Arsenal have got off to an unbeaten start to the WSL season and are finally ready to overtake Chelsea and Manchester City thanks to new signings like Parris and Iwabuchi
After Arsenal had already taken a 2-0 lead, the introductions of Jordan Nobbs, Beth Mead and Caitlin Foord caused almost an audible sigh from the Everton dugout.
Jonas Eidevall’s tweaks had the desired effect. The North Londoners ended the game with a third goal, ensuring they remain the only team to win all five of their first Women’s Super League games.
As it stands, they are the team to beat. Manchester City’s grim start to the season – three losses out of five, including a 5-0 humiliation by Arsenal – and Chelsea’s 3-2 slip in the Emirates on opening day – see the Gunners at the top of the table. Still, their 2019 WSL trophy still feels a long way off if they previously lacked the depth to sustain a title challenge.
It’s just beginning under Eidevall, but that seems to be changing. Former striker Kelly Smith believes this can be attributed in part to a number of high profile summer additions, but also to the work of Eidevall’s predecessor.
“A lot has to do with Joe Montemurro and the culture he created before,” said Smith I. “He laid a great foundation for Jonas. The players they have kept are their bedrock and they have made some fantastic signings, Tobin Heath, [Nikita] Paris, [Mana] Iwabuchi and [Frida] Maanum – these are top-class players who have just strengthened their existing squad.
“He brought a new energy with him. I’ve been to the training pitch and spoken to some of the players, Leah [Williamson] and Kim [Little]and they just said everyone was lifted up. His workouts are fun, they play a slightly different style than they did under Joe and just embrace him. They play with a smile on their face, keep the ball and play it Arsenal-style. “
This “Arsenal way” doesn’t necessarily mean more possession. Eidevall makes no secret of it and insists that his team like to play direct football occasionally when it helps to close the gap – including against City, for example, when they saw little of the ball in the first half.
“Obsession is useless as a statistic if it cannot be combined with an outcome,” he warned. “There are different ways to control a game.”
So far, that approach has paid off and, alongside a 5-1 triumph over Tottenham that saw them reach the FA Cup semi-finals, it would be tempting to believe that Arsenal went their own way.
Not so in Europe, where Barcelona gave them a tough reality check. The 4-1 defeat reminded us how difficult it will be to really get back to the top of the table, even though they have another chance to make up ground on Thursday against Hoffenheim.
Emma Hayes’ Chelsea followed the same path in May, losing 4-0 in the Champions League final to Blaugranes. There was a lot of speculation about what was said about the quality of the WSL’s top teams that evening in Gothenburg, just as it was last week when the Catalans dismantled Arsenal – but it will always be a ‘learning curve’, Smith insists.
“Barcelona are a quality team, they move the ball so fast that you have to take your hat off for their performance,” she said. “Arsenal were a little shocked at the level difference I think but I think it’s good for them to see that they have to go one step higher.”
These signings are not much better known than Nikita Parris, who was tempted to return to English football after two years – and winning four trophies – at Lyon but grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of competition in France.
Upon her return, Smith spoke to the 54-strong Lionesses striker about following in the footsteps of Anna Patten and Lotte Wubben-Moy when she returned home after a stay abroad. “In France, there were only two teams really fighting for the title in Lyon and PSG, but she wanted to be here again,” added Smith.
It is clear that Parris, like her teammates and certainly Eidevall, is determined to bring Arsenal back to supremacy. After Arsenal didn’t finish third in the last two seasons when some clubs struggled to fund their womenswear amid the financial blow of the pandemic, Arsenal knew they couldn’t afford to fall further behind.
“You’ve been neglected in the last couple of seasons,” admits Smith. “They have always fought City or Chelsea, teams they want to beat, so I know the board has invested a lot this year. They took the ball out of sight a little; They did not see Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United sneaking up on them. It hurt them not to be in the Champions League, they are proud to be in this competition.
“They want to regain the position they have held as number one in England for over 20 years – they want to be that iconic team. You have invested a lot and I think we can now see that with the product in the field. “
“The squad they put together, there are world class players, Jordan Nobbs and Beth Mead who come off the bench and then you sign Maanum, Iwabuchi – these are top end players with a lot of experience helping the team younger players. That’s the best squad [for a long time].
Kelly Smith spoke at the launch of The FA and Barclays Let girls play Campaign. Visit www.englandfootball.com/LetGirlsPlay for more information about the campaign and how you can help ensure that girls have equal access to football in schools.