By Neil Evans.
Only at Arsenal Ladies can retaining the Women’s FA Cup be regarded as failure, but that is how last term was viewed by fans and pundits alike. For a club used to being at the pinnacle of the women’s game, last season’s fourth place finish was simply not good enough. The extra pain of losing the Continental Cup final to Manchester City Women simply twisted the knife a little deeper.
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There were mitigating circumstances, of course, such as star midfielder Jordan Nobbs being injured for much of the campaign. But it was behind the scenes where a club, known for its continuity, was in disarray. It was Shelley Kerr who began the season as boss, and while she guided the Gunners to the FA Cup final, her appointment simply didn’t work out for either party. Early results were disappointing, including a first ever defeat to Bristol Academy, and her departure was mutually agreed before Arsenal’s cup triumph. What followed was a period where a combination of senior players (Rachel Yankey, Kelly Smith), ex-players (Faye White), and former boss, Vic Akers, ran affairs almost by committee whilst the club searched for new leadership. That short term pain was well worth it, though, as Arsenal found a top manager in Pedro Martinez Losa (experienced in Europe and the US). Results were transformed, and Arsenal finished the season strongly. In fact, the most important signing Arsenal Ladies had made was Señor Martinez.
So, plenty of grounds for optimism for Lady Gunners fans? Yes, I think so. Martinez has recruited well, adding Jemma Rose and Natalia from Bristol (a player he coached at Rayo Vallecano), as well as the mercurial Vicky Losada from Barcelona. Rose is a future England centre-back in waiting, and will complement a strong unit organised by the inspirational Casey Stoney. Add two top goalkeepers in Emma Byrne and Siobhan Chamberlain, and it appears that Arsenal are in better shape to vastly improve on the third worst defence in 2014.
In midfield, Natalia will probably share duties with the evergreen Yankey, whilst Leah Williamson continues to impress. Throw in Caroline Weir and a fully fit Nobbs, and Arsenal tick all the boxes in midfield going forward and defensively.
The forwards are where Arsenal really shine. Dan Carter’s electrifying pace, Leanne Sanderson’s power and eye for goal, and the incomparable Kelly Smith should mean lots of goals. One of the single most impressive displays I have seen from a female player was at Bristol last season. Two goals down at half time to a rampant home side, Kelly Smith simply took the game, and everyone’s breath, away. Proof, if it were needed, that she is far from finished, and that the players had immediately bought into Martinez as the new coach (the match ended 4-3 to Arsenal). Earlier in the season, they would have submitted to defeat. And for me, the new ‘gaffer’ is the key to Arsenal recapturing their former glories. Yes, Niamh Fahey along with Japanese duo Yukari Kinga and Shinobu Ohno have left, but overall, this squad still oozes quality from back to front.
Arsenal have the quality, and, most importantly, the desire to return to the top, and – if they can overcome playing four of their first six WSL 1 games away from home – I am prepared to stick my neck out and predict that they will reclaim the title they last won in 2012.
2014 Finish: 4th
2015 Prediction: 1st
Key Player: Jordan Nobbs
Arsenal begin their 2015 season against Notts County Ladies at Meadow Lane on April 2nd.
Follow Neil Evans @swinfan69