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.
Introducing @TobinHeath’s squad number…
HEATH 77 has arrived 🇺🇸
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) September 3, 2021
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 , we brought in Jill Roord  who is very young. We’ve brought in Fran Stenson  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.”
100%. I liked out approach last year, but in the May reality was that City almost won the title because getting a year of Mewis. ManU almost got CL ahead of us because of Tobin/Press. We lost Jill/Dvd and could only convince Leah to sign for a year.
— Eelleen (@EelleenEST) September 3, 2021
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.