WSL1 Preview: Strength in depth will secure Arsenal Ladies runners-up and coveted Champions League spot

With the new WSL season upon us, Neil Evans evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Arsenal Ladies, who he believes should make their way back into the Champions League places by the end of the season.

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Team: Arsenal Ladies

Home: Meadow Park, Boreham Wood FC

Manager: Pedro Martinez Losa

2015: 3rd WSL1

A second successive season without securing Champions League football was not the desired result for Arsenal Ladies as the Lady Gunners finished third behind Manchester City and Chelsea. There was the success of, what seems like an annual trophy, winning the Continental Cup to sugar-coat WSL disappointment. But, make no mistake, Arsenal’s objective last season was the title and on that count they came up short. The big question remains as to whether Pedro Martinez Losa can bring back glory to the Lady Gunners? With the two sides above them having strengthened significantly, the jury is very much out on whether they can reclaim their crown.

Given that they missed out by just three points (and a few goals) in UWCL qualification, the pivotal result in their season was a 3-1 home reverse against Liverpool Ladies (their only other defeats was to the top two). A 1-1 draw at Bristol Academy was another costly slip-up before the international break. And on such small margins, seasons are defined. Proof, if it were needed, of the fiercely competitive nature of the league. At the time of writing, Arsenal remain in the Women’s FA Cup, seeing off Birmingham on penalties and will be hopeful of regaining a trophy that has often been regarded as their personal property!

There is no doubt that this squad has everything needed to become champions again, great infrastructure and a top-class manager in Martinez Losa. They have also made some interesting signings as well as some equally fascinating outgoings. Club legend Rachel Yankey has been allowed to join Notts County on loan and Carla Humphrey is with Doncaster Rovers Belles for the season. For Yanks, it was most definitely her desire to play regularly that lies behind her move. And whilst there is no substitute for experience, the quality in attack meant that her opportunities were already becoming limited. Even more so, as the Lady Gunners have added the power and pace of Asisat Oshoala from Liverpool and Katie McCabe from Irish side, Shelbourne. It’s a useful balance of youth and experience with Spanish international Natalia, who was their top goalscorer last season, able to play anywhere along the front line. Kelly Smith provides the experience and is also a vital part of the coaching set-up, which can only be a positive for the younger players. Dan Carter provides raw pace a waspish-like tenacity and a keen eye for goal that complements her fellow sharpshooters.

At the back, Emma Byrne remains the goalkeeper of choice, though she will be challenged hard by Dutch international Sari van Veenendaal for the gloves. The defence has been bolstered by three-times Champions League winner, Josephine Henning, who joined in July from Paris St-Germain. A real marquee signing who will complement the ageless Casey Stoney and the hugely talented, Jemma Rose. Add to that, England’s Alex Scott – one of the most adventurous full-backs in the women’s game – and the slightly more circumspect Emma Mitchell and it looks like a unit that will be miserly in conceding.

The quality doesn’t diminish in midfield, with multiple options available for Pedro to ponder in his team selection. Both Vicky Losada and Marta Corredera will be better for having had a season in the English game, with both Spaniards being technically gifted and excellent in possession. One player who the Lady Gunners did miss, for most of last season, was Jordan Nobbs. Her return to full fitness gives the team a genuine box-to-box midfielder, who is as industrious as she is influential. Fara Williams is another legend of the female game who needs no introduction, having reached an astounding 150 England caps recently. Her leadership qualities are second to none and is as good a player as ever. Leah Williamson is a much talked about player, and rightly so. She may still be a teenager but she has all the quality needed to be a top player for many years to come and is already an integral part of the side. Two new signings in Dominique Janssen (a player equally at home in midfield or defence) signed from SGS Essen and another Dutch international, Danielle Van de Donk, completes a formidable midfield.

This is a side oozing with quality from back to front and it really is on the flip of a coin that the top three teams will be separated come November. My gut feeling is that Arsenal can break into a top two they last graced in 2012. That is far too long for a club of Arsenal Ladies. The key, for me, is having Nobbs back and firing and she can be the difference in the Lady Gunners fighting for the title. I don’t think they will win the WSL1 title but silverware and a UWCL place? Yes. They play both Manchester City and Chelsea in their first three games and those head-to-heads throughout the season will be the fine line between success and failure.

 First Game: Reading FC Ladies – March 23rd

Key Player: Jordan Nobbs

Likely Line-up: Van Veenendaal – Scott, Stoney, Rose, Williamson – Losada, Williams, Nobbs – Natalia, Carter, Van de Donk

Prediction: 2nd WSL1

Read more from Neil here

Follow Neil on Twitter @swinfan69

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