Top of the Women's Super League but a club in reverse - what's gone wrong for Arsenal?

·5-min read
Top of the Women's Super League but a club in reverse - what's gone wrong for Arsenal Women? - GETTY IMAGES
Top of the Women's Super League but a club in reverse - what's gone wrong for Arsenal Women? - GETTY IMAGES

If it is possible for a team to be in a slump while at the same time being four points clear at the top of the table, Arsenal are living through that contradiction at the moment following an uncharacteristic run that has seen them lose five of their past six matches in all competitions.

The north London club remain in pole position to win their first Women's Super League title since 2019, but you wouldn't have guessed it if you watched their poor showing in December's 3-0 FA Cup final loss against Chelsea, nor in their repeatedly off-colour performances since then.

They suffered what midfielder Kim Little labelled "an honest slap in the face" when humbled by Barcelona in December, before further defeats against Hoffenheim, Birmingham and now Manchester United in the League Cup. Yet this was a team that won their opening six WSL matches of the season and were unbeaten in their first nine league games, which begs the question: What has gone wrong for Jonas Eidevall's team this winter, and why?

Why have Arsenal's goals dried up?

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Arsenal are the WSL's top scorers, but in their two domestic games without scoring since Christmas, they have struggled to create clear-cut chances, which is at odds with the free-scoring streak at the start of the season.

In January 9th's shock 2-0 defeat away against relegation-threatened Birmingham City, the north Londoners produced just two shots on target. England forward Beth Mead, who was in electrifying form earlier in the campaign, has not scored for her club since November, while Holland star Vivianne Miedema has netted just once in her past five games.

Miedema, the WSL's all-time record scorer, is out of contract at the end of the season, and although she is understood to have not yet ruled out staying at Arsenal, she is wanted by many of the world's biggest women's teams including French champions Paris Saint-Germain and Champions League winners Barcelona, and the 25-year-old has not looked herself in recent games.

Did injuries unravel Arsenal's form?

However, Arsenal's downturn in form also coincided with the unfortunate absence of their talismanic central defender Leah Williamson, who suffered a severe hamstring injury in November and was not able to make her return until Wednesday, when she came on as a late substitute against Manchester United.

The setback saw one of the club's most influential figures ruled out for December's cup final at Wembley and Arsenal's subsequent Champions League defeats against Barcelona and Hoffenheim. As well as being a leader at the back, with her expansive range of passing and intelligent diagonal balls, Williamson's attacking contributions as a ball-playing centre-half are key to Eidevall's desired style.

Double World Cup-winning United States forward Tobin Heath has also missed a significant spell through what has been described as a "niggling" muscle injury, but the 33-year-old also returned to action from the bench on Wednesday for the first time in more than two months, to give Arsenal fans hope.

But they are now without four important players because of the ongoing Women's Asian Cup, in which Australia trio Caitlin Foord, Lydia Williams and Steph Catley, plus Japan's Mana Iwabuchi, are all involved.

Top of the Women's Super League but a club in reverse - what's gone wrong for Arsenal Women? - GETTY IMAGES
Top of the Women's Super League but a club in reverse - what's gone wrong for Arsenal Women? - GETTY IMAGES

Costly mistakes at the back

However, another uncharacteristic side to Arsenal's play in recent games has been the prevalence of defensive errors, not least from Scotland's Jen Beattie, who was the unfortunate player whose misplaced back pass led to Aitana Bonmati's opening goal for Barcelona in the Catalan club's 4-0 win at the Emirates in December.

The experienced centre-half was also arguably guilty of missing her header a split second before Alessia Russo headed in Manchester United's winning goal over Arsenal on Wednesday. Her centre-back partner Simone Boye has not been immune from errors either, losing track of the run of Birmingham striker Libby Smith for the bottom club's opening goal at St Andrew's earlier in January.

But none of those moments will have concerned Arsenal fans as much as the team's body language in the loss at Birmingham, on the day of their worst performance in recent memory. Sluggish, out-fought and toothless on that day, they did not look like a side chasing silverware.

Could there be a turning point?

Eidevall felt his team's performance against Manchester United on Wednesday - despite being knocked out of a cup they have won a record five times - was a much improved one, describing the display as a "big step in the right direction" when speaking in his post-match press conference.

Off the pitch, the club have enjoyed greater success this month, securing a new contract for Williamson as well as completing three signings: Sweden striker Stina Blackstenius, Brazil centre-back Rafaelle Souza and Austria full-back Laura Wienroither have all arrived, in moves that will add significant quality to the team as well as bolstering their ranks.

But the league leaders are now under pressure to turn their form around quickly, with numerous difficult tests on the horizon in the WSL. That starts with Sunday's tough-looking match away at resurgent Manchester City [6.45pm, Sky Sports], before games against Manchester United and Chelsea early in February, as Eidevall's side enter a potentially season-defining period of the campaign.