These are the days Alessia Russo joined Arsenal for. In front of a new Women’s Super League record crowd of 59,042, the England striker’s double handed champions Chelsea their first defeat of the season and sparked the title race into life. It was a statement win for Arsenal and a momentous afternoon for Russo, following her transfer from Manchester United this summer. Perhaps now the power shift that move represented is starting to unfold, as Arsenal tore through Chelsea to race away with a crucial victory in a breathless, high-speed clash.
Russo’s sublime finish before half-time was the moment the Gunners began to ease clear and after a slow start to the season, Jonas Eidevall’s side have now won seven in a row. As Russo added to Amanda Ilestedt’s first-half header and Beth Mead’s composed finish, Arsenal flexed their strength and handed the champions their first league defeat since March. Russo’s late penalty to make it 4-1 also represented Chelsea’s heaviest WSL defeat since 2018.
A fifth consecutive title in Emma Hayes’ final season at Chelsea can no longer be seen as a formality in the way it would have been had the Blues extended their advantage to six points. Hayes shook her head in disbelief throughout the afternoon and Chelsea struggled, punished on the break while Sam Kerr and Lauren James were largely anonymous in attack. Hayes made a triple-change at half-time, taking off two of her starting back four in Eve Perisset and Maren Mjelde, but it made little impact.
A disastrous afternoon for the champions could have been even worse had referee Rebecca Welch spotted an off-the-ball kick from James on Arsenal’s Lia Walti – a little reminiscent of her red-card stamp against Nigeria during last summer’s World Cup – which came moments before the England winger was brought off with Chelsea 4-1 down. The margin of defeat could have been heavier had substitute Stina Blackstenius not skewed wide when through on goal later on.
Arsenal, though, were superb, on and off the pitch. The new WSL-record crowd tops the previous best, set earlier this season in the opening-day defeat to Liverpool. And this time there was a performance and victory that were worthy of the occasion, as Arsenal took charge of the WSL’s marquee fixture and, at times, blew the champions apart. In the teeming rain, Arsenal were slick throughout; the passing from Walti and Kim Little crisp in midfield and the speed of Caitlin Foord devastating in attack.
The conditions were perfect for an electric start; a game set up for counter-attacking at pace brought two goals inside 12 minutes. Arsenal struck first as many of the crowd at the Emirates were still finding their way to their seats. Foord’s rapid break down the left was kept alive by Little and Victoria Pelova’s smart turn away from Niamh Charles in the box played in Mead – the finish was pure class and Mead had both the composure and the awareness to cut back onto her left foot to finish high into the net.
Yet Chelsea committed to the open, frantic start and cut Arsenal apart with a sucker punch five minutes later. In the left-back area, Charles danced out of defence, beating Mead and then Katie McCabe to trigger the break. Sjoeke Nusken’s smart poke through the legs of Walti opened up the space for Jessie Fleming to carry forward and she found Johanna Rytting Kaneryd on the left. From there, the Sweden international matched Mead’s earlier finish, beating Steph Catley’s challenge before firing low inside Manuela Zinsberger’s near post.
Arsenal, though, continued to find the gaps to play through Chelsea, particularly in the space between Perisset and Mjelde. It was there where Foord roamed, a constant threat as the Australian winger rediscovered her World Cup form. It was Foord’s cross towards Mead at the back post that led to Arsenal retaking the lead; though Hayes was furious about a foul not given in the build-up, the defending from Chelsea was slack. Ann-Katrin Berger was caught coming for a ball she never looked likely to win and Ilestedt had a simple header into the net from Catley’s inswinging corner.
It was Ilested’s first Arsenal goal but given the Sweden defender scored four at the World Cup from that exact route, Chelsea could have had no complaints.
Neither did Hayes’s side have an answer when Catley’s simple ball into the left channel released Russo two minutes later. Bearing down on Berger, Russo opened up her body and guided a beautiful finish into the far corner with her instep, sliding in celebration in front of the Chelsea fans in the away end. There was no question that Arsenal’s landmark signing was the match-winner and when she was bundled over by a combination of Berger and Jess Carter in the box, Russo stepped up to make it four and deliver a result the Emirates will remember for some time.