Arsenal Ladies: Season In Review
In domestic terms, the Arsenal Ladies` season is at an end. They`ve a two legged tie against women`s football behemoths Potsdam Turbine in the Champions League in the next fortnight. But having retained their WSL and Continental Cup trophies, the only domestic blight on their season has been a freak defeat to Chelsea in the Women`s FA Cup Semi Final back in early May.
The girls have been peerless in England once again, winning a 9th consecutive league title. What`s been particularly notable are how the goals have spread out. Early in the season it was Ellen White who carried the goalscoring threat. When she injured her back in April, Kim Little went on a hot streak of 6 goals in 5 games. When Little- this season`s golden boot winner with 11 WSL goals (as well as 6 assists, the highest in the division) - stopped being so prolific, Kelly Smith came back to fitness. Yet when post Olympics fitness problems dogged her, Jordan Nobbs took up the baton with 4 goals in 3 games.
Therein lay Arsenal`s strength. Hey have so many avenues for goals. Jen Beattie is the league`s most fearsome player from set pieces. Not to mention Scotland`s record goalscorer Julie Fleeting, who didn`t appear at all this season due to maternity leave. The squad has become a perfect hybrid of youth and experience. With the promise of the likes of Beattie, Nobbs and Ellie White nurtured alongside the experience of Yankey, Ludlow and Grant. The reappearance of Scott, Smith and Davison from the folded professional league in America has made Arsenal even stronger. But the WSL is a more professional outfit than any league set up England has ever seen and perhaps the intensity can explain why there were a few more injuries than Laura Harvey might have liked.
Below, I will evaluate individual performances from each player for the 2012 season.
1.Emma BYRNE- Arsenal sold promising young back up keeper Rebecca Spencer to Birmingham in the spring, which suggests Harvey has faith in the 33 year old to keep producing for a few years yet. The Irish international has been Arsenal`s number 1 for twelve seasons now and her experience and calming presence is highly valued at the club. Byrne might be concerned that she has been beaten from range a few times this season.
Her reflexes are superb, but when shots drift and dip from distance, she can struggle to sort her feet out. Bristol Academy, Doncaster Belles and Lincoln all scored dipping shots from 25 yards or more. There was a mid-season spell in which Arsenal conceded 5 goals from set pieces in 3 games. But her commitment to improvement saw Byrne iron out this flaw as the Gunners didn`t err again from a set piece for the remainder of the season.
2.Steph HOUGHTON- One of the most recognisable faces in the squad due to her exploits internationally, Houghton has stepped up this season to become a real leader in the Arsenal side. From the terraces, her shrill Soon`erloond voice is a constant soundtrack of Ladies` fixtures. Steph began the season in right midfield, then stepped back into the midfield anchor role when Jayne Ludlow was injured in April. She plays at left back for her country and has also filled in at centre half for Arsenal during the campaign.
Steph is a good source of goals too. She hits a mean free kick and isn`t afraid to drive shots in from distance. Her lungs appear to be made of aluminium too. She doesn`t ever seem to stop running and shouting. Her early career was dogged by injury, but now aged 24, this has been something of a breakthrough season for Steph, who has all of the materials to be a mainstay of the Arsenal team for years to come.
3.Yvonne TRACY- Appearances have been very restricted for Yvonne this year. She has suffered two cruciate ligament injuries in her career and the last one, in 2009, appears to have taken its toll. Even with first choice left back Niamh Fahey struggling for fitness, Jen Beattie is preferred as a backup left back, as is Steph Houghton. Tracy did play very impressively at centre half against Barcelona last month, but it was only her 3rd start of the season.
Yvonne was an unused sub 22 times, coming off the bench just once (when Gilly Flaherty dislocated her shoulder). The reality is that Yvonne might have to cut her 12 years with the club short if she is to play first team football.
4.Jayne LUDLOW- Began the season as captain and one of Arsenal`s most important players. Her importance was underlined when Laura Harvey rushed the Welsh international back from a calf injury sustained in April which set her recovery back. Ludlow was predominantly an unused sub after her return to fitness following the summer Olympic break.
Her absence allowed for stand in captain Katy Chapman to assume the leadership void left by the long serving midfielder, whilst Jordan Nobbs also flowered into an all-round midfielder with the game time Ludlow`s absence allowed her. Ludlow will almost certainly be kept around the squad for her leadership and for the experience she can pass onto younger colleagues, but ironically, her enforced phasing out has still proved to be an invaluable contribution to Arsenal`s future. This is very fitting given Ludlow`s immense contribution to the club during her 12 years.
5.Gilly FLAHERTY- Rotherhithe girl Flaherty has cemented her place as Arsenal`s first choice centre half having started all but two games this season. Gilly observes the basics of defending rigorously. With time she will grow in stature and at the age of 21, she has a fabulous tutor alongside her in the heart of the defence in Ciara Grant.
Arsenal are an attacking team that plays a high line and Gilly sometimes struggles with long balls bouncing over her head. Grant is often on the scene to 'sweep up` for her. But Flaherty turned 21 last month. There is plenty to suggest that Arsenal`s defence will be in safe hands once Grant and Faye White hang up their boots.
6.Faye WHITE- Did not appear owing to maternity leave.
7.Ciara GRANT- This season was doubly special for Ciara, who passed 100 caps for Eire in the spring. She is Eire`s 3rd most capped international taking into account the men`s team. Converted from midfield to defence, Ciara`s keen wits show no sign of dulling. With the pace of Flaherty next to her, Grant is a calm and assured presence that directs the traffic in the centre of defence.
Though taciturn, Grant is a "quiet leader" much in the way Arteta is for the men`s side. She leads through example and her attitude makes her one of the most respected figures in women`s football. Nothing is ever a fuss for Ciara. If a ball needs clearing, she clears it. If it needs to be chested down and laid off to a full back, she does it. If her defensive colleagues have over committed, she covers. If simplicity is genius, Ciara is the brains of Arsenal`s defence.
8.Jordan NOBBS- Jordan is one of the bright young talents that has forced her way into the starting line up. Nobbs began the season principally as a goalscoring midfielder. (Indeed, she has even spent time upfront in her nascent career). But with Kim Little the jewel in Arsenal`s creative crown, Nobbs has had to discipline her game and has done so quite brilliantly.
Nobbs has a real engine on her and has utilised it to become Arsenal`s 'pivot` midfielder in a box to box role. Her performances were recognised after a burst of form in front of goal in August saw her gain full honours for her country for the first time. Jayne Ludlow has been one of Arsenal`s mainstays for over a decade, but it`s not just fitness keeping her on the bench nowadays. The form of Nobbs has kept her a peripheral figure on the pitch.
9.Ellie WHITE- Ellie began the season in a purple patch of scoring form, relishing a run in her favoured central striker role. Yet she has spent much of the rest of the season on the right side of a front three. Ellie has developed a real knack of arriving late in the area- especially on the back post- to score. Yankey prefers to hug the touchline on the left, allowing White to power into the area from the right, giving the front three genuine balance.
A back injury interrupted her season and that really told on her performance in the Olympics for TeamGB. But she finished the season strongly once again. Aged just 23, with the likes of Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey to learn from, there`s little doubt that White, along with Beattie, Davison and Carter, constitutes the future of Arsenal`s attack.
10.Julie FLEETING- Did not appear this season owing to maternity leave.
11.Rachel YANKEY- 'Yanks` has forced her way back into the England reckoning, last month becoming the most capped England international of all time last month. Yankey started the season predominantly on the bench, but despite having reached the age of 32 and lost a fraction of her livewire pace, Yankey refuses to fade quietly into the background. Her crossing and ability to find space on the left has seen her career continue to flower after 15 years at the top.
Playing the left side of the front 3, Yankey stretches the pitch by staying wide and providing the ammunition from the left. Gemma Davison is clearly being groomed as Yanks` successor, but Rachel`s experience and professionalism allied with her skill has made her as indispensable as ever and one of Arsenal`s standout players in 2012.
12.Gemma DAVISON- Another of the returnees from the States. Comparisons to Theo Walcott are pretty apt with Gemma. She`s an incredibly effective asset with her pace (she is comfortably the fastest sprinter in the WSL), but she hasn`t always known how to use her speed intelligently. However, injury to Ellie White allowed her more game time, having often been a late or unused sub in the early season. Gemma has clearly worked on her ball control and is much more effective at finding space in tight situations from the wing, rather than just relying on raw pace.
Davison is now a fixture on the flanks of Arsenal`s attack and is the heiress apparent to Yankey`s "chalk on the boots" function in Arsenal`s front three. She still needs to get her head up a little better sometimes and could do with improving her accuracy- she only scored twice this season- but no fullback ever enjoys an afternoon against Gemma.
14.Jennifer BEATTIE- When playing as a striker, there is little finessed about what Beattie does. But she is incredibly effective. Aerially, very few defences can handle her. Over half of her goals this season came from setpieces. 'Beats` has become one of Arsenal`s most dangerous attackers due to her physicality and aerial prowess. It`s a threat that is rather rare in the women`s game.
Jen still needs to improve her first touch and awareness of teammates with her back to goal. Playing at left back, as she has on occasion this season, may help her develop her technical skills. But in the penalty area, she carries a threat that is incredibly hard to counter. The prospect of White and Davison / Carter either side of her is one that looks very promising for the future of the Gunners attack.
15.Danielle CARTER- Dani broke into the first team in 2011 and this was meant to be a breakthrough season. A livewire, pacey striker capable of playing all along the front three, Dani`s season has been hugely disrupted by a troublesome achilles injury picked up courtesy of a nasty tackle from Chelsea`s Dani Buet. Carter was in good goalscoring form in pre season, but didn`t register at all in the WSL as she missed more than half of the season through injury.
By the time she returned, White and Smith had returned from injury, Davison had progressed to the starting line up and Jen Beattie was showing goalscoring form. But Dani will still be very much in Laura Harvey`s thoughts next season.
16.Kim LITTLE- The WSL`s top scorer and top assist provider. Not bad for a central midfielder. Kim is the jewel in the Arsenal crown and capped her season with a fine, late long range strike to defeat Birmingham in the Continental Cup Final. Kim has two good feet and an ability to keep the ball in tight spaces which calls to mind Aliaksandr Hleb in his Arsenal days. Little used physicality as well as finesse to shield the ball from opposition midfielders.
Her favourite move is the "three point turn." Just as it looks as though she has lost the ball, she sticks her backside into her opponent and turns away unscathed. It rivals Vieira`s famous "overhead toss and control" move in both its regularity of application and success. Kim is another that can shoot from range, but is just as adept at sniffing out opportunities in the penalty area. Quite simply, Arsenal`s player of the season.
17.Katie CHAPMAN- Coming into her prime now at the age of 30, her maturity and experience has shone through in the absence of Jayne Ludlow. Chapman has been a full professional both in the States and when Fulham Ladies briefly experimented with professionalism in the early part of the millennium. Katie has performed a thorough job in front of the defence all season having played the full 90 minutes in all but one of Arsenal`s games this season in all competitions. She also took over the captaincy when Jayne Ludlow was injured.
It`s difficult to sum up a player`s importance more emphatically than that. If Nobbs and Little have been able to catch the eye, it`s because Chapman`s reading of the game, tenacity in the tackle and faultless distribution has allowed them to soar. Chapman is one of those players you rarely notice simply because she rarely puts a foot wrong. A close contender for player of the season.
19.Niamh FAHEY- The Irish left back has had a stop start season with injuries and this has been the season she has really looked to break through. Niamh is now considered Arsenal`s first choice left back but, in truth, I`d regard her as something of a weak link. She is quite slight but, more than that, lacks bravery in her challenges and often cedes possession in challenges as a result.
Niamh is much more accomplished going forward but, strangely for a left back, needs to work on her left foot as a naturally right sided player. With Tracy struggling and Fahey unconvincing, Beattie clearly better suited to the forward line, I think Harvey may look to shop for a left back in the close season.
22.Alex SCOTT- An ever present in all competitions at right back. No player in the WSL recorded a better pass completion in their opponent`s half. Those twin junkets of information tell you both how reliable Scott is and how accomplished. Having returned from the club from America in the spring, Alex has turned in a number of faultless performances as a right back who perfectly balances defensive vigour with attacking prowess.
Scott is tough in the tackle, unerring in execution and seems to run on Duracell double A`s. Her energy and precision make her one of the league`s most highly regarded players. Having become accustomed to life as a professional in Boston, Scott is well attuned to the intensity of semi professional WSL football and her fitness and consistency have professional hallmarks. By far and away the league`s best full back.
23.Kelly SMITH- What to say about a striker who has found herself short listed for world player of the year 4 times? This is her third spell at the club she supported as a girl. Smith has battled alcoholism and a quite horrific catalogue of injuries. (She has had two cruciate injuries, has no cartilage in her left knee and has broken her ankle twice). Kelly`s cruciate ligament is made from the Achilles of a biker that died in a crash.
At 34, her legs have gone. She can`t get around the pitch in the same way she used to. Now she largely plays the width of the penalty area and it`s all she needs. You`ll spend large swathes of a game watching her wondering if her time to retire has come. Then she gets a half a yard of space in the area, turns a defender and finishes neatly. Or else she receives the ball 30 yards from goal and smacks it goalwards with no backlift.
Smith is a player that still oozes class. She is possibly the most natural women`s player I have seen since Marianne Spacey. Injuries have again dogged her season (she worsened a fractured fibia by volleying a football in an ESPN promo shoot in April) and you won`t get much more than substitute appearances from her now. But it`s still enough to demonstrate how far apart in class she is to just about every other player in the WSL in terms of natural ability. LD.