A desperate late Daniëlle van de Donk goal, snatched on the rebound amid relentless Arsenal pressure, denied a stunningly resilient Manchester United team the first point of their maiden Women’s Super League campaign.
It is rare for promoted challengers to give any league’s champions a run for their money (though Norwich showed how on Saturday) but United’s climb into the Women’s Super League is no ordinary ascent. The home team spent all last season preparing for their chance to compete against the biggest clubs in the newly professional top tier and it showed here as they attempted to shatter the established order.
United’s 2-1 Continental League Cup defeat by Arsenal last season had given them a taste of what facing the WSL champions would entail and they had clearly learned the lessons. Only an excellent goal by Caroline Weir was able to break their resolve in their opening fixture against Manchester City and they almost held out against Arsenal.
In the first half the home team came out looking determined, a raucous crowd, cheering and jeering aplenty, was buoyed by their team pressing the visiting side hard. In the fourth minute a cross-field pass to Jess Sigsworth was just too far ahead of last season’s Championship top scorer, who would have found herself clean through.
Arsenal are having their first flavour of Champions League football and their leggy start could possibly have been attributed to their 4-0 defeat of Fiorentina on Thursday night. There was cause for celebration for the Gunners though, with Jordan Nobbs returning to the starting line up for the first time since rupturing an ACL in November 2018.
An errant pass from the former Manchester City centre-back Jen Beattie gifted the ball to Sigsworth who broke towards the byline before swinging a cross over the head of Jane Ross to Ella Toone at the far post but she powered her header wide.
United looked to be unaffected by the loss of World Cup finalist Jackie Groenen, who picked up a knock in the Manchester derby, or the 22-year-old Swedish fullback Lotta Ökvist, who suffered concussion in training.
In the 38th minute the Gunners found the pass they had been looking for, and it characteristically came from Kim Little, who clipped a clever ball to Lisa Evans, the winger swung a cross towards the head of Vivianne Miedema whose smart header was fantastically saved by England goalkeeper Mary Earps at point blank range. Miedema latched onto the rebound but it was an acute angle and straight at Earps.
In the second half Arsenal moved through the gears, but still failed to find the threaded pass they so often rely on to crack teams open. It was the home team that looked to have made the breakthrough when Ross was played through one-on-one, but the Scottish forward hesitated, giving Manuela Zinsberger time to come out and smother the shot, the ball fell towards the line but Leonie Maier cleared and Arsenal passed their way out of trouble.
As they pulled towards the middle of the pitch Katie Zelem scythed down Nobbs to prompt a fuming Arsenal bench to leap to their feet, while United fans jeered the decision to book their captain.
Minutes later and Arsenal had their best chance of the half but again Earps, who looked to be struggling with injury against City, was equal to the test. Little weaved her way across the edge of the box, saw a sliver of an opening and struck, Earps pushed the ball away and then threw her body back across goal for the follow-up.
With one minute left on the clock the substitute Van de Donk, on for Nobbs, prodded the ball home after Leah Williamson’s shot from distance rebounded off the massed United defenders, a crushingly difficult defeat for a bright home side.