With the WSL season at the halfway stage, what better time for a mid-season review for Arsenal Women? The team currently sit in 2nd place in the table having played a game more than Manchester City and Chelsea directly below them. The Gunners were eliminated from the Conti Cup in the group stages, clearing their calendar a touch for the remainder of the season.
Last season’s Champions League and FA Cup campaigns were concluded earlier in this season and both ended in disappointment for Montemurro’s side, losing in the Champions League quarter-finals to Paris Saint Germain and the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. Here, we look back on the highs, lows and points of improvement going into the second half of the season.
Reducing the reliance on Vivianne Miedema in front of goal
Arsenal have become a more diverse attacking force this season scoring 38 goals in the WSL so far. The next highest scorers in the league are Manchester United with 27. Montemurro’s side have put six past Spurs and Reading, five past Brighton, four past Everton and nine past West Ham in the first half of the league season.
A lot of this is due to the arrival of Caitlin Foord (whose impact I analysed in-depth here). The Australian can play as a wide forward or as a striker and in reality she does both in various phases of the game. Her ability to fill space in the centre has kept Arsenal’s approach fresh, with Vivianne Miedema often moving to the left wing to drag defenders out of position. Miedema set up goals for Beth Mead against Chelsea and for Lotte Wubben-Moy against Brighton from the sorts of positions you would associate with a left-winger.
This Miedema ball (with her theoretically weaker foot) is absolutely obscene. A cross that absolutely demands a goal.https://t.co/XUtUaqTOHt
— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) October 12, 2020
Arsenal have always had a diversity of attacking threat; but Beth Mead and Jill Roord have raised their game in front of goal this season, Caitlin Foord has added goals and assists to the mix while Jordan Nobbs is getting back to her best with four assists and two goals in her four WSL starts this season. Left-back Katie McCabe leads the WSL for assists with seven so far. Arsenal have added an attacking string to their bow in 2020-21.
— miedemastuff ⚽️ (@miedemastuff) December 28, 2020
In October, Gunners centre-half Jennifer Beattie was diagnosed with breast cancer. Just three days after her diagnosis, she played and scored in the 5-0 victory over Brighton & Hove Albion. The celebrations and subsequent social media posts from her teammates told you that the goal had a significance only known to her colleagues at the time.
Recently, Jen went public on her diagnosis in an attempt to raise awareness of the importance of getting checked regularly. The Scottish international also wears pink boots in aid of Breast Cancer Awareness. Beattie is one of the quieter characters in the squad and doesn’t give many interviews- the spotlight is not something she seeks.
It took an enormous amount of bravery to be so vulnerable so publicly so soon after her diagnosis but she decided to use her platform to illustrate the importance of early diagnosis. Thankfully, her diagnosis came early enough that the cancer didn’t spread and she has no need for chemotherapy. That she has managed to play at an elite level while receiving treatment is doubly incredible.
I defy you to watch this clip and not get emotional. Days before this game, Brighton 0-5 Arsenal October 11, Jen Beattie had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her teammates and club staff knew but no one else did. Then she scored. The power of football ❤️ (Video cred, @BBCSport) pic.twitter.com/91Dljd1yEu
— Molly Hudson (@M0lly_Writes) December 12, 2020
The big away games
In 2020, Arsenal have lost to Chelsea three times, Manchester City away three times, PSG and Manchester United away. They haven’t taken a point away at Chelsea or City since October 2018 and haven’t beaten Chelsea in that time either. They came mightily close to defeating Emma Hayes’ side at Boreham Wood in November and showed an improved tactical acumen in that game.
However, their recent defeat at Manchester City illustrated familiar failings. Montemurro was critical of his players and their execution of the game plan in each of those defeats but a coach can’t keep blaming the players forever, at some point, a leader has to reflect on their role in this recurring flaw. Arsenal have to find an answer when the big teams press them high and force them back towards their own goal. They simply won’t be able to win any silverware without improving their record in these games.
Arsenal made their squad considerably bigger in the summer with the arrivals of Noelle Maritz, Steph Catley, Lotte Wubben-Moy, Malin Gut and Lydia Williams to complement the winter procurement of Caitlin Foord. Players who had suffered significant knee injuries and were, through no fault of their own, unable to contribute for the best part of two seasons moved on. Montemurro was no longer playing with a small, tight squad.
Yet this season the team has been decimated by injuries. What is unusual is that these have mostly been muscular injuries, which haven’t been a feature of Montemurro’s reign until now. The Gunners squad had previously been decimated by knee injuries suffered on impact. So far this season, Jen Beattie, Jordan Nobbs, Kim Little, Steph Catley, Lisa Evans and Lydia Williams have all missed games due to muscle injuries.
Worryingly, Steph Catley and Jen Beattie suffered recurrences while Lisa Evans and Jordan Nobbs’ injuries turned out to be worse than first feared. The Arsenal boss revealed to Arseblog News in October that the club were reviewing their training programme as a result of the autumn injury crisis.
Joe Montemurro tells me Steph Catley had a hamstring pull in training which they’re assessing. Full quotes from Joe’s press conference on @arseblognews in the next 30 mins or so
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) December 20, 2020
THE CHALLENGE AHEAD
There are four teams fighting it out for the three Champions League qualifying spots in Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City. The first objective for Arsenal is to get into the top three, after that, it is to try to win the league. They are four points behind Manchester United at the top but Casey Stoney’s side have to play Chelsea, City and Arsenal away in the second half of the campaign.
City and Chelsea will offer stiff competition, the former appear to be over their early season funk as they integrated lots of new players and a new coach. Chelsea haven’t entirely clicked as a unit yet having added Pernille Harder to an already star-studded attack. They lack balance but they have so much individual talent that it essentially doesn’t matter.
The beautiful game, played The Arsenal Way.
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) December 6, 2020
Chelsea and City play one another in the Conti Cup both had to contend with WSL postponements and both are still in the Champions League. Arsenal have no such distraction in Europe and effectively wrote off the Conti Cup this season. They will have a much kinder schedule than their challengers in 2021. If they cannot win the league, adding a 15th FA Cup is also a priority.
With no other cup competitions to worry about, Montemurro will want to be sure not to go a second successive season trophyless. Champions League qualification and an FA Cup win would amount to an acceptable season given the club’s standards and the quality of the competition. Winning the league again has to be the ultimate target and to do that, the Gunners will need a cleaner bill of health and they are going to have to find a way not to lose away at Chelsea in February.