THE BEST game of the international weekend was arguably Arsenal Women against their London rivals, Chelsea. The Women’s Super League (WSL) was back and the media coverage was intense and expectations higher than normal. Games were played at Tottenham’s gleaming new home, the Emirates, good old Goodison Park and Brighton’s Falmer Stadium, but these grounds didn’t really do the WSL justice.
For a start, the crowds seemed on the low side – maybe attributable to the pandemic – and the TV images revealed games being played in vast, empty arenas. The average was around 3,500 but in places like the 60,000-plus Emirates, even 8,000 looks like a tiny gathering. It’s easy to see why they play WSL games in these prestigious locations, it underlines the importance of the league and gives both players and fans a lift. But is it really necessary?
Surely it is more advisable to have 3,500 in a modest but comfortable venue than a huge ground devoid of atmosphere? The same argument used to apply to both the FA Vase and FA Trophy before the introduction of Non-League Finals Day. Some would argue that just being at a prominent venue raises the profile.
The London derby attracted the biggest crowd, 8,705 to be precise, and the action was excellent. Arsenal hosted the WSL champions and were the better outfit against a very suspect defence. Emma Hayes, the Chelsea coach, seemed a little fractious and uneasy before the game and afterwards she was complaining about the lack of VAR in the stadium.
It is slightly amusing to see the women’s game adopt some of the habits of the men’s game in the form of cliché-peppered interviews, but one aspect where the WSL is certainly not copying the men is in the spectator reaction to “taking the knee”. There was no jeering, no cynicism, just warm applause. Nevertheless, listening to post-match comments highlights that football remains, after all, a game of cliché and jargon no matter who is playing it.
The dynamics of the women’s game are also starting to look remarkably similar – in the past four seasons, the top three has been unchanged, although the order has jumped around. It’s all about Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, with Manchester United coming up behind them. In short, it is becoming almost as predictable as the Premier League, but then is that a surprise given the economic resources available at these clubs?
The quality of the Arsenal v Chelsea game demonstrated the WSL is on an upward trajectory in terms of technique, but it should be remembered these two clubs shop around the world for their talent. Across the two starting line-ups, there were 12 different nationalities, including Arsenal’s new signing from Aston Villa, Mana Iwabuchi, the 28 year-old Japanese forward who has won 81 caps for her country.
Arsenal signed some other notable players in the summer, including Nikita Parris from Lyon, Simone Boye Sørensen of Bayern Munich and Tobin Heath, a two-time World Cup winner with the USA, from Manchester United. Chelsea acquired Dutch defender Aniek Nouwen from PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United’s Lauren James, the sister of England international Reece James.
One of the indicators of how the WSL, and women’s football in general, have progressed is public awareness. Increasingly, generalist fans are aware of some of the big names in the game, notably the England regulars like Steph Houghton and Fran Kirby and the American icon Megan Rapinoe. With the emergence of more women pundits, we have seen the rise of the excellent Alex Scott as well as Karen Carney and Eni Aluko.
Gradually, the WSL will become part of the footballing diet of more fans and the top players will become as household as Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane. It will take time, and patience will be a prerequisite, but the foundation is now in place.
Another decent World Cup or European Championship would reap multiple benefits, not least in attracting more men to women’s games, which may be the only way that crowds will grow substantially. With access to tickets at top clubs becoming so restricted these days, there is a marketing opportunity for excluded fans of Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham to seek their entertainment at WSL games. The theory is similar to youth and development football at these clubs, but at present, too few die-hards extend their support of a club beyond the first team.
Arsenal were very much the better and more savvy side against Chelsea and they took the lead through Netherlands international Vivianne Miedema, who evaded Jessica Carter and shot past Ann-Katrin Berger, who should have done better in stopping the effort. Chelsea levelled just before the break through Erin Cuthbert’s low drive after being set-up by Melanie Leupolz.
Arsenal showed no sign of being deflated by that timely goal and in the 48th minute, Beth Mead ran through and sent a favoured left-foot shot past Berger to restore their lead. Mead was in good form and scored her second goal in the 60th minute, receiving the ball from Iwabuchi and rounding the keeper to stretch Arsenal’s advantage. It looked very offside and the presence of VAR would surely have confirmed that. Little wonder Emma Hayes complained that no technology at the ground felt as though they were being treated like “second class citizens”.
Chelsea were not finished yet and Denmark’s Pernille Harder, in the 63rd minute, produced a bullet header right out of the coaching manual to reduce the deficit. It wasn’t enough for Chelsea to save the game, and so Arsenal’s new coach, Jonas Eidevall, was able to enjoy a winning start to his WSL career.
The meeting of Arsenal and Chelsea is always one of the WSL’s standard-bearer games, so the Gunners will feel as though they have gained, for a while at least, the upper hand on their rivals. But it is just matchday one, there’s a long way to go, and Manchester City also won 4-0 at Everton, reminding the London teams they are back in the saddle as they hunt down the silverware.