Arsenal have confirmed that Leah Williamson ruptured her ACL on Wednesday night. Leah was substituted after 14 minutes in Arsenal’s 1-0 loss, and will now miss the rest of the season, including the Champions League semi-final tie, and the World Cup this summer.
Williamson is the third Arsenal player to suffer an ACL injury this season, after Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema. A fourth player, Teyah Goldie, ruptured her ACL in March while on loan at Watford, and is only just coming back to full fitness.
Arsenal have been hit hard by injury this season. Aside from the ACL injuries, Williamson suffered an ankle ligament injury while on international duty in October, Rafaelle Souza broke her metatarsal, Kim Little missed a period of time with a knee injury before suffering a hamstring injury last month, and Steph Catley had a broken foot. Two seasons ago, Arsenal conducted an internal review over the amount of soft tissue injuries the club suffered, and this season, there haven’t been many soft tissue injuries: just a lot of debilitating contact and non-contact injuries. With three ACL injuries, it should prompt Arsenal to conduct another internal review to see how they can better address the needs of their playing squad.
Part of the issue is loading and player squad size. In the ten weeks since February 5, Williamson played fifteen games for club and country, racking up 1,331 minutes. In the last month, Arsenal played four big games, against Bayern Munich, Tottenham, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City. England then had two games in the last international break, where Williamson played the full 90 minutes for both games. It’s impossible to know the exact reason, and far more research is needed, and for balance, when Vivianne Miedema ruptured her ACL, it came after a period where Miedema took some needed time off.
However, the governing bodies have increased the intensity and number of games in a rapid period. Arsenal now play 6 Champions League group stage games, which they didn’t before hand. These are intense, physically demanding fixtures, and on top of that, women’s football has an extra international break to men’s football, where many of the top countries play each other in demanding friendlies. A further competition, the women’s edition of the UEFA Nations League, is set to be introduced this autumn. This is also with the backdrop of a condensed international tournament schedule after the pandemic: with the Olympics being played in 2021, rather than 2020, and the Euros being played in 2022, rather than 2021, some players will have five straight summers of international tournaments, with the World Cup in 2023, the Olympics in 2024, and the Euros in 2025. Meanwhile, the player pool hasn’t kept up with the demand being placed on the world’s best footballers.
I’m not a medical expert, so I can’t speak to the exact research and funding needed. But the top teams in the WSL don’t have large squads; for the most part, they’re smaller than their male counterparts in the Premier League. And while they don’t play as many games, they’ve had a significant increase over the last two seasons. One particular frustration is while, undoubtedly the clubs likely need to do more, the same goes for top national teams. England, for example, have a large playing pool. Was it really necessary for Leah Williamson to play 360 minutes of friendlies and friendly tournaments in February and April while her club had Cup finals, crucial league matches, and Champions League ties on the horizon? If clubs, national teams, and governing bodies don’t get this balance right, they are going to continue to cause a lot more harm in years to come for this generation of players.