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Something In the Air

Last month I wrote a piece Click Here predicting that we'd see 'evolution, not revolution' at Arsenal Ladies. With Jen Beattie and Rebecca Spencer leaving in mid season and Jayne Ludlow and Faye White retiring, Kelly Smith joining the coaching set up and Ciara Grant looking likely to step down, it looked like the bulk of the upheaval had taken place. I was mistaken.

The departure of Kim Little to Seattle Reign was to be expected. Little was comfortably the best player in the WSL and her talents had clearly outgrown the competition. A move to America was inevitable, it's perhaps surprising that it took this long if anything. The restructure of the WSL has led to a key administrative change in the set up of women's football in England, but club investment will also reshape a horizon which has been dominated by Arsenal for so long.

Manchester City were elected to the WSL and they, like their men's team, are well backed. Kill Scott, keeper Karen Bardsley, Toni Duggan and Arsenal's Steph Houghton have already enlisted in City's assault on the big honours of the women's game. Last year, Liverpool underwent a similarly impressive round of recruitment following their decision to become a full time operation, training 5 days a week. The likes of Natasha Dowie and Fara Williams shot Liverpool from perennial WSL basement dwellers to champions in just one season.

Now they have enlisted Arsenal's Gemma Davison. Despite a poor season in 2013, Chelsea are also well backed and have shown ambition in the market in the last 12 months. Yuki Ogimi is one of the world's finest forward players and in Eniola Aluko, they have one of the WSL's most dangerous strikers. Now Laura Bassett and Rachel Williams have joined from Birmingham City.

Yet Arsenal have undergone something of a clearout. On Friday, Ellen White joined Steph Houghton, Kim Little and Gemma Davison in the departures lounge. Yet her move to Notts County (formerly Lincoln City) is perhaps the most baffling of all. Losing players to Manchester City and Liverpool is something of an inevitability as followers of the men's team will know all too well. When competitors have greater financial backing than you, it stands to reason that players will be tempted. But losing an England striker and an established member of the starting XI to a Notts County has sent a frisson of surprise throughout the WSL. Imagine losing Theo Walcott to Aston Villa.

On Thursday, Arsenal did flex their muscle and suggest that high profile incomings would be expected. They signed Bristol Academy goalkeepr Siobhan Chamberlain. Chamberlain is, alongside Karen Bardsley, the finest keeper in the WSL and has been for a little while now. It's an excellent addition. Emma Byrne signed a new contract on the day of Chamberlain's arrival. I interviewed Byrne back in May Click Here and she intimated that she had become Arsenal's goalkeeping coach by proxy.

The standard of goalkeeping remains one of the persistent bugbears of critics of women's football. If the standard is notably lower than it is in other areas of the field, it is because almost no clubs in England have specialised goalkeeping coaches. Byrne revealed to me that she was taking her badges. Her decision to extend her contract even though she will now likely be our second choice goalkeeper suggests that this is a path she will continue to tread.

One suspects Arsenal will replace their outgoing players. They had a small squad anyway due to the retirements of senior players, as it is they would struggle to field 18 players at the moment. Hopefully Chamberlain is indicative of the quality of arrival we can expect. The days of Arsenal sweeping the board with ease are over given the climate and competitiveness of the league, but it would be a shame if we weren't at least a fixture in the race for big trophies.

It will be interesting to see which positions our departing players settle into in their new clubs. Steph Houghton is one of the most versatile players in the women's game. She has played pretty much everywhere other than centre forward with regularity for Arsenal. Kerr settled her into a centre back role, with Ciara Grant no longer able to maintain Arsenal's high line.

Ellen White was often played from the right when, like most forward players, she really wanted to play in the centre. In truth, her finishing isn't quite clinical enough to lead the line for a club like Arsenal in my opinion. One forges the impression she will have no such issue with Notts County, where she will surely start every game through the centre. Little too began to play a slightly deeper midfield role during last season, which suited the team but may not have suited her personally.

The bottom line for Arsenal is that a great team has been broken up and it will be interesting to see how it is supplanted. In a sense, the Gunners will be in the same boat as many other WSL teams, with a lot of movement in personnel across the league. Arsenal Ladies have never really had to deal with a large turnover of players before. The likes of Alex Scott and Kelly Smith have left for the States before, but the competition has never been strong enough to threaten their dominance and capitalise.

Arsenal has always been a stable club with a clear succession plan in the squad, with a blend of younger players accommodated into the group by the guiding hand of experienced professionals. Faye White would probably be seen as one of Arsenal's more senior professionals, but her induction into a winning squad when she was making her name was eased by the likes of Sian Williams and Marieanne Spacey. The issue Arsenal have is that, not only have they lost more seasoned pros to retirement, but players that were fully integrated and in their mid 20s have gone too.

So while excellent young players such as Jordan Nobbs and Danielle Carter have signed new contracts and Emma Mitchell and Caroline Weir have been signed from Scotland, there are less experienced players around to guide them. In this respect, Byrne's new contract and Smith's retention onto the coaching staff are canny moves. The acquisition of Chamberlain is important here too because, not only is she an excellent goalkeeper, but she is a gifted communicator. (She is one of the WSL's social media patrons).

It has been unsettling watching Arsenal's squad dissolve in such a swift manner, but there will have to be acquisitions, with Kerr even hinting at the end of the season that Arsenal would sign their first ever overseas players in the off season. The quality of those acquisitions will tell us where Arsenal Ladies are likely to stand in this new, more competitive landscape in women's football. If all of the incoming players are of the same pedigree as Siobhan Chamberlain, then it suggests Arsenal aren't a fading force in women's football afterall.

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The Journalist

Writer: Tim Stillman Mail feedback, articles or suggestions

Date:Saturday December 21 2013

Time: 7:57PM

Your Comments

Is there a structured pipeline delivering young players to the clubs? The universities in the States play that role, and of course with the franchise format investment money allows for the recruitment of foreign talents. I am just wondering whether for an up and coming league poaching players from each other is a sensible approach.
Arsenal do love a clear out don't they ?
There isn’t a structured pipeline as such, no. Clubs such as Arsenal have academies, but it’s not really structured. Alex Scott was picked up by Arsenal playing in a boys’ 5 a side tournament in Tower Hamlets. She was invited to train with Arsenal and then she just progressed and stayed with the club through to the U-17s (whom she played for when she was 13) and into the first team. Part of the F.A.’s pledge to improve women’s football is to improve the Academy system, but it looks on the surface that they are actually more concerned by the business plan and getting big money clubs to come into the league. I agree with you in the respect that it’s rather short termist to rely solely on investment and importing talent. China and some Middle Eastern leagues have tried this in order to raise the profile of their ‘product’ they’ve bought in ageing superstars instead of concentrating on developing their own talent. The States fell foul of this in the 70s and 80s, bringing players over for big money and it didn’t work. The MLS is finding more success with a blended approach of a couple of highly paid ‘box office players’ (Beckham, Henry, errr, Robbie Keane) as well as developing talent and the national team is better as a result. (Though much of the US NT relies on players that have emigrated to America and become naturalised). This is one of the reasons the States is so far ahead of most other countries in women’s football because it’s linked to the scholarship system. England is just dipping its toe in that water. Jordan Nobbs for instance, is studying sports science at Hertfordshire uni whilst playing for Arsenal. I have to say I’m not optimistic on the F.A’s pledge in this respect. I think City and Liverpool’s investment, though bad for Arsenal, makes for a much more exciting league for everyone else. I just doubt it will last. Women’s football isn’t really profitable, so the investors soon pull out, as Fulham found when they tried to go professional in 2000. This needs something more concrete behind it.
Little Dutch

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