After a short mid-season break, Arsenal Ladies returned to training this week to concentrate on the second segment of the FAWSL season. The fixture list across the WSL is something of an abstract concept this season, with matches bizarrely clumped together seemingly at random. As a result, it is difficult to build up a true picture of the overall league table. Manchester City Women have played seven fixtures for instance, whilst Doncaster Belles have played just three.
For Arsenal, the league season has been something of a disappointment so far. They currently trail Manchester City, who have won 6 and drawn 1 of their 7 league games without conceding, by 12 points, albeit with 2 games in hand. They trail another of their mooted title rivals Chelsea by 8 points- with only 1 game in hand. Given that there are only 16 games in a WSL season, title aspirations have been all but vanquished already.
This is incredibly disappointing given the level of investment in new players during pre season. The arrival of seasoned performers such as Fara Williams, Josephine Henning and Jodie Taylor yielded equal billing with the star studded squads of Manchester City and Chelsea, on paper at least. But the transition to grass has yet to be realised. Arsenal have already lost to City and Chelsea in the league.
They were somewhat unfortunate at City, who really ought to have had captain Steph Houhgton sent off for a professional foul minutes before Jemma Rose was given her marching orders for an identical offence. Even a player light for over 70 minutes, the girls matched City. At home to Chelsea however, they were consummately outplayed in a 2-0 defeat that flattered Losa’s team. On the upside, the manner of the defeat begat Losa’s tactics against the same opposition in the Cup Final at Wembley, in which Arsenal were triumphant.
Losa likes a deliberate, slick passing style from the back. In recent encounters, Chelsea have been quick to force errors from Arsenal high up the pitch. At Wembley, Losa opted for a more direct approach. The winning goal was assisted by seasoned centre half Casey Stoney whipping a cross field ball from defence to Danielle Carter, who in turn unleashed a rasping shot into the top corner. 36 year old Kelly Smith was deployed as a battering ram at centre forward, charged with bringing quicksilver wide players Carter and Asisat Oshoala into play.
It was an uncharacteristic ploy from Losa but one that paid off handsomely on the day. Though Arsenal were the dominant team in the final, they had enjoyed some good fortune in the preceding rounds. They needed penalties to defeat Birmingham City and Notts County and benefitted handsomely from an early red card and home advantage against Sunderland in the semi-finals.
The league title is probably beyond Arsenal’s reach this season, so the FA Cup triumph adds some gloss to a campaign that might otherwise have profoundly disappointed, but it can also act as a catalyst. Most of Arsenal’s problems thus far have been rooted in a lack of cohesion. Put simply, Losa strengthened his squad so emphatically that he now has too many options available to him and he hasn’t quite worked out how to best deploy his resources. Line-ups have chopped and changed as he has struggled for balance.
German defender Josephine Henning has become a first choice at centre half. The new signing from PSG is an incredibly experienced defender and a past Champions League winner. She has suffered repeatedly from injury in recent seasons, but having proved her physical condition at London Colney, she has come into the team ahead of Jemma Rose. Jemma can count herself very unlucky to find herself on the bench having been one of Arsenal’s better performers last season. Henning and Stoney is however, a genuinely world class pairing in front of Dutch goalie Sari van Veenendaal, who continues to go from strength to strength.
Fara Williams has been in and out of the side in central midfield. Her pedigree is peerless in the England game, she is the most capped England international of all time. Yet the form of 21 year old Dutch midfielder Dominique Janssen has kept Pedro Losa guessing in terms of selection. This encapsulates Arsenal’s current selection dilemma. With Losada and Nobbs also performing well in midfield, it’s not so much a case of deciding who should start as who will be left out.
Spanish midfielder Vicky Losada has been amongst the Gunners’ most impressive performers during this season. She was my Player of the Match in the FA Cup Final and she combines just about every attribute you could want from a central midfielder. She is fiery to say the least, a great tackler, competent with both feet, has excellent close control and passing range and carries a threat in the opponent’s penalty area. After a quietly impressive first season at the club last year, she looks settled in the Arsenal engine room.
Jodie Taylor has yet to be involved in a competitive capacity following her move from Portland Thorns, due to injury. She did play in the mid-season friendly against Seattle Reign a fortnight ago. Recruited from Liverpool in the close season, Asisat Oshoala’s performances have caught the eye. She is still incredibly raw, but her pace and power consistently leave defenders either chasing a clean pair of heels or dusting themselves off having been mercilessly brushed aside. Her final product requires a lot of work, but aged just 21, there is plenty of time for her to smooth those rough edges.
Arsenal have fairly presentable league fixtures on the horizon against Sunderland, Birmingham and Notts County on the horizon, as the fixture list kicks back in. They will need to take 9 points from those matches ahead of the visit to Chelsea on 17th July. If they can take maximum points from those four fixtures and Chelsea and City slip up, they might be able to grip the coat tails of the early pacesetters. There is plenty of chance to build some momentum now with six league fixtures and a Continental Cup fixture between June 25th and July 31st.
Arsenal need to use that regularity to build some understanding between the players and for the manager to strike a balance between squad rotation and a cohesive team unit. In 2014, Arsenal endured a terrible start to the season and actually found themselves bottom of the league at the halfway point. Winning the FA Cup in the middle of that campaign sparked something of a revival and calmed an unsettled squad, who eventually finished 4th. Losa will hope that that glorious day at Wembley can resuscitate this season in a similar fashion.
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