Simplicity in Perfection: How Arsenal Avoided FA WSL Title Battle

It didn’t feel hugely significant when Arsenal put five past a defensively over-generous Liverpool side on the opening day of the new FA Women’s Super League season back in September. The 2013 and 2014 champions were under new management and had a whole host of new players, including many signed by new manager Neil Redfearn from the league below.

What we didn’t know was we were seeing an early title challenger who would never relinquish their lead at the top of the FA WSL table as Joe Montemurro went in search of a first league title in seven years for a side he grew up supporting.

In retrospect, it was a small glimpse into what was to come and set the tone for a pattern in a season that saw the Gunners lose just twice, away at main rivals Manchester City and at home against Chelsea. Vivianne Miedema’s hat trick should, perhaps, have warned us of what was to come from the 22-year-old Dutch star, yet nobody would have believed it if you’d managed to predict the stats Miedema would end the campaign on.

Montemurro had an advantage from the off given Chelsea and Manchester City played each other, and subsequently both dropped points, on the opening afternoon, and he’d have been forgiven for expecting the main challenge to come from Emma Hayes’ side.

But in the end it was Manchester City who pushed them closest, Nick Cushing’s side closing in on an almost unprecedented scenario in which a team could go a whole season unbeaten and not lift the trophy. Man City will be in attendance when that trophy is lifted but they’ll have to stand by and watch when Arsenal lift it for the first time since 2012 a week from Sunday.

Sticking to Basics

The beauty of the short and sweet FA WSL season is every game is crucial. When Chelsea failed to win any of their first three games — or even score a goal — it made their mid-October encounter with Arsenal a critical match for their already dwindling title hopes.

What unfolded on that afternoon will forever be remembered as Arsenal truly tore apart a side that had never been on the end of a result as damning as a 0–5 home defeat during their five-year era of truly challenging for the serious trophies.

Arsenal won the title by keeping things simple. While Chelsea was trying to unsuccessfully break away from their tried-and-tested 3-5-2 system, Manchester City was going in the opposite direction with Cushing almost forced into a back three he had never shown any interest in due to an injury crisis in the full back area.

In truth, the first few months of the season is what cost Cushing most. City sits just four points behind Arsenal and any one of their five draws turned into a win would have seen them go to Borehamwood with every chance of a title success, and perhaps a domestic treble.

But no matter what Cushing tried, his side never looked comfortable at the start of the season. With no replacement for departing Lucy Bronze and both Demi Stokes and Megan Campbell missing through long-term injuries, it was either a back four of center backs or a back three with wing backs for Man City in the early part of the campaign.

It led to uninspiring home draws to Bristol City and Reading, as well as Champions League elimination, and it wasn’t really until Stokes returned to the side that City looked more comfortable within their own skin.

Cushing found an effective, if unspectacular, 4-4-2 formation to bring more goals to his side. Nikita Parris and Georgia Stanway formed a deadly combination up front before the latter tailed off slightly in the second half of the campaign.

Parris continued her form and has pushed Miedema all the way in the scoring stakes and should she score against Arsenal on the final day, she’ll become just the second player to hit 20 league goals in a single season, following on from the record Miedema herself broke earlier this season.

But Cushing needs to find more ways for his side to score. This could be their second unbeaten season in three campaigns but when they first completed the feat in 2016, his side scored fewer goals but conceded just four all season — a staggering one from open play.

Stanway has also hit double figures but found the net just once in 2019 and not since the February home draw against Chelsea, another critical result in their now dead-in-the-water title aspirations.

No other Man City player has more than five league goals, while Arsenal have Daniëlle van de Donk, Jordan Nobbs (who hasn’t even played since November), Kim Little, Beth Mead, and Katie McCabe all on or past the five-goal marker.

Arsenal, though, did nothing magical to seal the title in such style. The irony of their free-flowing, easy-on-the-eye football, particularly during the first half of the season, was that it was actually down to Montemurro simply doing the basics.

There were no theatrics when it came to team selection. If players were fit, they played in their natural position, something which couldn’t always be said for his predecessor Pedro Losa. He got the best out of not just Miedema, but Mead, Nobbs, Van de Donk, and Little, all of whom experienced severe upturns in form this season.

Squad Depth

The one key aspect of any FA WSL title challenge is squad depth, something each and every top manager is constantly learning. Emma Hayes has always ensured she has plenty of quality to call upon and it wasn’t for lack of depth that Chelsea’s title challenge was over almost as quickly as it started.

Last season, Manchester City found themselves unbeaten until February but several injuries and a busy schedule that included Champions League matches saw Cushing’s side run out of steam and surrender their title to Chelsea.

The demands of the new winter schedule has constantly been at odds with Cushing’s philosophy, and to this day he is adamant he wants to work with a smaller group of players in order to give every player enough game time throughout the season.

Montemurro was fortunate enough to have enough time to bed in last season to realize he would also need to recruit during the summer, more so when Danielle Carter was ruled out of the entire campaign on the final day of last season.

Both managers recruited wisely during the summer but the Australian was unfortunate in that two of them — Viktoria Schanderbeck and Tabea Kamme – have barely been able to kick a ball all season.

It felt like a critical and possibly fatal blow when the influential — still somewhat of an understatement — Nobbs fell foul to a cruel ACL injury against Everton in November, and suddenly the odds were stacked against Arsenal.

Daniëlle van de Donk, Emma Mitchell, Lisa Evans, and others all experienced knocks and time out in 2019 while Montemurro’s star signing Lia Wälti has missed the end of the season through injury too.

When Man City swept past an Arsenal side down to the bare bones before the winter break, it felt like a turning of the tide in the title race, but City dropped points immediately in the first game back after Christmas and never truly recovered.

The final blow in reality came in February. With Arsenal not playing, Man City faced Chelsea at home, just days after going down to Kingsmeadow and beating them, 2-0, in the Continental Cup semifinal.

Cushing’s sides can never be labelled as entertainers but the opening half an hour was some of the best football we’d seen from a Man City side as they rushed into a 2–0 lead. Two glaring misses from Parris allowed Chelsea to steal a late 2–2 draw and see them hand Arsenal a gap they would never surrender.

Injuries had certainly hit Arsenal’s football, if not their form. They rarely, if ever, hit the heights of the early part of the season but Montemurro found a way to make them efficient. The coming of age of Leah Williamson alongside the solid and dependable Louise Quinn gave them a foundation to build on with defensive midfielder Walti missing, while the all-conquering attack of Miedema, Mead, Little, McCabe, and Van de Donk still proved more than strong enough to beat most sides in the league.

It would be unfair to say Man City would have won the title had they not had a couple of players missing at the start of the season because Arsenal have had to deal with far bigger problems throughout the campaign, but both will likely end the season with a few “what ifs” in regards to the wider campaign, as certainly will Chelsea.

Arsenal’s lack of depth in key areas at key times when the injury crisis hit hardest condemned their domestic cup hopes, losing the Continental Cup final on penalties before crashing out of the FA Cup in their most one-sided defeat of the season.

City, on the other end, will lament their slow start to the season and the five draws that have cost them, four of which certainly could and should have been wins on another day, when in truth even just one would have kept them in the frame until the very end.

Cushing’s side still have to get past West Ham to confirm the cup double and still have to go to Arsenal in what now feels somewhat of an anti-climactic final day in search of a second unbeaten league season, but both will bear the fruits of their losses when it comes to recruitment this summer.

Next Season’s Challenges

With Manchester United stepping up to add a new dimension to both the league and title battles for surely years to come, and only two Champions League spots at stake, getting your squad right this summer will be more critical than ever.

Of course, it would be ignorant not to mention the ever-reliable Birmingham City, who continue to battle hard against sides with bigger budgets, better facilities, and more star quality on the field.

At one point it genuinely looked as if Marc Skinner could take his side from hopefuls to genuine challengers, but defeat when 2–0 up against Manchester City earlier in the campaign always left his side playing catch up.

A not hugely surprising drop-off after Skinner departed for Orlando put pay to Champions League ambitions but under Marta Tejedor, Birmingham have recovered in recent games and still now sit a point ahead of Chelsea with a game to go.

Last season’s champions have a game in hand and will be expected to finish in third place, but it goes some way to showing what a good season the Blues have had in the face of adversity when they have a real chance of ending the season a mere two points behind the team that won last year’s title.

Tejedor will undoubtedly now be looking to put her own stamp on the side while trying to keep hold of key players, while the top three, plus Casey Stoney’s United, will be looking at not just adding quality, but depth.

Arsenal and Manchester City were both aided by limited Champions League campaigns and while Chelsea would certainly rather be in Europe than not, the free midweek slots will surely aid Emma Hayes and her side next season, with depth certainly not an issue in her squad.

It’s a step into the unknown for Montemurro and he certainly can’t expect the same level of performance from his squad without added recruitment. Nobbs will return early in the 2019/20 campaign and he’ll hope to be able to call on the quality of experience of Schnaderbeck and Kemme on a more regular basis once the season gets back underway in September.

Man City, meanwhile, have it a bit more complex. While Chelsea has just one key player out of contract in the departing Hedvig Lindahl and Arsenal expects to keep hold of their main stars, City has the likes of Parris, Jen Beattie, Karen Bardsley, Ellie Roebuck, Megan Campbell, Abbie McManus, Claire Emslie, and Mel Lawley all out of contract with just one league game remaining.

Both clubs are already confident they have several deals agreed for new players to arrive, but Cushing more than anyone will be sweating on whether key players are going to commit to the club for the upcoming campaign.

Manchester United will prove to be the joker in the pack and Stoney is in a strange position when it comes to next season’s expectations. The name, the brand, and the expectation will all demand United challenge immediately, but realistically their squad is behind all the current big three in both quality and experience.

That will change of course over the summer, with players set to leave and replacements being sounded out since the start of the year, key areas of the United squad will be strengthened, with center midfield and a new striker key priorities for Stoney.

How far they can go and what they can take off the top sides will add another variable to next season’s title race, and Chelsea, Man United and Birmingham will have the respite of no European football to allow their players to rest.

Cushing constantly lamented the lack of time he had last season to get his players on the training pitch between league games, something which he unexpectedly gained this season when City crashed out of Europe at the first hurdle.

It will too be a new experience for Montemurro. He gained all the time in the world to get his players on the training pitch to drill home his ideas throughout the campaign, something he won’t be able to do should Arsenal go beyond the last 16 and continue their European campaign in 2020.

 

In some respects, it already leaves Chelsea as somewhat early favorites for next season. The quality of the squad is unquestioned and they, like their rivals, are preparing to strengthen over the summer. They’ve lost just once since their early season blip and showed against the very best in Lyon they have the ability to go toe-to-toe with the top sides.

With all that in mind, the 2019/20 FA WSL campaign is already promising to be the best yet, and this season hasn’t even ended.

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