Arsenal face Aston Villa in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League this weekend in a fixture that has now been rescheduled multiple times.
The once-dominant Gunners now sit fourth in the table, nine points behind third-placed Manchester United, albeit with games in hand. They have already lost four matches of their 13 played in the league so far this season, and have only one win in their last five. They haven’t beaten any of the top three this season, in any competition.
Boss Joe Montemurro bemoaned a lacklustre display against Reading in January, saying: “I wish I had the magic wand or the magic scenario, but the reality is that we’ve got to keep learning and keep being prepared as best we can. We’ve lost a bit of fluidity and zip and we’ve just got to position ourselves better. We’re just not doing it well enough at the moment.
“It’s tough when there are a lot of distractions, whether it’s important ones like protocols for the players. But we just want to get playing football again and back into a good rhythm.”
It’s all a far cry from their exceptional run to the WSL title in 2018/19, when they won 18 of their 20 league games, finishing with a goal difference of +57, thanks partly to Vivianne Miedema’s haul of 22 goals and Beth Mead’s incredible creativity.
So what is going wrong?
Arsenal have been massively unfortunate with injuries over the past two seasons – so much so that Joe Montemurro instigated a review to look at whether it was something that players were doing in training that was making them more susceptible. At one point in the autumn, captain Kim Little, vice-captain Jordan Nobbs, Steph Catley, Lisa Evans and Jen Beattie were all out with muscular problems.
It turned out that the rapidly changing schedules with rearranged fixtures had an impact, and the staff worked to create a more consistent training and testing pattern.
But there have also been injury problems that couldn’t have been predicted, such as Jill Roord and Lia Walti picking up knocks on international duty.
That leads on to…
Montemurro has been adamant in previous years that he wanted to keep his squad compact. It has had its plus points, but also has meant that he has had a lack of options when wanting to switch things around or requiring cover.
However, he has certainly been backed when he has put a shopping list together, with Australian internationals Catley, Caitlin Foord, and Lydia Williams all signing in the last year – and in recent weeks he’s had the likes of Lionesses Mead, Leah Williamson and Nobbs plus Germany’s Leonie Maier all sitting on the bench.
There have been some departures that are bound to have hit team morale in recent months – Emma Mitchell’s move to Spurs on loan and then to Reading, where she was joined by the long-serving Danielle Carter, making a fresh start after recurrent serious injury.
Interrupted fixture list
It’s understandable that players might not be on top form if their fixture list is interrupted. All the WSL clubs have had some degree of irritating late postponements this season, with coronavirus and poor weather all having an impact – the Villa match has already been rescheduled three times.
Arsenal have only had three games in 2021; it was perhaps no wonder that Hege Riise omitted Mead from her initial Lionesses squad to play Northern Ireland, suggesting that she had not had glowing reports of her recent performances (at the time she put her list together, Mead had started only one game in two months, with a substitute appearance in one other).
With Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United all investing heavily both in their women’s teams and their infrastructure, Arsenal were caught a little on the back foot.
Arsenal Women have their own space at the hub in London Colney, but continue to play at the borrowed Meadow Park, Boreham Wood’s home ground. There have been rumours for a long time that Arsenal might look at a purpose-built stadium for their women’s team – that’s something else that the other leading clubs have beaten them to.
The big problem is likely to strike in the next few months – when Arsenal are mathematically confirmed to be out of Champions League contention, they are likely to lose some of their biggest names as they seek the opportunity to challenge themselves elsewhere. That could include top scorer Miedema, whose contract status has been under much discussion recently, and Leah Williamson, whose deal expires this summer and is of much interest to clubs on the continent.
The WSL was always intended to create a more competitive domestic league rather than allowing one team to dominate. It certainly seems to have achieved that this season, with Chelsea, Man City and Man United all still realistically having a chance of the title.
As it stands, Arsenal have a lot to do if they want to get back in the Champions League picture next season.
Arsenal play Aston Villa on Sunday 28 February (kick-off 2pm) at the Bescot Stadium.