The Future Is Bright for Arsenal Ladies
It looks as though the title may have slipped away from Arsenal Ladies for the first time in a decade. It`s a lugubrious likelihood for Arsenal, but for the WSL, greater competition obviously promotes the league as a spectacle. It`s a competitive league now, certainly at the top end. The decision to relegate Donny Belles after one game made the other end of the table a self fulfilling prophesy, whilst second bottom Lincoln will rebrand as Notts County next season.
In truth, Arsenal`s uncharacteristically slow start to the season has been their undoing. Settling in a new manager with new ideas, together with scheduling issues begat by Champions League qualification means that, even now, Arsenal are still playing catch up with their opponents. The retirement of key figures such as Jayne Ludlow (now Reading manager) and Faye White, along with early season injuries to Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey can`t have helped the sense of acclimatisation to a new boss.
I`m not convinced the idea of making the WSL a summer league has really worked. It`s a solid theory, to engender interest and increase attendances when the public are starved of football. But the reality is that, with the World Cup, the Euros and the Olympics, there are international tournaments three out of every four summers. So the league tends to break during the men`s pre season anyway. There are kinks to work out in the WSL structure, with the new two tiered league next season. Privately, WSL bosses must be delighted that Arsenal`s supreme dominance is being challenged. Indeed, if Arsenal fail to beat Bristol Academy tomorrow, the girls` chances of qualifying for the 2014 Champions League will be severely compromised with a 3rd place finish likely in that eventuality.
However, there are still enormous positives for Arsenal from 2013. For a start, they already have the F.A. Cup in the bag and take on Lincoln in the Continental Cup Final on October 4th. Lincoln have twice taken points off of Arsenal in the WSL this year, so the final will be far from a foregone conclusion. Yet a cup double and a Champions League semi final in what was always going to be a transitional season is not to be sniffed at. Shelley Kerr`s reign has settled in and some of her ideas have really begun to take shape, culminating in a 10 match winning streak that was only ended by an obstinate Lincoln side. They may be second bottom, but the Lady Imps have the second best defensive record in the division with world class goalkeeper Karen Bardsley in nets and England captain Casey Stoney marshalling the defence. They also strangled Liverpool in their Continental Cup semi final, defeating them on penalties.
The key to the unbeaten run has been belief, for a start. They started the second half of the campaign with a morale boosting win away at Liverpool, putting them right back into the title picture. Kerr has made a few small, yet successful changes to the system. Ciara Grant is probably one of the finest players ever to play for Arsenal Ladies, but at 35, she struggles to play Arsenal`s desired high line at centre half. The development of deep lying playmaker Jade Bailey, together with the return of Katie Chapman from maternity leave has allowed Kerr to drop Steph Houghton back to centre half.
A jack of all trades, Houghton has the pace and physical presence to slot into the centre of Arsenal`s defence. She is also very capable of setting the impetus by bringing the ball out of defence. Flaherty and Grant are good defenders, but neither can match Steph for distribution. Kerr has also tweaked the midfield and played Kim Little in a deeper role. Little was top scorer in last season`s WSL, this year her goals have been less frequent but she`s no less pivotal to the team. Little is a gem of a midfielder and probably the closest thing to Paul Scholes the British women`s game has seen.
Playing deeper enables her to stretch defences due to her ability to hit sweeping diagonal passes to the likes of Gemma Davison and Ellen White. Like Wilshere, Little is great at driving at defences and she can do so from deeper positions to great effect. It`s also allowed Jordan Nobbs to move higher up the pitch. Nobbs has great stamina and an eye for goal, but doesn`t yet have Little`s technical acumen. It`s been a cute and perceptive move by Kerr. With Jade Bailey developing into a fine ball playing midfielder, Arsenal`s midfield is in safe hands. Kerr brought in Scottish youngsters Caroline Weir and left back Emma Mitchell. Mitchell is an upgrade on Fahey and Beattie at left back and the average age of the squad has been brought down a touch.
Kerr has also installed faith in Danielle Carter and given her a run as a centre forward. It seemed a strange decision to let Jen Beattie move to Montpellier during the summer, but Kerr obviously saw something in Carter that convinced her. Carter, at just 20, has been limited to bit part performances from the flanks. The move upfront has seen her glean 6 goals in 6 games. Ellen White had previously been at the head of the front three, but her work rate and pace make her more of a threat from the right. Plus, her finishing can be errant at times. Carter holds the ball up well and is clinical in front of goal.
Liverpool have two games left, a Merseyside derby before taking on Bristol Academy on their final game. Realistically, that is where Arsenal have to hope for Liverpool to drop points. However, if the title eludes them this year, there`s every reason to believe they can win it back next year. They`ve undergone the transition of a new manager and of a few experienced heads retiring and look to be out the other side now. It`s unlikely Arsenal would start next season as slowly now they`re settled again. The challenge will be for Arsenal to fend off circling vultures. The investment in Liverpool and the decision for them to go full time is bringing immediate dividends and they might have their eye on some of Arsenal`s top talent. LD.