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Arsenal Women must respond to Continental Cup disappointment

When is a loss about more than a loss?

Chelsea v Arsenal - FA Women’s Continental League Cup Final Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

In the 2019 Continental Cup final, Arsenal Women were only able to name a bench of a goalkeeper, one senior player, and three academy players. Missing a Scottish international, a starting midfielder, and Lia Wälti, the Gunners put in a good performance, and lost the final on small margins.

In the 2020 Continental Cup final, Arsenal Women were only able to name a bench of a goalkeeper, one senior player, and three academy players. Missing a Scottish international, a starting midfielder, and Lia Wälti, the Gunners put in a good performance, and lost the final on small margins.

There are some differences: in 2019, Arsenal were very defensive, did not control the game, and lost on penalties. In 2019, Vivianne Miedema was reduced to coming off the bench due to illness. In 2020, Arsenal dominated the match, created more chances than Chelsea, but lost in 90 minutes. With only Leonie Maier on the bench, Joe Montemurro stuck with his starting lineup throughout the 90 minutes.

There is another major difference. In 2019, Arsenal were able to channel the anger and disappointment of losing into catching and then surpassing Manchester City in the league, taking advantage of having games in hand, and won their final six games of the season. Arsenal have a game in hand on leaders Manchester City this season, and are only four points off of City, but there isn’t a clear path to winning the league as there was last year when, at this stage, City had 38 points from 16 games; Arsenal had 36 from 14. Whereas last year Arsenal were able to focus solely on themselves, this year, they are reliant on both Chelsea and City slipping up.

That doesn’t mean that the rest of the season could devolve into a series of dead rubbers: Arsenal have a very winnable Women’s FA Cup tie against Tottenham after the end of this current international break, as well as an intriguing tie against Paris St. Germain, which is a tie that Arsenal desperately want to both regularly play and win. And if Arsenal are to qualify for the Champions League next season, they will need to win their remaining seven WSL fixtures.

Yet, there is something far more complex about the Gunners’ task this season. While Manchester City are ahead of Arsenal in the league, Arsenal have won two of the three fixtures against them this season. It is games against Chelsea that have been far more difficult, with the Gunners having lost their last five games against Chelsea, by a combined score of 13-4. Chelsea, who were well off the pace last season, have stepped their game up this season, and are on course for a possible treble. In Beth England and Sam Kerr, they have a potent strike force, served by a creative base of Erin Cuthbert, Guro Reiten, and Ji-So Yun. Beyond that, though, Chelsea have options. They have not had a fit Fran Kirby this season, and have barely missed a beat. They have thrown down the gauntlet to Arsenal, who must now respond.

Part of that response is a question of investment in the squad. There has been a lot of discussion about Joe Montemurro’s predilection for a small squad, and lots of criticism. Yet his points have merits. For the manager, it is important both so the squad is capable of understanding the principles behind his style of play and tactics, as he told Arseblog News’ Tim Stillman: “My utopia is having 16 or 17 players who you can put into the team at any one time and not detect any real change in the way you play.” Furthermore, Montemurro thinks it is difficult to have a large squad, with players who will only get to play if others are injured. Players who come in infrequently disrupt the style of play, and often aren’t match sharp; furthermore, large scale rotation can disrupt the team.

Unlike men’s football, Arsenal Women play far fewer games: 22 in the league, 8 in the Continental Cup, 3 so far in the Women’s FA Cup, 6 in the Champions League. If they were to get to the final of the Women’s FA Cup and Champions League, they’d only play an extra 5 games, for a total of 44 games. For comparison, the men played 58 games last season, 60 the season before, and 55 in the 2016-17 season. The squad demands are greater.

Montemurro doesn’t do full-scale rotation, but rather, one or two changes most games, meaning that the style remains consistent. Thus far, Arsenal’s players haven’t been that overplayed, especially in comparison with Manchester City and Chelsea, who haven’t totally utilized their larger squad. Yet Montemurro has been hampered; while Arsenal have a 20-player squad, Arsenal were operating for the first part of the season with only eighteen players, with long-term injuries to Danielle Carter and Tabea Kemme, who later retired. Arsenal went down to seventeen briefly when Emma Mitchell was loaned to Tottenham in January, before Caitlin Foord joined. At base level, then, Arsenal only have eighteen players; now, with injuries to Kim Little, Lia Wälti, Jen Beattie, Beth Mead, and Katrine Veje, Arsenal have thirteen fit first-team players, much as they did when they faced Manchester City in last year’s Continental Cup final. All are expected to return this season.

That this has happened two years in a row prompts necessary investment. While Arsenal are likely to add in the summer, beginning with Matildas left-back Steph Catley, that may be offset by departures, meaning there might not be overall addition to the squad. It isn’t necessary, given Montemurro’s style of management, that he have a large squad, but one that can handle a routine number of injuries and have a bench that can make an impact and increase competition among the squad, especially in one or two areas. That Arsenal have suffered injury crises in repeated seasons is not unexpected, as the best predictor of future injury is past injury. While the identity of some of Arsenal’s injured players has changed, the point remains; Arsenal need squad improvements if they are to respond to Chelsea seizing pole position in English women’s football. It doesn’t require revolution, but rather, some evolution.