Tobin Heath signing suggests a shift in approach at Arsenal Women

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Arsenal Women caused a frisson last week with the signing of two-time World Cup winner Tobin Heath. The 33-year-old is one of the best-known female footballers on the planet and a star in her native USA, where women’s soccer enjoys a sizeable profile. At the age of 33, Tobin is probably about to hit the age curve but only relative to her own talent (think Manchester United signing Cristiano Ronaldo).

Heath has been a world-class player for well over a decade and brings a large profile with her too, a profile Arsenal’s significant US fan base will be well aware of. Arsenal Women don’t often confirm a signing’s squad number in a separate tweet with a link direct to the online Arsenal store. I would wager Heath outsells every member of the men’s squad as a shirt printing choice bar Bukayo Saka.

Heath is such an interesting signing not just because of her profile, or even her talent. It’s interesting because Arsenal already have two England internationals in her favoured right-wing berth. Beth Mead and Nikita Parris compete for the right-forward spot for England and Arsenal. Jonas Eidevall did not have a gap in that position (Caitlin Foord and Mana Iwabuchi can also play there perfectly capably).

I asked Jonas Eidevall about this in his pre-Chelsea press conference last week and he gave a two-fold answer. Firstly, Jonas is trying to introduce a brand of high-pressing football that will take its toll on the wide forwards in particular. Beth Mead went off with cramp during Sunday’s 3-2 win over Chelsea and that could be a regular sight for Arsenal.

“I think with the number of games I hope we play this autumn and with the work we require from our wide forwards, we will need the ability to substitute players but also to rotate between games,” Jonas told Arseblog News on Friday. Heath is 33 and still a regular for the US National Team, she will still fly across the Atlantic for international football and Arsenal will not need to play her in every game. They can treat her with kid gloves.

The second part of his answer to my question was just as interesting. I deliberately phrased the question in a loaded way, “If you can get Tobin Heath, do you just get Tobin Heath?” This is where his reply suggests to me, a shift in Arsenal’s focus this summer. “Tobin Heath is a points player, she wins you points and she makes the difference in games at the highest level.”

The signing of Heath was an aggressive action in the market, the kind Chelsea, the defending champions, have been making for a couple of years now. In 2019-20, Guro Reiten, Sophie Ingle and Beth England were the driving force behind a title-winning season. Chelsea still went out and bought Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder and Melanie Leupolz and now Ingle, Reiten and England are high-level rotation options. Chelsea still procured Lauren James from Manchester United this summer despite having no obvious need for her.

Arsenal have signed Nikita Parris (27) and Tobin Heath (33) for, essentially, the same position this summer when they already had Beth Mead and Caitlin Foord (the latter more typically plays on the left). Last summer, the strategy was different. Arsenal signed then 21-year old defender Lotte Wubben-Moy and 20-year-old midfielder Malin Gut. In January, they added 22-year-old Anna Patten and Joe Montemurro made a greater effort to integrate 23-year-old Jill Roord into the starting line-up.

Joe talked about future proofing his team and building a young core. “We were getting a little bit older, we were getting into the years where players have to start looking at other situations. We’re succession planning, there’s Marlin Gut [20], we brought in Jill Roord [23] who is very young. We’ve brought in Fran Stenson [19] so we’ve got that succession planning in goal,” he told me last September.

A year on, Joe has left, Jill Roord has left for Wolfsburg and only injury prevented Malin Gut from moving back to Switzerland, a move she will likely complete next summer. In the covid campaign of 2020-21, it was especially difficult for young overseas players to settle away from their families. The other young signings from last year- Lotte Wubben-Moy from Bow and Anna Patten from Hertfordshire- are still here. Fran Stenson is on loan at Brighton.

Much of that youth project has drifted away already. The reality in women’s football is that contracts are short, so turnover is large. Building a youth project probably doesn’t work at this stage of the WSL’s development. To quote Arseblog reader Eelleen, “The only way to be successful tomorrow in women’s football, is to be successful today.”

The other issue for Arsenal is that they have Jordan Nobbs, Leah Williamson and Vivianne Miedema in the final year of their contracts. Those players will need convincing of the size of Arsenal’s ambition before committing to new deals. Overseeing a youth project for jam tomorrow does not get players of that calibre to commit, as we have seen many times on the men’s side. Getting players that help you to win now takes you much closer. If you fail to convince those big existing players, you resign yourself to perpetual rebuild.

The lack of transfer fees also makes squad building different in the women’s game. Nikita Parris is 27 years old and sits third in the WSL’s all-time goalscoring list despite spending the last two seasons in Lyon. She is a player that guarantees you high end-product, the range of outcomes when you sign Nikita Parris is small.

In the men’s game, a club like Arsenal might have to consider the resale value (or lack thereof) on a 27-year-old (Thomas Partey, for example). It adds pressure to the signing because it means it simply has to work because you cannot sell the player if it doesn’t. This isn’t a consideration in the women’s game where contracts are short and transfer fees are rare and small when they do happen. (Chelsea hold the current world record when they paid £350,000 for Pernille Harder last summer).

In Heath and Parris, Arsenal have signed a pair of players who will age on their books but who all but guarantee high end-product and resale value just isn’t a consideration in the women’s game anyway. This is where it looks as though Arsenal’s attitude has shifted and they have decided to be aggressive in the market (Heath’s salary will not be small either).

In branding terms, comparatively speaking Arsenal Women are more like Manchester United in the men’s game. They are the most successful club historically and, even in bad seasons by their own standards, they compete to win trophies. They are the historical superpower. The WSL is on the cusp of further major growth with the Sky Sports television deal and Arsenal have an advantage of decades worth of profile and success behind them that other women’s teams are only just starting to try to build.

They are not playing catch up with Chelsea and Manchester City as they are in the men’s game; they are already on the same level. However, they cannot take for granted that they will stay there and from the looks of their activity this summer, Arsenal have realised that. Earlier this summer I wrote a piece on whether Arsenal had the appetite to “grasp the gauntlet” and continue to maintain and progress Arsenal Women’s status. It’s too early to say they have done that but I think we can say they have responded to that challenge.

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Harding

Great article Tim, really looking forward to seeing how this season unfolds.

thankyou22

Great job, Tim! Thanks!

Timorous Me

Really great piece, Tim, and I think you’re absolutely right that it’s crucial the club doesn’t miss this opportunity to stay in the mix at the very top. The women’s game seems poised to take another major step forward in the coming years–here in the states, I think with a good base of fans of women’s soccer in general, combined with a pretty impressive group of fans of Arsenal and Premier League/WSL teams, there’s an opportunity to see interest in the WSL and Arsenal Women continue to build (especially if we continue to see these games on NBC Sports on… Read more »

Daniel

Good quality rotation options are always a good thing to have, on Sunday with Foord out through injury and Beth Mead taking a lot of knocks it would have been such a reassurance to have Tobin Heath on the bench, its going to be quite an exciting season

Elise

Yeah Sunday with Foord injured I was realizing exactly why we are eager to have depth, particularly in the wide forward positions!

WayBackWhen

Thanks Tim – another article giving me an “Oh, right, I get it.” moment. With “The other issue for Arsenal is that they have Jordan Nobbs, Leah Williamson and Vivianne Miedema in the final year of their contracts.” I had wondered about the impact of the Heath signing on the long term future of those three (and whether it might draw one of those single raised eye brow looks from Viv). Given this current window of opportunity for the Women’s game do you think that signing more high profile US players could be part of the strategy? Although I’m uncomfortable… Read more »

Chrishgooner

Yes, if the Suzy Wrack interview with Viv is anything to go by the eye brow is being twitched!

Henkamp

I wouldn’t have been as much interested in the women’s team as I am.now if I didn’t visit Arseblog regularly. Thank you for the great work, Tim.

And yes, hope we do really well this year. Would love to see Miedema stay here for a few more years.

PeteyB

2nded. You guys are doing top work

Carlos

Excellent article Tim. Really insightful read.

GoonerLady

Whatever we think of this leadership team at Arsenal, we have to admit at least strategically, they’ve got it right for both the men and women. And it seems on both teams they tried to course correct this summer after some misteps. If nothing else that brings a bit of trust in what their priorities are.

The women’s team should absolutely be elevating this team to be more competitive against the Chelsea’s of the world. We look to be in the right direction

Bill Hall

Every effort should be made to extend the contracts of Viv, Jordan and Leah, they are too good to lose!

Joe

concur, but the same was true of DvD.

Peter Story Teller

But DvD wanted to leave and if a player does not want to stay at a club it doesn’t matter who you have negotiating contracts or signing players they will be on their way!

Marieke

Viv has also been the one they rely on so much. She’s said it’s nice to be able to have back up for her. So with Keets and Tobin, we might see Beth in her old role sometimes. I’d love to see if she has some Sunderland magic in her. I think she showed us on Sunday, especially in that 1st goal, she does!

Peter Story Teller

Been saying that about Meado for seasons! She has her boot laces tied together out wide 🙂

shokim

Thanks for a brilliant article, Tim! Looking forward to more WSL football, since our men’s team are underperforming…

Boff

I much prefer watching the womens teams than MLS games I get to watch in Canada. Football is so much better tactically; and skill levels are often better with women’s teams (especially Arsenal)
COYWG

Chrishgooner

Real thought provoking stuff as usual Mr T.
The joy of Sunday’s win matched that at the Amex just over 2 years ago. The page has well and truly been turned and 6 months on from Joe’s moment of clarity optimism abounds…….it’s a funny old game.

Eoghan

Enjoyed that!
The impact of making the Champions league for the first time in an age (assuming we get the job done tomorrow!) is also something AWFC will have been thinking about. We just don’t know quite how much the group stage will take out of the squad on an individual or collective level so reinforcing it with Heath could be a mightily shrewd move, even if it’s only for a season.

Gabigol

Would be interested to know if the technical direction of the women’s team is also the same C as the men’s team?

Tim Stillman

In some ways, Vinai and Richard Garlick have oversight but Clare Wheatley is the one that does the day to day work on things like transfers.

Gonner77

Tobin Heath is a huge Arsenal fan, I think it could be possible for her to extend to two years if things with Christen Press in the USA is still going well. I don’t see Jordan Nobbs ever leaving Arsenal she’s a lifer. Miedema and Williamson to some extent are a lot harder to predict. I think as long as Miedema is enjoying her football, and not forced to play every match, and Arsenal can be competitive in the leagues etc then that could be a huge draw for getting and keeping players. Although some of that would also be… Read more »