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Spurs Women v Arsenal Women: North London Derby Roundtable

We chatted with Dustin Menno of Cartilage Free Captain ahead of the North London Derby.

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Arsenal Women v Tottenham Hotspur Women - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Action Foto Sport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ahead of the first North London Derby in the WSL on Sunday—for which Arsenal have sold out their away allocation—, we reached out to Cartilage Free Captain to learn more about Tottenham Hotspurs Women, and Dustin Menno was gracious enough to talk with us.

D: So let’s get this out of the way. This is going to be short and bloody, isn’t it?

A: Well, the last two games Arsenal Women have played against Spurs have ended 10-0 and 6-0. So, I think so?

D: I think context is super important here, however. This is Spurs Women’s first season in the top flight. There’s been massive change, even from last season. Spurs let fully half of the squad that earned promotion from the FAWC go this summer as they transitioned to become a fully professional side. So even though we’re talking about full pros playing against each other, this extremely David vs. Goliath.

A: Yeah, that’s fair. That 10-0 game was a couple of years ago, and a very different iteration of both teams. The 6-0 was a pre-season game, and if pre-season results were really indicative of how things would go, Chelsea wouldn’t be leading the league right now and Arsenal wouldn’t feel somewhat confident about the Champions League tie with PSG. I definitely do think that Arsenal are the heavy favourites, but how have Spurs adjusted to their first season in the FAWSL?

D: It’s interesting. I’ll be honest and say that while I’ve been tracking Tottenham Hotspur Women (“Ladies” until this season) since their historic quadruple season the third division a couple years ago, until last year it’s really been difficult to get any more than the very basic information about matches. The fact that we can now actually stream matches live on the internet I think represents a seismic shift in how the women’s game is being viewed in England, but we’ll talk about that later.

For Spurs, it’s been a very exciting and dare I say even promising year. I think a lot of Spurs fans, to the extent they thought about the women’s team at all, figured that they’d probably struggle even to stay up. But they’ve started very well! The opening match of the season was against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and while they dropped that game 1-0, they looked more than respectable against a team that is always in the league title conversation. So that felt pretty good. Since then, Spurs have beaten Liverpool, West Ham, and Bristol City, while losing to Manchester United. That fits more or less with what I was hoping from the team this season -- avoid heavy losses to the best in the league, and try and hang with the rest.

A: Yeah, I have to say that Chelsea game made me re-evaluate how I thought Spurs were going to do, especially given the pre-season fixture against Arsenal. It looks like Spurs are going to be in the quite respectable 4th through 8th range, with Reading and West Ham, who while only in their second season, did go to the FA Cup final last year.

D: I don’t think you can ask much more than that from Spurs, especially in their first season in the top flight. It’s been gratifying to see Tottenham finally support the women’s team by bringing them fully into the fold of the club. Before there was very much a sense that the “Ladies” were a satellite club, sharing pretty much only the name on the shirt. Now, there’s talk of expanding the training facilities so that the women have their own areas and don’t have to share with the men’s youth teams. That’s pretty exciting.

Let’s talk about Arsenal. This is, quite honestly, a very fun team to watch. Coming off of a WSL title, what are your expectations for the season, and what needs to happen to get them there?

A: Honestly, winning the title last season was somewhat remarkable given all the injuries we had to deal with; at one point, we were without Kim Little and Jordan Nobbs, and then Little came back and then right after that we lost Lia Wälti, so basically two-thirds of our first choice midfield didn’t play after October. My expectations going into the season was to again compete for the title, and do well in the Champions League. Because only the top 2 get into the Champions League, Arsenal haven’t been in the competition since 2013, and so finishing in the top 2 is a must.

I also wanted to see Arsenal progress in the Champions League, and so far, that job has been done. The draw was perhaps kinder than it could have been, given Arsenal were unseeded, but Fiorentina and Slavia Praha were dispatched quite easily. In the league, it’s been fairly straightforward, though the combination of more games and players returning from injury and the World Cup has meant I don’t think Arsenal have hit last season’s heights yet.

D: A lot of Spurs fans are relative newcomers to women’s football, for obvious reasons, but a lot of them watched the World Cup this past summer. Vivienne Mediema and Danielle van de Donk are obviously two big names that leap out from Arsenal’s roster, but for the uninitiated, who should Spurs fans be looking at as major contributors from this Arsenal team, either offensively or defensively?

A: There are a lot, honestly. Some fans might be familiar with Kim Little, the midfielder, who used to play in the NWSL for the Seattle Reign, and was in the World Cup for Scotland. For my money, the player most important to Arsenal’s game plan is Leah Williamson. Leah’s come through the academy and is proper Arsenal (though hilariously, her dad is a Tottenham fan). She was a midfielder who has successfully been converted to a defender, and she’s an excellent defender: great at winning the ball, and reading play. Her passing, though, is essential, and sets Arsenal’s tempo. She was near the top in terms of deep progressions last season, and that’s only continued this season. She breaks lines, and is basically a deep-lying playmaker from centre back.

D: That inclusion of international talent really is a massive difference between the two sides here, or even between the top 3-4 clubs in the WSL and the rest of the league. Arsenal have players that were in World Cup semifinals and finals. Spurs have internationals, but they play for Scotland, or Wales. That’s nothing to sneeze at, obviously, but it’s a pretty big gap. The closest we’d probably have to a major international player is probably Siri Worm, who signed this summer and narrowly missed out on the World Cup for the Netherlands after she injured her knee the month prior.

A: This actually relates to a point that I wanted to make about Tottenham’s overall recruitment, and how it relates to Arsenal. So, Anna Filbey was an Arsenal youth player, and signed for Spurs last season. On one hand, it’s frustrating to see someone go from Arsenal to Spurs, but there’s a larger point here. There are quite a few talented players coming through the major academies but the opportunities they have to make a professional career were somewhat limited. Arsenal’s squad, for example, is small. It’s on the smaller side for the league, but it’s only 20 players.

So your options, until recently, were wait on the fringes or go to America on a college scholarship (which Ava Kuyken, who played a few games last season, did). But you get more professional teams, with resources, like Spurs, and players who are talented have a place to go and develop further. Basically, this is a long-winded way of saying while you might not have as many internationals as us, there are probably players who could be good enough to be internationals.

D: It’s an interesting point, and it makes sense. There are only so many roster spots at the really big clubs, but as the game gets bigger there’s a lot of really solid talent that ends up elsewhere, at clubs like Reading, or Spurs, or Bristol. That’s really the lane that Spurs are shooting for as they try and develop their team. Most of the professional players they signed this summer have WSL experience at other clubs, and while the cynic can scoff that clubs like Spurs are getting Arsenal’s “cast-offs” I see it more that they’re getting the young, hungry players that are eager to prove themselves in the top flight. Filbey’s a good example of that, as is Hannah Godfrey, who spent time in Manchester City’s academy. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while the talent does appear to be mostly concentrated at the top, a rising tide lifts all boats, and we’re seeing the enrichment of the entire league thanks to the increasing quality of the teams at the very top.

I have a question about the perception of fandom in the WSL this season. It seems as though, North London Derby aside, there doesn’t seem to be nearly the same amount of banter between Spurs and Arsenal in the women’s game as there is in the men’s. Yes, it’s a rivalry, and part of that may have to do with Arsenal being one of the best clubs and Europe and Spurs having just promoted, but do you get the same sense? The women’s game just seems a touch… friendlier?

A: Great minds; I was going to ask about this. I think it’s a bit friendlier, though when Arsenal played Manchester United, the United fans sang “Same old Arsenal, always cheating,” and I believe there was some unsavoury stuff between Liverpool and United. I think ultimately, though, it’s hard to import rivalries and Spurs just haven’t been on the radar for Arsenal Women. Arsenal have a large allocation for Sunday--3,000--and I imagine some people who bring their ingrained hatred of Spurs will be going along, especially because getting to WHL might be easier than getting to Boreham Wood for some. But honestly, this game probably matters more to fans who are bringing in their pre-established sensibilities. For Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City are games that matter much more and really have the feel of derbies for the players, with full throated challenges, et cetera. How do Spurs fans feel about this?

D: Obviously, Spurs are in the top flight and want a crack at the best. Arsenal are the best, so of course we want to play them and shoot our shot. I don’t think there are many fans that think, even at home in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, that they have more than a tiny chance of pulling out a result on Sunday. And that’s okay. One of the takeaways from the Chelsea match at Stamford Bridge on opening week was that this was a Spurs team that might be able to hang with teams that are much better than they are. And we did hang, even if we lost 1-0. I expect a number of blow-out losses this season, and I expect a couple of “moral victories” that give us zero points in the table. That’s fine too -- this is about building a program and slowly, inexorably, getting better. And who knows -- maybe Spurs play out of their skins and earn a surprise draw. That would probably mean a whole lot more to us than another 6-0 win over Spurs would mean to Arsenal.

A question to you about your manager. There’s a lot of scuttlebutt right now about Joe Montemurro potentially leaving the Gunners at the end of the season, and Spurs also just announced that former USWNT manager Jill Ellis will be attending the match. Is there a possibility that Montemurro leaves, and if so, how would you feel about Ellis coming in as his replacement?

A: Yeah, so according to ESPN, Arsenal prevented the USWNT from speaking to Joe Montemurro, to replace Jill Ellis. I’m a little sceptical about that report, just because it seems it was Vlatko Andonovski’s job to lose for months. I personally would be surprised if Montemurro leaves, given he only became manager two years ago, and I’m not sure what open jobs which are better, in terms of resources and facilities, though I could be wrong on that front. Montemurro is also a childhood Arsenal fan, so in many respects this is a dream job for him. In terms of Ellis replacing him; please, no. Montemurro has been really good at utilizing tactical nous and video analysis and my sense from her work at the USWNT and given how those players have raved about Vlatko is that Ellis doesn’t do that.

But speaking of coaching: Tottenham have joint head coaches. How does that function?

D: Oh, this is such a good story. So Karen Hills has been manager at Spurs since 2007, when Spurs were languishing in the fifth division. In that time, she’s orchestrated four promotions, which is impressive in and among itself. Juan Amoros started as her chief assistant in 2011. Over the past eight years, Amoros has gradually assumed a bigger and bigger roles in the club, and the relationship between Hills and Amoros has just gotten stronger. When Spurs promoted to the WSL, the club, without preamble, just started referring to both of them as “co-first team coaches,” which confused us at first but has since been confirmed by both Hills and Amoros. The Athletic wrote a nice deep dive into their relationship, which Hills calls “like a marriage” (but has absolutely no romantic component).

Basically, they share head coaching responsibilities. There are times when both are on the touchline, but sometimes they’ll split duties with one going on the bench or in the stands to get a different view on the match action. The players work equally with both of them, and while I can’t remember ever seeing another club with two head coaches before, it seems to work for them. Can’t really argue with four promotions in 12 years!

A: That sounds really neat, and an interesting approach. As you said, so far you can’t argue with the results.

How have Spurs promoted this game? We’ve seen City, Chelsea, and West Ham use their men’s stadiums, and have a mix of selling tickets, and giving out free tickets. How are Spurs marketing the game, and what’s the expectation, attendance wise? Who are the crucial players for Spurs? Finally, a score prediction.

D: Spurs have been heavily pushing this on social media, and through their website, but the draw for this match is as much an opportunity to get into the new stadium as it is to watch a top flight WSL match against Arsenal. The main thing they’re doing is offering very cheap tickets -- starting at £6.50 -- and trying to push it as a fun day out for the family. Which it absolutely will be! But it’s also an opportunity for Spurs fans who might not otherwise be able to catch a match in the new stadium to attend. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s a pretty nice new ground! :-)

Tottenham don’t have the quality of players that Arsenal do, but they do have some offensive weapons. Kit Graham, who (controversially) signed this summer from Charlton, is Spurs’ leading scorer. She’s a speedy forward with a good right foot who can fire with power if given a step or two of space, so Arsenal will no doubt try and close her down as much as possible. Rianna Dean is Spurs’ other primary forward -- she was the second leading scorer in the FAWC last season and while she’s still trying to find her feat in the top flight she’s definitely a scoring threat.

Rachel Furness (on loan from Reading) likes to drop between the lines and play in the wide attackers, and has had quietly effective matches here in the early goings. One of my favorite players is fullback Ashleigh Neville, who has hair that looks like a helmet and likes to bomb up and down the flanks. She’s been with Spurs for a couple years now and is one of the few players who helped the club gain promotion and is still getting consistent minutes.

As for a score prediction, it’s so hard to say. The goal is to try and lose by LESS than in the previous match between these two sides, so… 3-0? That’d feel pretty good. If by some miracle we could eke out a low scoring draw in front of a home crowd I’d be over the moon.

I don’t know where this question fits, and maybe it doesn’t so feel free to ignore it. I know there’s collective bargaining agreements in place right now that make this difficult, but can you see a scenario where Arsenal could start attracting some top talent from the NWSL in the next couple of years?

A: So Arsenal already have a little bit, though I’m not sure if re-signing Kim Little counts? But that was a case where Arsenal could offer more than the NWSL could. It’s an interesting question, especially given Megan Rapinoe’s point about the new contract rules in the NWSL affects USWNT pay, and means they might be paid less than an international star. The FA WSL also has a salary cap, as teams can spend up to 40% of turnover on wages. I do think it’s a possibility but I think what happens is more likely the Sam Kerr situation, with the NWSL and big English clubs fighting over international talent [Ed: At time of writing, Sam Kerr had not yet signed for Chelsea]. As someone with a rooting interest in the NWSL, it’d be great if the two leagues could pay players what they deserve without encroaching on each other.

Speaking of the NWSL, do you think that’s a market Tottenham might explore? There’s a lot of talent on the edges of rosters.

D: Tottenham’s financials are byzantine and completely unknown, so I have no idea whether that’s an area that they’ll try to explore in the future. It seems as though for now they’ve been trying to build a squad that features players with prior WSL experience, mixed with some young talent that could develop into stars (check out Jessica Naz, who is out with a long-term knee injury -- I think she has the potential to play for England in a few years). In the short term, this process makes sense, as survival is the ultimate goal and everything else is gravy. Down the road, if it’s possible to attract some young American talent and develop them, I’m sure they’ll consider that option.

A: Well, I think we’ve explored a lot of different topics here, today, so I think it’s a good place to end. Dustin, thanks for doing this!