All did not go to plan for Arsenal Women this summer. Despite a relatively successful transfer window, and a World Cup that saw Arsenal players play well and not get injured, Arsenal failed to progress to the second round of Champions League qualifying, going out to Paris FC on penalties. There is no sugarcoating that it is a huge disappointment. Rather than playing Europe’s best at the Emirates, Arsenal will be in the group stage of the Continental Cup (the Women’s League Cup). And make no mistake, Arsenal were planning on being in the Champions League. After selling out the Emirates for the semi-final, the club wanted to be back, and they had a squad that was built to handle the rigor of Champions League matches midweek and league games on the weekend. The pace of the Conti Cup is a little different.
This, however, could raise domestic expectations for Arsenal. Playing twice a week last season certainly exacerbated Arsenal’s injury crisis, especially with the muscular injuries suffered by Caitlin Foord and Kim Little towards the end of the season. Perhaps it added an intensity of minutes to legs that had played during the Euros, contributing to injury. In that sense, it is notable that the two of the more consistent teams in 2023 in the WSL were Manchester United and Manchester City, who won 11 of 13 and 9 of 13 respectively, while Arsenal only won 7 of 13. Neither Manchester side had Champions League football last year.
The other aspect here is the place in the cycle Arsenal are now in. This is Jonas Eidevall’s third season at the club. He has, over the course of five windows, dramatically restructured Arsenal’s playing style and personnel. Arsenal are now a team built in his image, built to play the kind of football he wants. At times, there have been awkward fits, but now, Eidevall cannot get away with the excuse that the team isn’t exactly built in his style (in fairness, Eidevall never has done this publicly).
In any case, Arsenal need to improve on last season in the league. The size of the squad should be able to better handle injuries this season, and give Eidevall the ability to rotate, both from game to game and within game. He also has the possibility to switch systems, and to switch style. But Arsenal finished 11 points off of Chelsea last season, having pushed Chelsea to the wire the season before. That gap is far too big, and for Arsenal to be in with a chance of winning the league, the target has to be getting at least 55 points, and something off of Chelsea.
Under Eidevall, Arsenal have become excellent counter-pressers, a style of play that has worked in big games, as they showed in the run to the Champions League semi-final last season. They are becoming adept at other areas too, in terms of prowess in set pieces and counter-attacks. But occasionally they can become stilted, funneled out wide and struggling to play through the middle. That is one reason why the signing of Alessia Russo is so important: not only is she an excellent penalty box striker, but she can also link play and allow others to run beyond her. She’s also an excellent presser from the front.
Arsenal’s pressing will have to be very good this season, in order to better protect a backline that will take time to gel. Building a coherent pressing system takes time, but without Champions League, Arsenal have extra training time. And that is ultimately the Catch-22 that defines Arsenal’s season. Going out of the Champions League was a huge disappointment, but there are some potential benefits, and as a result, the domestic expectations have changed.