Arsenal’s hopes of a 2021/22 domestic treble came to an abrupt early end on Wednesday night, marked by defeat to Manchester United in the quarter-finals of the Continental Cup.
The Gunners have been the pacesetters in the WSL so far this season, two years after their last title success, and will soon begin their FA Cup campaign – the recent final against Chelsea at Wembley only last month was the culmination of last season’s delayed competition.
The Conti Cup offers an early opportunity for silverware and Arsenal would have fancied their chances to win it this season given how they had been performing in the autumn.
But a 1-0 loss against Manchester United, only a second ever Arsenal defeat to the Red Devils and two months since cruising to a 2-0 league win against them, saw that opportunity go up in smoke.
Arsenal have lost their momentum at precisely the wrong time. From being the team to beat and rippling with quality and swagger, Jonas Eidevall’s side haven’t been themselves for a while.
Arsenal began the season in sensational form. They caught Chelsea cold on the WSL’s opening weekend and made it six wins in a row and five successive clean sheets by early November. Aside from being taught a lesson by Barcelona on Champions League matchday one, things were also going well in Europe and the Gunners were looking good for a potential last four or better.
But something was off as early as Women’s Football Weekend in mid-November when their performance wasn’t at the level of previous weeks against Tottenham in a derby clash. It needed a top display from Spurs, but Arsenal didn’t have it in them to take things up a gear like would have been expected and it took a stoppage time equaliser just to avoid defeat.
Fast forward though December and January, aside from a pair of WSL wins over Manchester United and Leicester, things seem to have become gradually worse.
This week’s Conti Cup defeat means that Arsenal, from a position of apparent invincibility, have now lost five of their last six games in all competitions.
The run began with a confidence-knocking defeat to Chelsea in last season’s FA Cup final in early December in which they were outfought, outfoxed and outmanoeuvred, resulting in them being convincingly swept aside. But it continued with another mauling at the hands of Barcelona, suggesting that lessons hadn’t been learned from the reverse fixture, and a heavy defeat to Hoffenheim that threatened their place in the Champions League knockout stages.
The winter break didn’t help reset or offer a fresh start. Amid Covid-19 postponements elsewhere, a strong Arsenal XI, albeit not backed up with a deep bench, suffered the humility of a shock defeat to a Birmingham side that had previously been win-less in all competitions all season.
Now, losing in the Conti Cup only extends that streak of poor results.
Arsenal hadn’t had an ideal preparation for this season. They were in action early to qualify for the Champions League group stage, needed to come to terms with a change of manager, with a number of players absent during the summer because of the Olympics, the ongoing spectre of Covid-19 is still hanging over all clubs at every level and injuries and a lack of depth also as a hindrance.
Tobin Heath’s arrival has been a non-starter because of injury, while even Nikita Parris hasn’t hit the same heights since returning to English football from France.
The Gunners managed to avoid the kind of disastrous collapse that wrecked the first three months of Manchester City’s season. But, on reflection and in hindsight, their early season form was arguably an overachievement in the extremely challenging circumstances.
Now, the unsettling issue of Vivianne Miedema’s uncertain future is another factor to deal with. The superstar striker has been open about being prepared to walk away if she doesn’t believe that Arsenal can match her ambitions to win the ultimate trophy – the Champions League. Recent results would suggest that the Gunners are still significantly short of challenging in Europe.
The January arrival of Swedish striker Stina Blackstenius, who was a target for Manchester United, is a timely boost in terms of morale and adding squad depth. But arguably even more so is the return of influential figure Leah Williamson, whose two months sidelined with a hamstring injury have more or less perfectly coincided with the decline in results and performances.
Williamson, who captained England in September and October and could land the Lionesses armband full-time ahead of Euro 2022 in summer, felt discomfort after the Spurs game in November and had been out of action until appearing as a substitute on Wednesday night.
The 24-year-old is Arsenal through and through and recently committed to at least another season with the Gunners. That in itself should serve to boost morale and confidence within the squad, while her input on the pitch once back up to full match fitness will also lift performances.
With an away trip to a Manchester City side that have put their early season problems behind them in recent weeks, Williamson’s return could come soon enough for Arsenal.