Like Robert Duvall once said, “I love the smell of a title in the morning.” A sentiment Arsenal fans will be inhaling today, having clinched their first WSL title since 2012 with a win away to Brighton and Hove Albion.
The lesser of three evils, kind of...
It’s hard to imagine how Arsenal, one of the most successful women’s clubs of all time, backed by a world-known men’s team with oodles of cash and a world class team to boot, winning the title could be a feel-good story, but it kind of is.
How disgusting Arsenal’s winning history is to the most of us, 2003 and 2017 the only calendar years since their first title in 1991-92 that have been silverware-less for the London outfit. There is an asterisk by 2017 as it was the year the FA opted to switch the summer calendar to a winter one, disrupting competitions along the way. It doesn’t matter that before this season, Arsenal had been away from the league summit for the longest spell in their history, [almost] every year has brought cup finals and bling.
Since their last title in 2012, the Gunners had been markedly off the pace, from Liverpool’s multinational title winners. To the Chelsea and Manchester City duopoly [making it rain] since 2014, Arsenal have been forced to play third fiddle – mostly for show, weighing hundreds of pounds and sounding crummy – until this season.
From winning the title in 2012, and finishing 12 (TWELVE) points clear of second, Arsenal have not been more than five points off of the top come the end of the season. Stomach-churningly for the Gunners, they were a point off of second in 2013, 2017 (in the one-off “Errrybody get ready for the Euros” Spring Series) as well as last season. Or to put it another way, one point off of the Champions League.
That treatment table though
The squad had been strong but wonky for many years, one area of the pitch always lacking, midfielders often shoehorned into the defence or attack at the lack of adequate depth and trademark Arsenal injures have dictated. Last season, another that went down as a disappointment for the Arsenal-faithful, a chance at second squandered, star-striker Vivianne Miedema carrying a knock and epitomising a team that just couldn’t produce their best. But in typical Arsenal fashion, a trophy claimed for their troubles.
Scoring 44 goals in their first nine matches of the season, including a 5-0 dismantling of Chelsea and conceding just five along the way (three of which were in a bizarre 4-3 against West Ham – Daniëlle van de Donk’s Worst Hattrick of All Time™ vital in the narrow win), one injury was too many for the Gunners. The football (as the goals would suggest) was ridiculous… sublime… silky… nasty. Joe “Pep” Montemurro’s football the most delicious being played in WSL, no team able to get close to the Londoners in style, but the injuries were undeniable.
Dan Carter’s ACL had given up the ghost on the last day of the 2017-18 season, Viktoria Schnaderbeck, Tabea Kemme and Jessica Samuelsson struggled with injuries all season, all three with failed comebacks and setbacks but the team persevered. Even when Kim Little broke her leg, the team held their resolve, Lia Wälti’s midfield influence unable to be overstated. Emma Mitchell was in and out of the team, nursing injuries, Lisa Evans and Katie McCabe doubled-up in defence, the former with her own spell on the sidelines. Jordan Nobbs’ ACL tear the turning point in Arsenal’s season.
From going big guns, the Gunners failed to fire against Manchester City at the end of 2018, the team suffering their first league defeat of the season. A win away to West Ham followed by their second loss, a 2-1 at home to Chelsea that showed their frailties without Nobbs. The loss of Wälti to a knee complaint, picked up on international duty, enough to rattle the table-toppers further.
Despite only having lost two matches, the gap between Arsenal and the chasing two (until Chelsea fell away) reduced, the team managing to avoid defeat in their next seven league outings but without the shimmer. A league cup loss to City and a FA Cup quarter-final exit to Chelsea punctuating the wobbles. The London team avoiding a winner-take-all final day match up against the Citizens as they hit Brighton for four at the Amex.
The injuries in midfield enough to make Arsenal appeal to the neutrals, ACLs and style, the team one for the romantics. Miedema, van de Donk and Beth Mead propagating their own x-rated football, from Miedema’s ridiculous goal-return (22 in 19, a new record for the league) to van de Donk firing on all cylinders, working her boots off and contributing in more than goals and assists. To assist-machine Mead, the former Sunderland woman trademarking a particular cross-cum-shot and growing hugely in her role on the wing.
However, it’s been a comparatively ugly run-in, the after dark football from the first half of the season lost along the way as Arsenal have ground out their results, stumbling in the middle of the park. The defence made resolute by life-long Gunner, Leah Williamson, the defender-turned-midfielder one of the quiet stars of the season, for Arsenal and for WSL.
For Arsenal fans, there will be no heart attack-inducing final match against City, the league title (their 15th!) wrapped up with a neat bow. It’s an end to the Chelsea-City duopoly but another win for the Big Three, not quite the fairy-tale but a win for good [sometimes, mouthwatering] football.
With one game left, if we can’t #BanKnees we can at least hope that Arsenal fail to score the weekend after next so they end their nice season with 69 goals scored.