Arsenal Ladies open their Spring Series campaign against Notts County at Boreham Wood on Sunday afternoon (after going to press, it was announced that Notts County Ladies have sadly been wound up and have withdrawn from the league, so Sunday’s game is no longer going ahead).
The Spring Series is an interim round robin league competition while the WSL reattunes to a winter calendar again, after 6 years as a spring and summer league. Each team will play one another once.
The Gunners will play three games at home and five away, starting with an away match at Sunderland next Sunday, 30th April at 2pm. Tim Stillman caught up with Arsenal Ladies manager Pedro Losa to preview the girls’ upcoming campaign.
The winds of change have swept through the corridors of London Colney for Arsenal Ladies since they finished their WSL campaign back in November. I caught up with Pedro minutes after the final game of last season and he strongly intimated that he would use the Spring Series as a testing ground for some of the club’s talented young players.
The transfer window saw experienced campaigners such as Emma Byrne, Rachel Yankey, Casey Stoney and Josephine Henning leave the club, while Kelly Smith finally hung up her boots. The departures of Spanish trio Vicky Losada, Marta Corredera and Natalia had already been confirmed prior to the end of last season.
Whilst significant acquisitions have been made, with Kim Little returning, Heather O’Reilly arriving from America as well as Beth Mead from Sunderland, the squad has a much more youthful look to it. Carla Humphrey returns from loan with Donny Belles and Chloe Kelly from a temporary spell at Everton. They have had their squad numbers upgraded to 11 and 7 respectively, whilst 20 year old Leah Williamson is handed the number 6 shirt.
“No club in the world, in either men’s or women’s football, can survive long term without a good youth system,” Pedro explains, “We have a great academy at Arsenal. The U-16s are in the cup final, so are the Development team, so it is obvious that we are strong here as a club. When I came here I recognised we have great young players, but we haven’t given them the chance to be successful yet. At some point, you have to give them chances to play.”
The abbreviated Spring Series, with 9 games in a two month period, gives Pedro the perfect chance to test the mettle of the youngsters ahead of the 2017-18 season, which starts in September. “The Spring Series gives us a great opportunity to give them minutes. A lot of the young players have been training with the first team for a year or so now, so they’ve adapted to the intensity and integrated into the group.”
The Spanish coach insists that a productive academy becomes self-perpetuating, “When you are bringing players through from the academy, it makes the next generation behind them hungry for chances too, then you start to see the youth system really fitting in with the club and its philosophy when there is a good relationship between the academy and the first team.”
The team’s preparations have been hit by a raft of injuries in defence. With Stoney and Henning having departed, it was an inopportune time for Alex Scott, Emma Mitchell, Jemma Rose, Vyan Sampson and Lotte Wubben-Moy to be simultaneously laid low by injury. Pedro reverted to a back 3 for cup ties against Spurs and Birmingham, with midfielders Dominique Janssen and Fara Williams filling in alongside Leah Williamson.
Arsenal did not bring in defensive reinforcements due to his faith in some of the younger squad members, “We have fantastic centre backs coming through like Lotte Wubben-Moy, Vyan Sampson and Anna Patten who are all with England U-19s and we want to give them chances,” Losa insists. But the boss admits that the injury situation did cause him to consider bringing in further defensive reinforcement in the window.
“We thought we had enough for the Spring Series with six defenders for four positions, but we’ve had some injuries, so of course I thought about adding another. But we are happy to give younger players the opportunity and to see what they can do and we will analyse the situation again before the beginning of the next WSL season.”
Losa opted for a back three in the FA Cup ties with Spurs and Birmingham, but he explains that the system won’t necessarily become a permanent feature, as he looks to promote tactical flexibility in the team, “We usually play a 4-3-3, right throughout the club. But it’s a step in our progress to be able to manage another formation. Especially for home games when opponents are defensive and direct against us, it’s positive to be confident with another system if we need it.”
Home form has been something of an issue for the girls over the last two seasons, with results away from home generally much better. Arsenal will play their first home match in the Spring Series at Boreham Wood’s Meadow Park, but the remaining three fixtures will be played at Barnet’s Hive stadium. Pedro admits that Arsenal are still trying to find solutions to improve their home form, including playing in the slightly more “all mod cons” environment at Barnet.
“The pitch is not helpful for the team at Meadow Park,” Losa points out, “We train every day on a perfect pitch on the training ground, so it can be difficult for us at Meadow Park. At the Hive the pitch is a bit better, so the club are probably going to try and help to improve the situation with the surface at Boreham Wood.
“Also the dimensions are a little smaller, which makes it easier for teams to come and defend against us. We have only lost once away from home in two seasons- at Manchester City when we had a player sent off early on. You sense how strong Manchester City are at home because they have their own stadium. We will be looking to create a positive environment at home, but the most important is the football. We want more victories for our home fans!”
One player Arsenal fans can expect to see a lot of will be 31 year old American Heather O’Reilly, who arrived in January. HAO both fills something of a gap on the right wing, but she is also renowned for her professionalism and her enthusiasm. Losa hopes that her infectiousness rubs off on some of the younger players, “She is one of the best characters in the women’s game,” Pedro enthuses, “She’s a great role-model on the pitch and in every training session.
“I knew her from when I coached in America. I’ve gotten to know top players like Crystal Dunn, Carli Lloyd, Heather and Alex Morgan. I will say Heather is the best character I have ever met in women’s football in terms of humility and hard work. But obviously she is a fantastic footballer too and that is the main reason we brought her in.”
21 year old striker Beth Mead also arrives from Sunderland. Mead was previously prolific in a fairly average Sunderland side. Losa had tried to sign the Whitby born forward on a couple of occasions before, but the player resolved to finish her university degree on Wearside. Beth is currently recovering from a broken collarbone, however, Losa sees her as an integral part of this Gunners side.
“She is recovering well,” Losa chimes, “Young players recover quickly. She will compete with Jodie Taylor for the centre forward position, but I can see a scenario where Jodie and Beth can play together. I can also rotate them and start one and bring the other off the bench. But they will both be heavily involved.”
The 2017 Spring Series starts this weekend and Spring Series passes for all four Arsenal Ladies home games are available here, for just £20 adults and £16 concessions. You can also purchase individual tickets on the day via our cash turnstiles for just £6/£3.