That the Women’s Super League leaders, Arsenal, were toppled by a previously winless Birmingham on Sunday was a shock. But perhaps the bigger surprise was the manner of the Gunners’ limp defence of their status as the only team not to have lost.
Birmingham’s 2-0 victory was no smash and grab but reward for an intelligent and driven performance that put their opponents to shame.
Arsenal’s decline, starting with the 3-0 FA Cup final defeat by Chelsea on 5 December, has been rapid. In the 18 previous games, from Champions League qualifying until December, Arsenal suffered a bruising 4-1 defeat in Barcelona and dropped two WSL points in a 1-1 draw with Tottenham. The team averaged 3.39 goals per game and conceded 0.55. In the five matches since, starting with the final, they have averaged one goal a game and conceded 2.6 (13 in five games as opposed to 10 in 18 before).
Europe’s best, Barcelona and Chelsea, have emphatically exposed Jonas Eidevall’s new-look Arsenal but equally sides such as Hoffenheim, who finished third in the Bundesliga last season, and Birmingham have shown that it is not hard to nullify the previously potent Gunners.
Pinpointing exactly what has caused things to unravel so dramatically is not easy. The loss of the influential centre-back Leah Williamson after November’s draw with Tottenham was a huge blow. Jen Beattie, Lotte Wubben-Moy, Steph Catley, Viki Schnaderbeck and Frida Maanum have been tried in search of a centre-half pairing that can cope with the absence of the ball-playing and pacy Williamson, but none have filled the void and a mixture of poor positioning, lack of speed and woeful individual errors have eroded any air of infallibility.
The loss of one player, though, should not destabilise the team to such an extent. Arsenal’s problems are not limited to the back. Across the pitch the fluidity and cohesion so potent at the start of the season have gone.
A heavy schedule meant a number of players went straight from the Olympics into pre-season training, Champions League qualifiers and the season proper, which included the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final of last season’s FA Cup. That has undoubtedly taken a toll and it has not just affected Arsenal. Chelsea’s dominant display in the FA Cup final was the last win of the year for Emma Hayes’s side as the Blues, who limped into 2022 having been knocked out of the Champions League thanks to a 0-0 draw at home to Juventus and 4-0 defeat at Wolfsburg and lost to Reading in the league in between.
There was perhaps hope that the winter break would rejuvenate Arsenal legs and minds but the Birmingham defeat suggests the problems are deeper and Eidevall’s seemingly straightforward entry into English football now looks anything but.
January signings, with Arsenal linked to the Swedish forward Stina Blackstenius and believed to be hunting for a centre-back, could prompt a revival of fortunes and are necessary.
With Arsenal’s three Australian players – Catley, the forward Caitlin Foord and goalkeeper Lydia Williams – competing in the Asian Cup in India, which runs until 6 February, and the defender Anna Patten loaned to Aston Villa, Eidevall is short of players.
There are also question marks hanging over the futures of a number of squad members, not least the prolific striker Vivianne Miedema, midfielder Jordan Nobbs and Williamson, whose contracts expire at the end of the season. This kind of uncertainty cannot be healthy for the morale of the squad. The closer the summer gets the more these issues loom large and compound other problems the team face.
The games are coming thick and fast and there is little time to work on structural issues on the training pitch but there is an urgent need to grind out positive results to rebuild seemingly shattered confidence. That will not be easy. Reading, unbeaten since the start of October, are up next. Then Manchester United await in the League Cup before Arsenal travel to a resurgent Manchester City.
Their WSL fate is in their own hands, the team four points ahead of Chelsea, who have a game in hand and host Arsenal in February. Eidevall’s side are also in the Champions League last eight, facing Wolfsburg. But channelling the early-season form and confidence will be critical to any fast-diminishing hopes of reclaiming the WSL title after back-to-back Chelsea triumphs.