Arsenal blitzed the Women’s Super League title race in spectacular fashion in 2018/19, but the Gunners are falling further and further away from being in that position again -and their 2020/21 hopes already hang by a thread ahead of a crunch clash against Manchester City.
Manchester United’s sudden jump into the title picture this season also means the Gunners, who utterly dominated women’s football in England from the early 1990s to early 2010s are in danger of finishing outside the top flight’s top three for only the second time since 1992.
Going into Sunday’s battle with City, Arsenal trail Chelsea and United by nine points. They have two games in hand on the latter and could theoretically be only three points behind if they were to win both. They are four points behind third place City, again with a game in hand.
But defeat this weekend would open that gap to the Sky Blues to seven points, while it gives both Chelsea and United the opportunity to push even further ahead as both have home games against opposition they would expect to beat without too much of an issue.
Arsenal simply have to win, with Champions League football for next season also on the line. The WSL has been granted a third European qualifying place ahead of the 2021/22 competition and with the Gunners having missed out on playing in it this season, the pressure is on to get back there.
If Arsenal are to miss out for a second year in a row there is an increasing danger that players could have their head turned by clubs who can offer them the Champions League. There has already been talk of Lyon sniffing around Vivianne Miedema, while home-grown star Leah Williamson has also now been linked with European giants Barcelona and Wolfsburg, as well as Lyon.
On paper, Arsenal have a squad that should be the envy of most clubs in the world. Miedema was named the second best female football in the world in 2020 in The Guardian’s annual list, while eight other Arsenal players were also featured in the 100-strong rundown.
Miedema is also still the WSL top scorer this season, while Katie McCabe leads the league in assists. But Arsenal’s campaign has once again been tanked by injuries.
Yet the Gunners have had to deal with injury problems for the last few seasons, even briefly threatening their title charge in 2018/19. To compensate, the club seriously strengthened in depth ahead of the 2020/21 campaign and have brought in six extra bodies since the summer, while letting go of a handful of fringe players no longer able to make the desired impact.
Of the new arrivals, goalkeeper Lydia Williams and full-back Steph Catley have suffered with muscle injuries that has limited their playing time. Jordan Nobbs and Kim Little, both of whom are among the best in the world when fit and featured on The Guardian’s list, have also suffered muscle problems, as has Lisa Evans. Centre-back Jennifer Beattie bravely played on following her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer, but she too hasn’t been free of muscle injuries.
The spike in muscle injuries became so alarming that manager Joe Montemurro revealed to ArseBlog in October that the club was in the process of a ‘massive internal review’ to address the problem.
On the pitch, Arsenal have been hurt. They have largely still managed to keep beating the chasing pack, winning five on the bounce at the start of the season and scoring 30 goals. But they have come unstuck against the tougher sides, losing against Manchester United for the first time in November, conceding a late own goal when they were on course to beat Chelsea later that month and being sucker punched in stoppage time to lose against Manchester City in December.
Postponements since Christmas and a draw against Reading in their only game so far of 2021 haven’t helped them build any sort of momentum and when it comes to the form guide, Arsenal have only won two of their last five in the WSL. Over the same number of games, Chelsea and City have each won five, while United have managed four wins.
With City awaiting on Sunday, unless the winter weather lays the game at Borehamwood to ruin, Arsenal have to rise to the challenge. Otherwise, they’re condemned to another season falling short.
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