I am not quite sure I can remember a season like this one for Arsenal Women. Injuries have dominated the discourse and it is evident in the final weeks of the campaign that a squad shrunk to its bare bones rather limped over the line. However, there have been some incredible highs, the Women’s team have regularly been attracting crowds of over 40,000 to Emirates Stadium, which felt a distant, far-off dream even a year ago.
They finally sold the stadium out for the UWCL semi-final against Wolfsburg, the team also won the Conti Cup, beating Chelsea 3-1 in the final at Selhurst Park. It has been a season all about psychological barriers, overcoming the sight of beloved teammates leaving pitches on stretchers with tears in their eyes, breaking attendance records and finally banishing the four-year trophy hoodoo. Let’s try to make sense of an emotional rollercoaster of a season.
Before the start of each season, I am asked what my expectations of Arsenal are and my answer is always roughly the same- that they should compete for every trophy they are in and what they actually win will be decided by small margins. Last summer, my answer changed slightly, I felt there were two very important objectives for the Jonas Eidevall project.
I felt the team had to win a trophy. They hadn’t won one since 2019. They lost FA Cup Finals to Chelsea in 2018 and 2021, as well as a Conti Cup Final in 2020. They also lost a Conti Cup Final to Manchester City in 2019. In 2022 they lost their FA Cup semi-final at home to Chelsea and in 2020 they lost their FA Cup semi-final away at Manchester City.
I don’t think the four-year barren spell (four years is the longest Arsenal Women have gone without a trophy in over 30 years) was a psychological barrier. Yet. But I think had it continued for another season it would have become one. To overcome Manchester City in the Conti Cup semi-finals and then come from behind to beat Chelsea in the final was incredibly important for the belief of the group.
Winning that final inspired a run of excellent form too and helped Arsenal to achieve the second objective that I felt was very important- getting to the Champions League semi-finals. Arsenal had banged their head against the quarter-final glass season several times, going down to Wolfsburg and PSG in recent years (as well as Birmingham City in 2014).
Again, coming from behind to beat Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals was incredibly important for the belief of the team. Jonas Eidevall admitted afterwards, “A good process can only sustain you for so long, sooner or later you need results.” Getting to the semi-finals and an injury depleted squad pushing Wolfsburg all the way to the 119th minute of the second leg in front of a sold-out Emirates Stadium felt like a heroic defeat.
That ties in nicely with the next two good points. Firstly, the emergence of big crowds to watch the team at the Emirates. Arsenal have made that a strategic priority and have really poured resource and effort into making the stadium feel like it belongs to the women’s team as well. Behind the scenes, Arsenal have devised a steering group, drawn from staff members across the club, devoted to this. We now have the faces of legendary women’s team players on the side of the stadium.
The images for Lia Wälti and Kim Little’s contract extension announcements were at the Emirates, exactly like Bukayo Saka and Aaron Ramsdale’s. The marketing for games has been strong, North London derby tickets were put on sale in the immediate aftermath of the Lionesses Euros win, men’s season ticket holders had the opportunity to add the women’s games at the stadium to their season ticket renewals.
Tickets for the Wolfsburg game were on sale immediately after the final whistle sounded in the victory over Bayern Munich, Arsenal pushed UEFA to allow them to announce the date in the process. The club have already announced that they will play more WSL games at the Emirates next season as they continue to push towards their stated ambition to make the stadium the permanent home of the women’s team.
The Champions League run, as well as finishing above Manchester City in the UWCL qualification spots bring me to the next positive. The tactical adaptability of the coach and the resilience of the team to overcome their injury crisis. They moved to a back three and there are several players who were asked to fill in in different positions.
The coach has been sympathetic but has also not allowed an excuse culture to set in as he has sought to motivate his players. “You can have results or you can have excuses, we choose results,” he said on more than one occasion. Eidevall managed to switch and adapt his team to wring the best from them and the players went through physical and emotional toil to achieve their objectives.
The final part for this section relates to what has happened off the pitch. In the stands at Meadow Park this season there has been a concerted effort by the supporters’ club and groups like Red and White and AWFC Home and Away to not just create a good atmosphere but to create the conditions that promote a good atmosphere.
One of the blockers to this, for years in women’s football, has been people feeling like an island. People who like women’s football but perhaps don’t have immediate friends or colleagues that do. Its friendships and the feeling of belonging that really gets people to stadiums and gets them coming back again and again. These groups have cultivated a sense of camaraderie and community and, with that, has come an excellent atmosphere at games.
The crowd is a big part of the selling point for football, it elevates “the product” when it is clear that what is happening on the pitch is meaningful to the people watching it. Every home game was sold out at Meadow Park this season, which is unprecedented. But I don’t think it’s just the Lionesses and the Euros that did that because, while we have seen attendance bounces all over the league, Arsenal’s has been the steepest.
And that, I think, is because Meadow Park is a really fun place to be, with songs for every player. The manager has referenced it several times this season and I know the players are blown away by how much it has taken off. The level and the volume of support, home and away, has been a pleasure to witness and I think these things are attractive to players the club might look to recruit as well. Chapeau to the supporters, who have been the 12th woman.
Clearly injuries are the headline here. Four ACL ruptures in one season is unprecedented (there’s that word again), even given the long-standing prevalence of this brutal injury in women’s football. Arsenal spent the first half of the campaign without the centre-half pairing of Rafaelle and Leah Williamson and, as soon as they muddled through that period and got them fit again, Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema were lost and Eidevall then had to patch a new attack together.
Leah Williamson was added to that list in April, denying her the chance to captain England at this summer’s World Cup. That injury happened during a defeat away to Manchester United in April and, without it, I am convinced Arsenal would have won that game and kept themselves in the title race a little longer. The home defeat to Manchester United saw Arsenal deprived of Rafaelle, Williamson and Kim Little, while Beth Mead was injured during that game.
Injuries directly cost Arsenal second place at least. ACL injuries are a problem for women’s sports in general (Lyon have just suffered their fourth ACL in a year this week in Delphine Cascarino). However, it is unlikely that Arsenal are totally blameless given the number of injuries and Eidevall has been upfront about that publicly. I doubt the ‘blame’ factor is enormous but Arsenal have pledged to investigate whether there is anything they can do to mitigate that risk.
Recruitment was also an issue for Arsenal in the summer and winter transfer window. Targets they had been confident of acquiring, like Geyse, Debinha, Cloe Lacasse and Jelena Cankovic, slipped through their fingers. The January deadline day scramble for Russo and then Signe Bruun was borderline embarrassing and a clear sign of desperation.
Again, Eidevall has been frank publicly about this several times, just last week he said, “In mild words, the last two windows have not been good enough.” Arsenal have big targets lined up for the summer but they simply have to do a better job of securing signatures. Victoria Pelova was an absolutely brilliant January signing, imagine what another ‘Pelova’ for the forward line could have done for Arsenal’s ambitions this season.
Clearly much of the focus will be on transfers here, securing the futures of Kim Little, Lia Wälti and Frida Maanum was really important for the Gunners’ midfield. Katie McCabe’s contract expires next summer and I think it’s just as crucial to get her tied down to a new deal, especially with Chelsea’s surprise January interest in the player.
The loss of Rafaelle leaves a huge hole in a defence already damaged by the absence of Leah Williamson well into next season. We don’t yet know what the future holds for Jen Beattie but replacing Rafaelle, a genuinely world class left-footed defender capable of dribbling away from pressure, is going to be very difficult. “Our recruitment will need to be really good there,” Eidevall admitted on Saturday.
Clearly, Arsenal need to augment their forward line. Jodie Taylor came in on a short-term contract to try to patch up some gaps. The Gunners were willing to break the world transfer record for Alessia Russo in January for a reason and they retain a strong interest in that player this summer. Stina Blackstenius played in every single game this season and, if nothing else, Arsenal need numbers in the centre-forward position. Gio is likely to go out on loan again next season.
Increased depth ought to help massage the injury crisis too but the squad needs greater firepower, even if the returns of Mead and Miedema next season should help in this regard. The Gunners finished 11 points behind Chelsea and scored 17 fewer goals. There are mitigating factors, of course, but an injury ravaged defence still managed to produce a strong defensive performance over the season.
I believe Paula Tomas is a target and she represents a versatile option in both full-back positions and reports in Portugal suggest that Arsenal retain their interest in Cloe Lacasse from Benfica. Arsenal need depth and quality and I think they need it most at left centre-back and in the forward line. The top scorer for this season was a midfielder and while that is fine, I still think they need numbers and they need more goals in the forward line, that is where the most obvious drop-off to Chelsea occurred this season.
Chelsea lost Kirby and Harder for much of the season but had Reiten and James ready to come in. That’s the benchmark and Arsenal have to try to meet and exceed it and it seems like the manager and the club are very aware of that. Overall, the squad and the coach have done exceptionally well to hit some big targets this season amidst a backdrop of understanding and, I guess, sympathy, but they will not want sympathetic caveats to underscore the assessment of 2023-24 when it comes around.