WSL Preview: Arsenal

Club History

Arsenal were one of the original eight clubs to join the inaugural FA WSL in 2011.  They remain one of three clubs to never have been relegated from the new top division of women’s football, the other two clubs being Chelsea FC and Birmingham City.

The club entered the WSL as the most successful English women’s club and continued this history of success by winning the first two league titles.  After several years finishing in third place and one year finishing fourth, Arsenal regained the WSL title in 2018-19.  They have since returned to third place for the previous two years.

Since the beginning of the WSL they have added three more FA Cup wins, adding to their record previous eleven wins, and finished runners up in 2017-18. The club has also won the FA Women’s League Cup five times, also a women’s record, in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2017-18. They remain to this day the only English women’s team to have won the UEFA Women’s Champions League, having been crowned European champions in 2007.

Last Season

3rd – 15 wins, 3 draws, 4 losses, 48 points

Arsenal’s 2020-21 campaign saw them finish third for the second season in a row.  After a strong start to the season, they struggled in the middle third of the WSL calendar and had to rely on an eight game winning streak at the end of their season to secure a Champions League position.

As had occurred the previous season, the Gunners found wins against teams lower down in the table but failed to be able to beat the top two teams.  Feeling the pressure of a strong Manchester United who were vying for entry into the top three, Arsenal finished the season seven points behind Manchester City, nine points behind Chelsea and just one point ahead of Manchester United.

Very strong in defence, the team managed ten clean sheets last year and allowed only 15 goals to be conceded.  This was the third lowest in the league, behind these top two teams.  More than half of their goals conceded came from the four Manchester City and Chelsea clashes.  They also were third in the league for goals scored with Vivianne Miedema coming second in the league in goals, with 18 in the WSL, and new Australian acquisition Caitlin Foord finishing joint fourth in the league for goals with 10 scored.

The team’s player of the year was left back Katie McCabe, who was tied in the WSL for the number of assists created with 11, and who had her best year with the Gunners since joining the side in 2015. Centre-back Leah Williamson also had an outstanding year.  While she has been part of the team since 2014 and a mainstay in the Arsenal lineup since 2017, like McCabe the 2020-21 was also her best year so far.  Both players made the PFA Team of the Year.

Off Season Changes

With the exception of the 2018-19 season, Arsenal have cemented themselves as the third placed team in the WSL for a number of years now. Manchester City and Chelsea have separated themselves at the top of the table, with the Gunners failing to find success against them in recent campaigns.

To tackle this disparity, a review process was headed up by Arsenal’s operational director.  It has lead to a number of changes ahead of this season.  The club have added a head of sports medicine and sports science, a nutritionist, increased the medical support and added an individual development coach to the women’s set up.  

Arsenal’s Chief Executive Vinai Venkatesham has also announced the future building of a new Arsenal Women’s building, better suited for the modern demands of the women’s game.  The reporting line of the club will also be changed to get better synergies between the men’s and the women’s teams, with one of the aims being increased access to analytical technology and platforms.  

Venkatesham also stated that increased funding and investment will be put into women’s team, exceeding previous spending by Arsenal.  For fans of the club who have seen their team often play third string to Manchester City and Chelsea, these commitments are arguably reassuring to keep their team competitive in both the WSL and in Europe.

The team will also play stand alone games at the Emirates, for the first time in the club’s history.  Two are currently planned for the upcoming season: their opening match against Chelsea this Sunday and their North London derby against Tottenham Hotspur in March.

The Manager

Joe Montemurro announced his intent to depart the club at the end of the 2020-21 season last March, after three and a half years in North London.  Montemurro guided the Gunners into the full-time professional era, winning the first fully professional season’s WSL trophy in 2018-19.  He also won the League Cup his first half year with the club, lead them to two further League Cup finals as well as an FA Cup final. His achievements with the club earned him Best FIFA Football Coach and UEFA Women’s Coach of the Year nominations.

Arguably, Arsenal had big shoes to fill in replacing Montemurro.  After an extensive search to find a head coach who could play the Arsenal way, they announced the appointment of Swedish coach Jonas Eidevall at the end of June. Eidevall has a long pedigree of coaching in the women’s game in his home country.  He won the Damallsvenskan three times with FC Rosengård.  He also lead the club twice to the quarter-final stage of the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

Arriving at the club, Eidevall stated his intent to keep pushing the standards and to lead a team that can be competitive in all competitions.  Highlighting that this will not be easy, and that certain changes and ambition will be needed, he iterated that he believes Arsenal can win the WSL this season.

Fullback Katie McCabe when describing her manager highlighted Eidevall’s level of intensity, of detail, of passion and his caliber of coaching.  She described him as a manager who knows how to express exactly who he wants. 

Squad Changes

After a stellar season Katie McCabe, Lydia Williams and Leah Williamson were all offered new contracts or contract extensions, ensuring they will remain in North London for at least the next season.  

Four players departed the club in the offseason.  Daniëlle van de Donk and Leonie Maier both left after the expiration of their contract with Maier joining WSL club Everton FC.  Jill Roord joined German side Vfl Wolfsburg for an undisclosed fee.  Academy product Ruby Mace, who spent the latter part of last season on loan to Birmingham City, chose to sign her first professional contract with Manchester City.  Lisa Evans was also loaned out to West Ham United for the entirety of the next season.

To replace the outgoing players, Arsenal started by bringing in attacker Mana Iwabuchi from Aston Villa, a long term target of the club. They then signed striker Nikita Parris from Lyon for a reported fee of €80,000 with possible add-ons of €20,000.  New manager Eidevall then brought in one of his former players, defender Simone Boye Sørensen followed by midfielder Frida Maanum.

The club reportedly finished the transfer window by bringing in former Manchester United attacker Tobin Heath.  The signing has yet to be officially confirmed by Arsenal. 

Pre-Season

Arsenal had an odd curtailed pre-season ahead of the start of 2020-21 WSL.  With nine players away at the Olympics and the club participating in the first round of the UEFA Women’s Champions League group stage qualification, a regular weeks long preseason with most players present was impossible. 

The club played two pre-season matches in early August as part of the Mind series.  The double-header games with the men’s side occurred when most of their starters were away at the Olympics.  They beat Chelsea 2-1, who had even more Olympians absent than the Gunners, and then Tottenham 4-0.  The matches were composed of a hybrid squad of first team players and academy youngsters.

The first round of the group qualification stage, which occurred on August 18 and 22, were the first matches with most of the returned Olympians. The Gunners won both matches as well as the first-leg of the second round of group stage qualification earlier this week. 

The style of play and synergy within the group was very promising, for a team with little preseason preparation.  Their sources of goals, 10 so far from 5 different goal scorers, will reassure fans.

Upcoming Season

Arsenal have recruited well in the offseason, replacing players who left the club and arguably strengthening the squad.   Their early start to the competitive season, prompted by their entry at the first round of group stage qualification of the UEFA Women’s Champions League has resulted in the team needing to find their footing earlier than any other WSL squad with almost no preseason. 

All three UWCL games contested so far have proven that the squad has adapted well to both their new players and their new manager. The addition of Mana Iwabuchi has proven particularly good, with the attacker fitting in seamlessly into the team and showing the quality and style of play which Arsenal prizes.  

Keeping players healthy, especially their current midfielders where there is the least amount of dept will be essential.  The passing and linking style of play instituted by Montemurro has continued in the Eidevall.  Having the personal in midfield capable of executing that will be primordial.

The start of the season will not be easy for Arsenal.  After playing their first second round group stage qualification stage last Tuesday, the Gunners start their season at the Emirates against Chelsea this Sunday.  

Arsenal then play the away leg of their second round group stage qualification in Prague next Thursday followed by an away match on Sunday against Reading.  There will then be an international break, where most players will be away. 

Upon their return they will have three more matches in an eight day period, including a home matches against Manchester City and an FA Cup quarter-final match against North London rival Tottenham. 

This hectic schedule will pack nine matches in the first 46 days of this year’s competition.  International players will also possibly play one to two more matches during this short period.  Proper player management and rotation, combined with adequate squad selection to ensure success in all competitions will not be easy early on for Eidevall.

Other Competitions:

FA Cup 2020-21 – The Gunners have qualified for the Quarter-Finals of last year’s FA Women’s Cup whose competition was originally delayed due to COVID. They will face Tottenham FC on September 29, 2021.  

FA Cup 2021-22 – Arsenal will once again enter the 2021/22 competition at the fourth round stage, along with all other WSL and FA Women’s Championship clubs.

FA League Cup 2021-22 – Arsenal’s entry into the FA League Cup will be dependent on whether they qualify for the UEFA Women’s Champions League group stage.  A disqualifying loss next week against Slavia Praha will result in the Gunners being added to the FA League Cup at the group stage.  A UWCL group stage qualification will see them get a bye to the quarter-final stage of the League Cup.

UEFA Women’s Champions League – Arsenal won both their games in the first round of group qualification stage, beating Okzhetpes 4-0 to progress to the final and PSV 3-1 to progress to the second round.  They played Slavia Praha at home last Tuesday winning the match 3-0.  The Gunners still have a second leg away match in Prague next week to qualify for the group stage.

Opening FA WSL Fixtures

September 5, 2021- Home (Emirates) v Chelsea

September 12, 2021 – Away v Reading

September 26, 2021- Home (Boreham Wood) v Manchester City

Expectations

With recent changes and investment, one can expect that Arsenal will challenge for a top three position.  The top of the WSL has been very unforgiving in the last few years, with a two losses putting teams out of contention for the league title. Whether they will be contenders for the league could be decided early on as they will meet their two biggest opponents in the first month of play. 

The team is in the running for five cups in the coming season, with a squad capable of competing for all.  The next month will be crucial should they want to remain contenders in the first three they will be competing in.  As a club, bringing in silverware after two years without any wins will be a minimum expectation.

However, with the increased investment throughout the league, like every other club this will be the most difficult and competitive season to date.  

Photo: @ArsenalWFC