Arsenal: WSL title hopefuls finding answers but questions remain after uneven start

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Jonas Eidevall
Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall (right) has led his side to two wins, one draw and one league defeat so far this season
Venue: Meadow Park, London Date: Sunday, 5 November Time: 12:30 BST
Coverage: Watch live on BBC Two, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport website & app; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app

After a shock Champions League elimination and a home defeat in front of a record Women’s Super League crowd, there are now signs of life in Arsenal’s rebuild.

The Gunners showed their intentions over the summer with several big-name signings after slipping behind Manchester United in the race to catch Chelsea last season.

Primary among these was Alessia Russo, the England striker recruited from United just before the World Cup following a long saga and months of speculation over her contract situation.

Now, after back-to-back WSL wins, Jonas Eidevall’s side face Manchester City this weekend in the biggest test so far of their title credentials.

As well as Russo, Arsenal also brought in Spanish World Cup winner Laia Codina, Australian midfielder Kyra Cooney-Cross, Sweden centre-back Amanda Ilestedt and Canada forward Cloe Lacasse as Eidevall was heavily backed in the transfer market.

Yet they stumbled out of the blocks, being knocked out in Champions League qualifying on penalties by Paris FC.

The magnitude of that upset has been slightly put into perspective by Paris subsequently causing an even greater upset – eliminating last year’s runners-up Wolfsburg to qualify for the group stage.

But an early exit from Europe certainly was not in the plans of Eidevall, Russo or anyone else at Arsenal.

High hopes of trophy success were further dented in front of a WSL record crowd of 54,115 at Emirates Stadium last month, when Miri Taylor’s goal was enough to earn Liverpool a 1-0 victory.

Eidevall said his side have been victims of the crunched post-World Cup schedule, which saw the WSL season start only 42 days after the final in Sydney, while Arsenal’s Champions League qualifier was just 17 days later.

After losing their league opener, Eidevall said Arsenal had only had 10 training sessions in four months with all players available, adding: “We need to invest time in relationships.”

‘If results don’t improve, his position has got to be shaky’

Arsenal announced on 5 October that Eidevall had signed a new long-term contract with the club.

The timing of the announcement was intriguing given Arsenal’s poor start, coming as a strong show of support from the club to build for the future under Eidevall.

The Swede, who joined Arsenal in 2021, has led the Gunners to consecutive top-three finishes in the WSL and they reached the Champions League semi-finals last year, as well as claiming their first trophy of his reign in the League Cup.

But success and promise bring expectations – which Arsenal have not met so far this season.

Graphic showing Arsenal results this season

Given the compact nature of the WSL season, there is little time or room to manoeuvre. Champions Chelsea only failed to collect maximum points in three of their 22 games last campaign, while the Gunners have already lost one and drawn one of their opening four matches.

“For a club as big as Arsenal, I would like to think that they have higher standards than just winning one trophy a year,” former Arsenal defender Gilly Flaherty told BBC Radio 5 Live last month.

“Even though the manager has signed a new contract, you have got to think that in a few months if results haven’t improved, his position has got to be a bit shaky.”

‘Russo is much more than just a goalscorer’

Alessia Russo and Katie McCabe celebrate an Arsenal goal
Alessia Russo’s first WSL goal for Arsenal was the stoppage-time winner against Aston Villa

Eidevall has been proactive in his attempts to right Arsenal’s ship. After the loss to Liverpool he made six changes for the 2-2 draw with Manchester United, while against Aston Villa and Bristol City they played a back four having lined up with three in defence at the start of the season.

Arsenal have further helped themselves with a useful penchant for late goals. Summer signing Lacasse scored a fantastic left-footed equaliser against United, while two stoppage-time strikes turned the prospect of a second successive home defeat into a first WSL win of the season against Villa.

But perhaps the biggest salve for Eidevall has been the indication Arsenal’s year-long injury crisis may finally be coming to an end.

Beth Mead returned from her anterior cruciate ligament injury to set up the winning goal against Villa, while Vivianne Miedema made her first appearance for 11 months as a second-half substitute against Bristol City.

They have been immensely improved by the signing of Russo. Although the 24-year-old has only one goal from four games so far, her work-rate has brought cohesion to Arsenal’s attacking unit.

“Just watching her movement, it’s excellent,” said former Tottenham captain Jenna Schillaci during Arsenal’s win at Bristol City.

“She’s not always on the ball, but she is constantly moving, dropping in. She hasn’t had the goals we expected, but the work, she is so much more than just a goalscorer.

“Her press, the energy, it has been relentless since she started [at Arsenal]. She’s always looking to be an option to help her team out.”

‘A lot to ponder – but a lot of positives’

Sabrina D'Angelo misses a clearance for Arsenal against Manchester United
Goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo’s air kick proved costly as Arsenal drew 2-2 at Manchester United

One major signing Arsenal did not make last summer was that of England goalkeeper Mary Earps, who was heavily linked with the club. After the first two WSL matches it was clear to see why Earps would hold plenty of appeal.

Manuela Zinsberger was too easily beaten by Taylor’s low shot against Liverpool, and she was replaced by Sabrina D’Angelo against Manchester United.

D’Angelo, however, gifted United a goal in that match as she air-kicked a long ball to allow in Leah Galton for their opener.

It all leaves Arsenal with several potential answers – but still plenty of questions.

Can they be more clinical and serve up fewer gifts? How much can be expected of Mead and Miedema immediately? Is the continued absence of Leah Williamson, another ACL victim, going to remain a hindrance until her return in the new year? Can they turn it on in the biggest games to atone for the slow start?

“They are still not quite as ruthless as we expect this Arsenal team to be,” former England midfielder Izzy Christiansen told Sky Sports after the Bristol City victory.

“Miedema’s return to the fold will be a big, big plus for them. I’m sure that will help them start to re-find those relationships on the pitch that look to be lacking a little at the minute.

“A lot to ponder for Eidevall going into this international break. But a lot of positives to build on when they come back.”

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