Arsenal finished 3rd in the WSL last season having earned 2.4 points per game, compared to Manchester City’s 2.5 point average and Chelsea’s 2.6. There was a cigarette paper between Arsenal in 3rd and Chelsea in 1st. The Gunners haven’t dropped a single point against anyone outside of England’s big three since April 2018.
Their WSL fate was decided by head to head clashes against City and Chelsea. In February, Montemurro’s side dominated Manchester City at the Academy Stadium, the XG for that match finished 1.28 to 0.63 in Arsenal’s favour. However, they lost 2-1, just as they did away at Chelsea in October having scored first.
The Conti Cup Final saw Arsenal wrack up chance after chance only to find Chelsea ‘keeper Ann-Katrin Berger in inspired form. The Blues barely got out of their own half; but they won the match 2-1 with a stoppage time goal from Beth England. The margins in games against Chelsea and City were wafer thin in February but ultimately, Arsenal’s chances of silverware were undone by small margins.
On Saturday, Arsenal face a strong Paris Saint Germain side in a one-legged Champions League quarter-final in San Sebastián on Saturday. I ask captain Kim Little whether the team have discussed closing those margins against bigger opponents. “Definitely,” she says assertively, “I think you can see even over the past couple of years we’ve come up against the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, these tougher opponents and more often than not, we’ve not succeeded or not won the games even when we’ve played well.
“It’s something Joe has brought up about controlling these pressure moments and what we can do to come out of those games on top,” she continues. “Because ultimately those are the games that either win you the league or get you through in the Champions League, so it’s definitely something they’re aware of and trying to improve.”
The tie was originally meant to be a two-legged affair in late March and early April and, had the game gone ahead as planned, Arsenal would have struggled to put together a squad of 13. Kim, Lia Wälti, Beth Mead and Danielle van de Donk all picked up injuries in February and March, to add to the absences of Katrine Veje and Danielle Carter.
Who's expecting more of this link-up play tonight? ? pic.twitter.com/2x0SX4LBLo
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) September 26, 2019
Arsenal have added Steph Catley, Lydia Williams, Noelle Maritz and Malin Gut to the squad over the summer and Mead, Little, Wälti and van de Donk are all fit again. Kim admits that the delay has been advantageous for the Gunners in terms of fitness, “We had quite a few injuries just before the pandemic. The squad was a little bit limited in terms of numbers, but now with that time away from football, and we’ve all been able to recover well and come back into training and ready to play.
“It’s been great to be back in with the girls and to be training with greater numbers. I’m looking forward to having that depth in the team now and I think it puts in a much better place come the start of the season and especially for the Champions League. I had surgery in February and I’ve been rehabbing most of the time during the pandemic but I am recovered now and came back into preseason ready to go.”
PSG are coming into this quarter-final tie with competitive football in their legs. Arsenal arranged four practice matches ahead of the trip to Spain, but the Coup de France was concluded earlier this month, with PSG progressing to the final where they lost the final to Lyon on penalties. The Scot admits that this could give the French side an edge but that it’s not something the squad are dwelling on, “I wouldn’t say it’s a concern. I think it just kind of is what it is.
“In terms of competitiveness and that kind of intensity of competitive games that maybe gives them a little bit of an edge, but I think come the game next week and how it is just a one-off knockout game, I don’t think it’ll play too much of a part.” There were suggestions that the FA in England might do something similar with the English FA Cup but, understandably, they wanted to host the final at a time when fans in the stadium might be a possibility again, so Arsenal’s FA Cup quarter-final tie at home to Spurs will now take place in September.
“Definitely having that would maybe be preferred,” Kim admits, “But we couldn’t have that so we just need to take as it as it and we have prepared ourselves as well as we can.” Part of that adapted preparation has been built into their practice fixtures, “Regardless of the result we’ve been finishing our preseason games with penalty shootouts to prepare ourselves for the situation that could very much occur in the knockout stages.”
Since it doesn’t look like any highlights will be made available anywhere, here, at least, is Kim Little’s penalty last night. pic.twitter.com/93OpgJBtPE
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) October 17, 2019
PSG represents a “coin toss” tie in the quarter-finals and don’t be too surprised if penalties are required to separate the sides. Kim is aiming to become the second Arsenal captain to collect the European Cup trophy after the Gunners’ triumph in 2007. “You have to make the most of your time in this in this competition,” Kim points out. “It doesn’t come around too often in your career to play these kinds of games.”