Three-and-a-half-years since Manchester City faced Arsenal in the Continental Cup final at Adams Park in Wycombe, the two rivals get set to go head to head once again for the same trophy at the same venue.
That contest saw Izzy Christiansen score the only goal to hand Nick Cushing’s side their first trophy on a night in which Arsenal were favorites going into the game. While the balance of power has shifted north in the years since, Arsenal still holds a strong deck under new boss Joe Montemurro with City struggling with injuries and fatigue after their players endured a grueling international break.
The FA WSL 1 champions are going into the game off the back of a defeat and a draw in their last two games, the first time they’ve gone two games without a win since two draws against Liverpool midway through the 2016 season.
Excluding the Spring Series, the defeat at Birmingham City pre-international break was their first in the league since early 2015 — not so much a crisis as a brief shock to the system for the champions.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have gone quietly about their business under new Aussie manager Montemurro. After a close defeat at Chelsea, the Gunners are unbeaten in seven and haven’t conceded a goal since the Continental Cup semifinal against Reading on January 14, a run of two months and six games without letting the ball into their own net.
All the stats point to a close encounter and no possible way of easily gauging who wins, but Arsenal had more than a few players stay back from international duty, including Dutch duo Vivianne Miedema and Daniëlle van de Donk, plus England’s Jordan Nobbs, Leah Williamson, and Beth Mead.
Cushing’s side had eight players called up to Phil Neville’s first Lionesses squad, and despite the late pull out of captain Steph Houghton, the club ended up with nine of their squad traveling to the United States, after Georgia Stanway and Ellie Roebuck were both drafted in for experience.
“We’re finding it [the schedule] really difficult,” said Cushing before the break. “We’ll go away for a week now and try and find an answer because those nine players are really suffering at the moment. We sat down as a coaching staff a few days ago and said we’ve played every game possible since January 2016 except the Champions League final.”
An almost unbelievable but true stat. Since the start of 2016, Manchester City has played in every FA Cup game possible, every Continental Cup game possible across two full competitions, and every Champions League game bar one after a debut run to the semifinals.
Always adamant he wants to work with a small squad in order to give chances to young players, Cushing has for the first time admitted it may be something the club “review” moving forward.
“That kind of run is going to take its toll and we need to sit down as a club and look at do we go with a bigger squad because we’re suffering at the moment.”
City have at least found their goal scoring boots at the right time of the season. Historically the club has been happy to put defense first and wear teams down in order to win by a goal or two, but losing the Spring Series on goal difference saw Cushing send out a message to his players to score more goals ahead of the new campaign.
After 11 league games, City is averaging exactly three goals a game and the upturn in goals is in no small part thanks to the form of flying winger Nikita Parris. The 24-year-old has been known for her inconsistency since arriving at the club in 2015 but is regularly chipping in with goals and assists and admits this is the best form she’s been in since joining the club.
“That’s credit to Nick and his coaching staff,” she said. “It’s not been an easy road but he’s been determined to push me and push me in ways I didn’t even know he could.”
In regard to the demands the schedule is putting on a thin squad, Parris added, “No matter who’s on the pitch, we’ll put in a performance. The girls who come in know the job and that’s the great thing about this club — whoever steps in knows what’s expected of them and puts in a performance.”
Adding action to his words about more goals, Cushing added Lyon forward Pauline Bremer to his squad in the summer along with Bristol City’s young Scottish winger Claire Emslie, an addition to Mel Lawley who arrived from Birmingham ahead of the Spring Series.
January saw the arrival of Julia Spetsmark and Denmark star Nadia Nadim, leaving Cushing with more depth than usual in attack despite Bremer’s season-ending injury picked up last year.
“We wanted a dominant number nine and in Jane [Ross] and Nadia we have that,” he said. “Nadia’s brought competition, which is what we want. We have Nikita, Claire, and Mel now so we have that competition for places and all our wingers have shown they can play outside or come inside.
“When you lose the Spring Series by a goal difference of 17 that tells you you’re not scoring enough goals so we had to improve on that.”
Despite the arrivals of Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema since the last full campaign ended in 2016, goals have been the issue holding a usually free-scoring Arsenal side back in their challenge to mix it up with Manchester City and Chelsea over the past couple of years.
Arsenal have conceded the same goals as City this season, with almost half of them coming in one game against the champions, so there’s few worries at the back despite a constant merry-go-round of injuries for Montemurro to deal with.
The Gunners have also only lost two games all season, both away at the hands of the teams above them, and the new boss believes instilling belief back into the players is the key to taking Arsenal back to the top.
“It’s about believing in the way we want to play and who we want to be as Arsenal,” he said. “We’ve got a good squad, we’ve just got to start believing and we’ll keep getting better and better as we understand the way we want to play.
“It could be for the want of a few things that we’ve lost that but the first thing I said to these players when I came in was that they’re all good footballers and they have to start believing it.”
It’s a sentiment midfield star Jordan Nobbs echoes. The 25-year-old England vice-captain accepts that “maybe” some of the belief the team held previously had disappeared in recent months.
“You need that confidence to get on the ball because we have great players who can play football and are capable of performing well, it does come down to confidence. Joe’s been pushing that belief into us, he believes in us and he wants us to play the way we want to.”
Nobbs added, “We dropped some crucial points at the start of the season so you’re always on an uphill climb after that. We believe in ourselves and we have two trophies to target, we’re in a final and it shows we’re still one of the top teams. I think we just needed that spark again and Joe has started to build that foundation for us.”
Six clean sheets on the bounce shows Cushing’s side will find defending their title no easy task on Wednesday night and Arsenal’s record is all the more impressive given the personnel changes at the back.
An unbeaten Spring Series campaign saw youngsters Anna Patten and Lotte Wubben-Moy feature in every game before heading off to university in the U.S., while Jemma Rose’s departure and injury to Josephine Henning has left Arsenal thin at the heart of defense.
Tally in Jessica Samuelsson’s long-term absence and it’s a minor miracle Arsenal are keeping the opponents out on a weekly basis. There’s been a very clear style of playing out from the back under Montemurro so far, a move which has quite often put them in some trouble in recent games, but the new manager will keep working to improve on any teething problems.
“We tend to put ourselves in some difficulty by wanting to overplay or play too much,” he said. “We want to be able to keep the ball instead of just playing it forward and hoping for the best — we’re not that sort of team.
“Playing out [from the back] is something we’re encouraging the team to do. When it works, it’s fantastic but when it doesn’t someone is the victim.”
One player who should be comfortable with Montemurro’s philosophy is 20-year-old Leah Williamson who will turn 21 before the end of the month.
Growing up as a box-to-box midfielder more than comfortable on the ball, Williamson has reverted to defense for both club and country despite many believing her best position remains in the center of the field.
But with her composure on the ball a real quality to a manager who wants his defense to play out from the back, Montemurro was unequivocal about why he plays Williamson in defense.
“I’m playing her there because I think she has the ability to be one of the best center backs in the world,” he said. “She has the ability to understand how to build, when to build, and how to control the tempo.”
Like many, Williamson is an injury doubt for Wednesday’s final and the lack of league action over the past fortnight means the release of the team sheets an hour before the game may give a large say in who will walk away with the trophy.
Aside from Williamson, Arsenal will be sweating on the fitness of Nobbs and Cushing will be hoping to have captain Steph Houghton ready and available for the first time in more than a month after going off injured in a 0-0 draw at Chelsea.