. That team may not be strong at center-forward, but it will soon have a lot of talent up front. Chelsea, meanwhile, as two of the most dangerous forwards in the game–even if Kerr has struggled in the WSL and was absolutely dire in the Community Shield final. And ManU and Everton are going to be better–especially if United add C. Press. I think we’ll find out this season… Read more »

Rick

Should I be worried that there is no mention of the fabulous Beth Mead in this article, particularly when it comes to talking about the quality that Arsenal already have? Startling omission – unless I have missed something (which I freely admit is very likely)?

JohnnyCash

I am sorry, but i must say that three PSG middlefielders totally outplayed Arsenal trio. Little, Nobbs, Wälti are just not enough to win against top-sides. Little and Nobbs are too attack-minded, Arsenal should play with four (diamond) with addition of Roord to bring power and balance. DvD should play as second striker. This formation allows more flexibility. The game against PSG was so bad not because of the result, but because of the Arsenal managers’ unwilling to change anything from last season, where he lost to all top opponents.

Eeleen

Well… maybe if we had played Little, Nobbs, Wälti against PSG we could come to that conclusion, but since we didn’t… We played with your suggested four midfielders (kind of diamond) against Chelsea at home, at it was the worst Arsenal performance of two years and we had no flexibility at all, we had no outball from midfield at all and our 4 midfielders were dominated by Chelsea’s 2, so I personally don’t want to see that again. Our managers unwillingness to make chances for big game is not the issue, exact opposite… his need to make too many changes… Read more »

Peter Story Teller

I am sorry, did you even watch the PSG game? It seems like you don’t know who was playing as many on here were crticising Joe for not bringing Jordan (and others) on from the bench early enough. Against the best women’s team in Europe you cannot expect to do much more than stay in the game and try and create openings when you get the chance. As I have said before, we lost that match due to conceding two goals that we should have blocked since they were both low level crosses with their attacker getting the touch in… Read more »

Armchair

The Diani goal was both brilliant and fluky: How many times does she score on a corner-kick play like that? Maybe 1 in 15? Also, I don’t remember Miedema having a chance against PSG that she would make 9 of 10 times. I remember her having a half chance with her left foot, which I think was her only half-decent chance of the match. It was a chance–and she could have scored–but I don’t think it was a great chance. She had a lot of defenders around her, as I recall, rushed the shot a bit and pulled it wide.… Read more »