Arsenal’s defeat to Tottenham in the WSL marked the end of the first half of the season, with the WSL going on its winter break one match-day short of the statistical half point of the season. The defeat was frustrating not only because it was the last fans saw of Arsenal until the second weekend in January, but also because it dims how Arsenal recovered from a poor start to the season to be in the title race. Finally, it takes some of the shine off Arsenal’s 4-1 win against Chelsea, a result that will ultimately be fruitless unless Arsenal cut out poor results in games they should win.
Arsenal’s season started ten days after the World Cup final, with the first qualifying round of the Champions League. While that goes some way to explaining why Arsenal went out, after drawing 3-3 with Paris FC and losing on penalties, it does not excuse the result. Yet that context is important for assessing Arsenal’s beginning to the season. Arsenal started the season with 5 players at various stages of rehabilitation after suffering ACL injuries. Rafaelle Souza, the starting left centre back, left in the summer. Arsenal had an entire new central defense, and a new centre forward. It was going to take some time to gel, but there have been some signs that Arsenal are settling down.
What’s gone well?
In between losing against Liverpool and Spurs, Arsenal went 11 unbeaten in all competitions, including a draw against Manchester United, and wins against Chelsea and Manchester City. Arsenal have shown a fair amount of resiliency, with late goals sealing results against Manchester United, Manchester City, and Aston Villa, with Arsenal coming from behind in three games to take 7 points.
There has been good individual performances too: Victoria Pelova has been one of Arsenal’s stand out players, and has forced herself into the starting lineup. Pelova’s press resistance and ability to skip past players has seen her become a natural fit in central midfield, as well as her energy, and overall quality on the ball. Lotte Wubben-Moy has made herself the starting left centre back, a role which right now she should be favourite to retain after Leah Williamson returns from her ACL injury. and while she’s not become a first choice starter, Kyra Cooney-Cross has impressed when she has started, showing both her immense passing range but also quickness of touch and ability to dribble with the ball. In past seasons, Arsenal would have fallen apart with both Kim Little and Lia Wälti injured; instead, Arsenal continued to win with Cooney-Cross and Pelova in the middle. Finally, Stina Blackstenius has impressed in a new role. After playing in every game last season, Blackstenius has seen reduced minutes but increased productions, with her goals per 90, xG per 90 and xAG per 90 all increasing by a significant amount.
What’s gone badly?
The beginning of the season was inexcusably bad. While there are reasons for Arsenal’s underperformance, losing at home to Liverpool after going out of the Champions League is something that should not happen. The bigger picture of that block of games, though, was Arsenal struggling to create when faced with a deep block. The Gunners resorted too much to crossing rather than patience or creativity. And if there is a pattern from Arsenal’s two losses, it’s a sense of panic, of rushing attacks and decisions rather than showing a methodological touch against the opposition.
Defensively, too, Arsenal have been unlucky. They’ve conceded the fewest expected goals in the WSL, at 7.6. But Arsenal have conceded 10 goals. Part of that is just bad luck: indeed, Arsenal have conceded 10 goals on 8.2 post shot expected goals, meaning opponents are shooting slightly better than expected, and Arsenal have been punished to the maximum, especially by Tottenham, Aston Villa, and Bristol City. But it also keeps happening; Tottenham, certainly, played through the Arsenal press, and had a good opportunity and a high goal-scoring chance. A balance has to be struck between overcommitting on the press and rest defence, as well as better defending the ball into the box.
What do Arsenal need to do more of?
One thing Arsenal need to do more of is get Alessia Russo more shots. Russo has her best xG per 90 at Arsenal, outside of her shortened first season in the WSL, as well as non penalty xG per 90. She is also taking fewer shots per 90 than she ever has. Jonas Eidevall calls Russo an exceptional finisher, and one thing Arsenal need to do is ensure the attacking balance is right. Russo likes to drift off the front line, but frequently that space isn’t filled. Ensuring that space is filled will mean Arsenal can keep defences occupied, and create space, be it for Russo, or other attackers. This could mean utilizing Frida Maanum, it could mean, eventually, Vivianne Miedema as a 10, or it could be asking Beth Mead to drive into central spaces. In any case, it’s a glaring area of improvement if Arsenal are to score more goals, which has to be the focus of the second half of the season if Arsenal are to keep up with Chelsea.