WSL 1 End of Season Review: Arsenal
Image credit: VAVEL

WSL 1 End of Season Review: Arsenal

We look back at how Arsenal's season played out across 2016, as the club experienced mixed fortunes in each competition.

Matt Dawson

Arsenal Ladies have a massive honours list, but recently they've simply not been at the races, and after failing to challenge for the title in 2015, this year was of similar fortunes, finishing third in the league again, behind Manchester City and Chelsea.

Despite an FA Cup triumph earlier in the year, 2016 will arguably one they will quickly want to move on from. Things on the pitch didn't quite go according to plan, but there can't be any room for panic just yet, as they will be eagerly working on a solution over the off season, before the Spring Series gets underway in February.

Pre-season optimism

Before the season got underway, there was a sense of optimism around Borehamwood and the Arsenal Ladies. Pedro Martinez Losa looked to acquire players capable of taking the club on a level, something which obviously never happened in the end, but nonetheless it had promise. Jodie Taylor arrived back in England after a spell in America, whilst talented Nigerian forward Asisat Oshoala signed from Liverpool.

They were two players that originally looked to have been quality additions. This Arsenal side clearly lacked goals last season and with Taylor and Oshoala signing it should have meant more goals, and a challenge for the WSL crown.

That was the opposite though, Taylor spent much of the season out injured, before playing in the final two fixtures of the campaign, whilst Oshoala's first season in the red of Arsenal was met with huge inconsistency, scoring just twice in 16 games.

The signing of Fara Williams was also expected to take Arsenal on a level, and indeed she established a great understanding alongside Jordan Nobbs, perhaps Arsenal's stand-out player this year, in the midfield. Dutch forward Danielle van de Donk also arrived at the club, and had a very promising debut campaign, earning praise from many pundits, but she was another that couldn't quite do enough to take her new side to the next level.

Arsenal celebrate. Image credit: VAVEL
Arsenal celebrate. Image credit: VAVEL

Early slip-ups

For all the pre-season optimism that surrounded Arsenal, they encountered early slip-ups which dented their title bid immediately. The Gunners began the WSL campaign with a 3-1 win over Reading thanks to a double from Dominique Janssen and one from Dan Carter but came unstuck against Man City and Chelsea who ultimately finished above them.

Jemma Rose was sent off in the first of those games, before Jane Ross and Toni Duggan meant City won 2-0, whilst Fran Kirby then scored twice as Chelsea beat Arsenal by the same score a game later.

It wasn't the perfect start for the Gunners, and it signalled in the end what was to be the story of their season. They looked comfortable at the back against the poorer sides in the division, but they failed to really create enough goal scoring chances in the tougher games they had over the season.

FA Cup victory

Perhaps the salvage point from Arsenal's poor season was their FA Cup victory which they achieved quite early in the 2016 season, all the way back in May. Arsenal began their season with a tense affair against Birmingham, winning 5-3 on penalties in the last sixteen after drawing 1-1 after extra time in Solihull.

Martinez Losa's players seemed to make a habit of scraping through on penalties though, as their quarter-final tie with Notts County in the next round saw the game level at 2-2 before a 4-3 penalty win at Borehamwood.

The semi-final, to book their place at Wembley however was a little more straight forward. The Gunners overcame Sunderland by a huge margin of 7-0 as van de Donk scored a hat-trick whilst Carter also netted twice before Williams and Nobbs also got on the score-sheet.

Despite Arsenal's remarkable record in the FA Cup, Chelsea who were their opponents in the final were the favourites at Wembley in front of a record crowd of 32,912 people. However it was Arsenal who reigned victorious, overcoming their London rivals 1-0 thanks to a brilliant goal from Carter after 18 minutes. It was a goal worthy of winning any competition as the club sealed their 14th Women's FA Cup title.

Building form in the league

The FA Cup final victory obviously gave the Arsenal side some confidence as they went on a six game unbeaten run in all competitions following their Wembley win, displaying mid-season form.

Firstly they beat Sunderland 5-1 in the League thanks to two own goals, one from Janssen and a double from Natalia who has now departed the club for Rayo Vallecano. Next came a rather tame 0-0 draw with Birmingham, before defeating Reading 3-1 as their defence of the Continental Cup got underway.

The Gunners then sealed a 2-0 win at home against Notts County as van de Donk opened the scoring in the first half before Nobbs capped off a great display with a goal that sealed the points. However it was a match that was perhaps overshadowed by County defender Laura Bassett not being punished for seemingly flinging an arm in the direction of Arsenal's opening scorer.

In their next game, Arsenal's achieved their most impressive win of the league season as they beat Chelsea once again. They fell behind to a poor back pass from Alex Scott which caught out Sari Van Veenendaal and ending up in the back of the net.

The Dutch keeper however went on to keep Arsenal in the game, in a season where she was hugely impressive aside from that mix-up. The Gunners came from behind though, as Vicky Losada headed home before van de Donk rounded the keeper and slotted home for a brilliantly composed winner.

At this point the Gunners were building some momentum, the kind of form that had people tipping them for a late title charge as they put the pressure on their rivals at the top, and looked to maybe surpass Chelsea into a Champions League spot. The Gunners next win came over Sunderland, as they beat them 4-0 away from home, in a game that included a brilliant goal from Nobbs in the first half.

Image credit: VAVEL
Image credit: VAVEL

Arsenal's problems

It's no secret what Arsenal's problem was over this season, and indeed previous seasons. If you haven't worked it out from what's been said above, then put it simply; they struggle to score goals. They struggled to create chances to win games and when it came to the business state of the season that was in evidence.

The run of form throughout the middle of the season was impressive and showed that Arsenal were getting back on the right track. Against Liverpool though, their unbeaten streak came to an end at the hands of a team in the process of their own rejuvenation.

Two excellent strikes from Shanice van de Sanden and former Gunner Caroline Weir cancelled out Williams' deflected effort as Liverpool put a huge dent in their opponent's title charge and Champions League aspirations.

Arsenal bounced back with two wins over Notts County in the league and Continental Cup, but that was followed up by two 1-0 defeats against Manchester City which ended their hopes of retaining the Conti Cup and achieving a top two place in the league.

It was a sign that Arsenal's players simply weren't good enough this season with the two loses to City showing off their weaknesses. Yes Manchester City rarely conceded this season, but it was symbolic of a season for Arsenal where they failed to score enough goals.

It's an area that will desperately need to improve next season, along with simply having the belief that they can challenge for the title.

Martinez Losa's team did however finish the season among the goals, and with three straight wins. They defeated Doncaster Belles 5-0 away from home, before beating the same opposition 2-0 at home thanks to Taylor's first goals for the club.

Their final game of the season was an absolute thriller in Widnes meanwhile, as they beat Liverpool 5-3 thanks to goals from Carter who scored twice, Nobbs, Chloe Kelly, back from a loan spell with Everton, and Oshoala in injury time.

What's next?

Arsenal have already signalled their intentions going into next season, re-signing Kim Little from Seattle Reign in the NWSL who will no doubt add that extra creative spark and goals that were missing in 2016. A massive squad overhaul also seems to be in the process of happening too, as the club look to build and develop during the Spring Series next year.

The trio of Spaniards; Natalia, Losada and Marta Corredera have all departed the club, as has stalwart Casey Stoney who will be a big miss. Much was made this season of how big the squad was and it appears as though big things are happening and will continue to happen over the winter.

We can expect a few others to leave the club, with Scott and Williams names that are being tipped as potential departures. Those are unconfirmed rumours at this stage though. Taylor has meanwhile confirmed that she's staying with the club and that will be a huge bonus to Arsenal to have her fit and firing in 2017.

Losa could still have something up his sleeve though as he looks to fine tune his squad ready for the return of the WSL next year, where Arsenal will look to get back to where they should be; at the top of the table.