It is not a crisis yet – there are plenty of World Cup hangover caveats to Arsenal’s sluggish defeat – but it is edging towards becoming one.
A crowd of 54,115 – breaking their own WSL record set last season to ensure they have the top three Women’s Super League attendances – is all well and good but Arsenal need to perform to maintain that momentum.
Jonas Eidevall apologised to the fans for the lack of a performance. Is the loss significant? “It’s big,” the head coach said. “Champions League exit or not, it’s really disappointing to lose a game, especially at home, especially with having 54,000 fans that turn up and give incredible support.
“How they supported the team all the way to the final whistle was incredible. I want to thank everyone, and I want to say sorry that we didn’t perform better, please give us more chances, come back and we will do better.”
The Gunners, who crashed out of Champions League qualifying on penalties against Paris FC last month, did everything but score. However, a defensive masterclass from Matt Beard’s Liverpool – the side he managed to successive WSL titles in 2013 and 2014 to end Arsenal’s domination of domestic women’s football – gave them a platform and Miri Taylor scored the only goal.
“Defensively we were outstanding today,” Beard said. “People will say you were lucky ... we weren’t, we defended, we put our bodies on the line and made great saves when we needed to. It’s one game. We beat Chelsea last year, everyone was raving about it and then we went without a win for four.”
The anticipation was palpable before kick-off, a feelgood vibe emanated from the Emirates Stadium. Holloway Road station was shut (usually an occurrence only for sold-out men’s games); burger stands in front gardens were alive with queues that snaked down the street; Miedema, Little, Mead, Wubben-Moy and Catley were on shirt after shirt; a band played and a raucous rendition of “Beth Mead’s on fire” burst from turnstiles around blocks two and three.
This is the new WSL. Arsenal are unique in many ways, with such a vast number of tickets sold for the game just days after the release of a new away kit produced in collaboration with Stella McCartney for exclusive use by the women’s team, but this is the future of the league.
If there was any expectation that Arsenal would dispatch Liverpool, who finished seventh on their WSL return last season, did not win a single game away from home and are injury-depleted and Covid-hit, then those were dampened slightly by half-time, and crushed by the end.
Arsenal started the game with two of their five new signings in the starting XI, with the former Manchester United forward Alessia Russo leading the line and the Canada international Cloé Lacasse playing as a right-sided wing-back.
There was no room for Mead, despite Eidevall having hinted that the forward may get her first minutes since her anterior cruciate ligament rupture in November.
For Liverpool there were three new players included, with the defenders Grace Fisk and Jenna Clark, and the forward Marie Höbinger all starting. However, there were just five players on the bench, with injuries and Covid having taken their toll.
The pressure from the home team was relentless and they had 12 corners by the break but had nothing to show for it.
Beard would have been the happier manager at half-time, and it showed in the energy of his team at the restart. It took just three minutes for the visiting side to stun the crowd. Höbinger was the architect, winning possession off the left wing-back Steph Catley and nutmegging Lia Wälti as she played the ball through to Missy Bo Kearns who pulled back for Taylor to fire in at the far post.
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Eidevall resorted to a trio of changes to try to inject some energy and unpredictability into Arsenal, with Victoria Pelova and the Swedish duo Lina Hurtig and Amanda Ilestedt brought in.
There was clever game management at the close, but Liverpool’s time-wasting only extended the game and put names in the book, with the WSL following the Premier League’s lead. They saw out the 10 minutes of added time, though, to sour the Emirates atmosphere.
“Are we performing at the level we want right now? No, we’re not, there’s no hiding from that,” Eidevall said. “We need to be better and we need to develop and we don’t have a lot of time to do that, so we need to use our time really well.”