Once untouchable in women's football, are Arsenal being left behind by the WSL's growth?

Arsenal Women vs Man City, WSL
(Image credit: PA)

Fifteen League Titles. Fourteen FA Cups. The only English club to win the Women’s Champions League. Since their founding in 1987, Arsenal have been the most successful club in English women’s football.

This season, however, they sit fourth in the Women’s Super League. Outside of the Champions League spots, despite their extension to three places, Arsenal are on course for their lowest league finish since 2014. 

With back-to-back games against Manchester City and Chelsea over five days this week, this is Arsenal’s chance to save their season. How have a team whose success has been so synonymous with the growth of women’s football fallen behind?

Arsenal have avoided the splashy recruitment which has pushed their rivals into the spotlight. Manchester City have now signed three of the USA World Cup-winning national team in Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis, and new signing Abby Dahlkemper. 

Manchester United picked up Tobin Heath and Christen Press. Even Tottenham brought in Alex Morgan, although she only made five appearances for them before going back home. 

There is nothing wrong with Arsenal avoiding the short-termism that those clubs have opted for; of those players, only Dahlkemper is on a long-term deal. 

Their squad might miss new ‘big' names, but it is certainly not lacking in quality. Vivianne Miedema is one of, if not, the best – strikers in the world. In tandem with Danielle van der Donk and Jill Roord, the Dutch contingent have experience of winning the Euros in 2017 and making a World Cup final in 2019. In the past year, the signings of Caitlin Foord and Steph Catley have demonstrated the club have plenty of transfer market savvy. 

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Most of Arsenal’s struggles have come from an inability to win against their rivals. Not since beating Manchester City in October 2019 have Arsenal won against one of City, Manchester United or Chelsea. That is a run that covers five games in the WSL as well as losses to Chelsea in the Continental Cup and Manchester City in the FA Cup. There was also a lacklustre performance against PSG in the Champions League over the summer. 

“We can’t seem to get over these mental blocks”, said manager Joe Montemurro after a last-minute Caroline Weir winner saw Arsenal lose to Manchester City in December. Arsenal had also conceded a freak last-minute equaliser to Chelsea a couple of weeks prior. “It is a problem and we need to address it.”

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Arsenal Women v Man City Women, Sunday, 2.30pm – BT Sport 1
Chelsea Women v Arsenal Women, Wednesday, 7pm –
FA Player

Beyond the ambiguous explanation of a lack of belief, the tactical concern is the way Arsenal struggle against teams which press them high up the pitch. A draw against Reading the last time they played was marked by the same defensive anxiousness that has plagued them in matches against the best sides. It was the first time they had dropped points to a team outside the ‘big four’ since April 2018.

It will not help Arsenal that postponements have meant they have not played since that Reading draw in January. Since then, Chelsea have scored 18 goals in four matches while Manchester City have managed 20. Both of them look to have clicked into an even higher gear. Frightening, given that the one they were already playing in was pretty impressive. 

Until the advent of Manchester United, Arsenal could pretty much guarantee they would come top three. Now that spot is at risk. 

The reality is that, in the WSL, the margins are so fine that drawing or losing a couple of games can make you seem cut adrift; the flip side is that if Arsenal could beat both Chelsea and Manchester City, everything would suddenly look a lot rosier. Winning at least one looks essential if Arsenal want to claim they are keeping pace with the very top of the women’s game.

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