Ahead of this weekend’s FA Women’s Cup quarter-final with Alex Morgan’s new team, Tottenham Hotspur, we spoke with Dustin George-Miller of Cartilage Free Captain. Thanks, Dustin!
TSF: So we’ll start with the obvious topic: Alex Morgan. On a scale of 1-10, how excited are you about the move? And, what effect will she have on the field as well as off the field impacts?
CFC: It’s really hard to quantify just what an incredibly huge signing this is for Tottenham Hotspur Women. This is a club that six years ago was playing in the fourth division of English women’s football, and are only in their second year in the WSL. To be able to attract a talent, even temporarily, like Alex Morgan is just unbelievable.
There’s one big caveat to her arrival — she hasn’t played competitive football in almost a year after having a baby in May, so it may take her a while to get to full fitness. But her impact should be immense. In the two league games that Spurs have played this season, they have struggled with their finishing and putting the ball in the back of the net. Morgan comes in and helps with that instantly. And then there’s the marketing impact — having arguably the best and most marketable USWNT player come to your club (sorry Megan Rapinoe) is a real statement of intent from a club that hasn’t really backed their women’s team until recently and who we criticized just a couple of weeks before Morgan’s signing.
In short, it’s massive. And I’m so excited.
TSF: You mentioned the intent of the club, and your criticism of it. What are Spurs’ expectations for the season? From the outside, it looks as if there’s a bit of a gap that’s opened between Spurs and Manchester United and Everton, with the latter two making moves over the summer that could enable them to challenge the top 3.
CFC: Tottenham’s goals for the season are a little bit difficult to define. For a long time it was easy — get to the WSL, do enough to stay there. Spurs perhaps overachieved last season; finishing sixth in a shortened season was a very positive result, and I think most fans would be happy with that. Morgan changes that calculus a little, though I don’t think anyone should expect them to contend with the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City, or Chelsea at the top of the table. Rather, improving the quality of football and challenging for “best of the rest” status seems like a reasonable goal.
There’s definitely still a substantial gap between the haves and the have nots (or, rather, the financially backed and the not) in the WSL. That was part of our criticism of Spurs— for all that they managed to land two other Orlando Pride players on loan, the amount of money and support that it would take to make Spurs, or any WSL club for that matter, relevant and competitive at the top of the league is a rounding error compared to the money flowing on the women’s side.
Consider that Chelsea’s signing of Pernille Harder involved a world-record fee of just £300k. Spurs spent more this summer to sign a player for their men’s academy.
TSF: I was looking back at when we last did this, ahead of last year’s WSL North London Derby, and the prospect of Sam Kerr moving to the WSL came up. Now it seems like most WSL clubs have their own Australian, including Spurs. What role will Alanna Kennedy have in the team moving forward?
CFC: For the WSL it seems like Aussies are as popular as Belgians used to be for the men’s side a couple of years ago! You’re not a proper team unless you’ve got a Matilda on your squad! We haven’t seen too much of Kennedy for Spurs and I confess I haven’t watched a ton of Orlando Pride recently, but after two WSL matches, Kennedy looks like a real presence at defensive midfield. And by that I mean she’s very tall. Spurs’ defense was at times a bit shaky last season, so she and her teammate, Canadian international Shelina Zadorsky, should help a lot in that regard.
CFC: Let’s turn to Arsenal for a second. Vivianne Miedema is obviously the star, but you’ve made a number of summer acquisitions as well — what can Steph Catley, Noëlle Maritz, Malin Gut and Lydia Williams add to what’s already a pretty formidable Arsenal side, and do you see any of them making an immediate impact?
TSF: Arsenal’s additions this summer went a bit under the radar compared to the rest of the WSL because they weren’t a) USWNT players or b) established superstars. But, when you look at Arsenal’s failings last season, they were all pretty sensible signings. Catley is the standout here. She’s one of the best left backs in the game, and is extremely experienced. I think her impact will be felt fairly quickly, especially in more transitional games, given her lengthy NWSL experience. Noëlle Maritz has slotted in at right back and looks like she’s been in the team for years, which is great, because it not only strengthens the full back positions, but gives Joe Montemurro more options higher up the pitch. Lydia Williams hasn’t played yet because of injury, but I think she might end up becoming the #1 goalkeeper at some stage; Manuela Zinsberger can be a bit of an adventure at times.
CFC: Okay, so it’s weird that the league is finishing the 2019-20 FA Cup with 2020-21 sides, right? Is that not weird?
TSF: Yeah, it’s bizarre. I mean I think they had to because otherwise someone like Birmingham literally couldn’t compete, but it’s this unique situation where there’s like a first half of the season and second half of the season trophy. I don’t know whether that favors a non-top 3 side or not. Speaking of which, it seems like Alex Morgan could make her debut this weekend. Beyond that, and Kennedy and Zadorsky, how else have Tottenham changed since the last time they played Arsenal?
CFC: There’s been quite a bit of turnover the past couple of seasons, which makes sense as the leap from the FAWC to the WSL is a pretty huge one. Apart from the three Orlando City loans, which you mentioned, Spurs have been trying to bring in experienced support players to give them more options on the bench and in rotation. Spurs brought in former Chelsea striker Rachel Williams to help push younger players like Rianna Dean, who has really found life difficult in the league thus far this season. Spurs also brought in former United keeper Aurora Mikaelsen to back up Becky Spencer, and a pair of former Birmingham City players including their former captain Kerys Harrop who has slotted straight into the starting lineup.
It’s tempting to say that the addition of Morgan means they’re going to try and gate-crash the top three, and Morgan said in an interview that her goal is to try and take Spurs to a title, but the reality is that marginal improvement and solidifying their place around 5th or 6th is more realistic this season.
Let’s preview the derby. The gap between Tottenham and Arsenal has certainly closed a bit over the past few years, but that’s still a pretty big gap. I’m not sure how realistic it is that Morgan starts or even plays in the FA Cup, but even with her, Arsenal still have to be heavy favorites again for this match. Do you see any scenario where Spurs can come away with a win here? I’m having a hard time seeing it.
Also, seeing as how this match isn’t being broadcast on the FA Player, do you think any of us American fans are going to be able to see it?
TSF: On the FA Player thing, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being available, as it is being broadcasted in the UK on the BBC. I can actually see a way where Spurs come away with a win — last November, Spurs had a couple of decent chances where they won the ball back and got into really good shooting positions. Spurs also did a decent job of stopping Arsenal’s ball progression, especially in the first half, when they tried to mark Lia Wälti out of the game, and stop the first pass out of defence.
That being said, Arsenal were able to rectify that in the second half, by having Kim Little and Jordan Nobbs rotate more. And, famous last words, but Arsenal haven’t lost a domestic game to a team other than Manchester City or Chelsea since April 2018. Arsenal are really, really good at winning the games they should win. And we’re at the stage of the season where Arsenal still have quite a lot of depth: in their last game, when 7-1 up, Montemurro was able to bring on Lisa Evans, Danïelle van de Donk, and Caitlin Foord, which is a pretty nifty triple substitution.
Having said all that, the one caveat is we are just coming off of an international break, where I think something like 13 or 14 of Arsenal’s players were involved, which is annoying. But I’d be comfortable in predicting a 3-0 Arsenal win.
We touched on the weirdness of the 2019-20 FA Cup still going on in this season. I think Arsenal feel fairly motivated to try and win this competition, because it gives them a chance to really make a statement, and it rectifies some of the annoyance from how Arsenal ended last season, where their last domestic game was a heartbreaking loss to Chelsea in the Continental Cup. But how big is this for Spurs, in terms of their progression as a club?
CFC: The North London Derby hasn’t been as important on the women’s side as it has the men’s because the clubs were so far apart from each other for so many years. The few times they had played each other in the FA Cup, Spurs were in division 3 and would get blitzed 10-0 or something like that. Not much of a rivalry!
Things are different this time around, and you can sense a burgeoning rivalry starting to bloom, even as it feels like a kinder, friendlier version of the men’s NLD. I know Tottenham would really, REALLY like a statement win over one of the Big Four as a means of putting a point on how far they’ve come and their ambitions as a club. A win over their North London rivals would certainly do it. I’m convinced that win will come — Spurs were super competitive last season vs. Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, for example — but I’m not sure it’ll happen on Saturday.