Victoria Pelova has become one of the brightest jewels in Arsenal’s star-studded midfield since signing for the club 10 months ago. Having slotted into a dazzling lineup of international calibre players, the 24-year-old is proving instrumental.
Against Leicester, the midfielder played her first full 90 minutes, netting her first of the season, teeing up the forward line in two of the six goals and earning a player of the match nod.
Against Brighton last weekend, Pelova's skill shone, controlling the midfield once again in the absence of veteran star and club captain Kim Little.
"I've been very impressed with her," manager Jonas Eidevall said. "I think our supporters are going to love watching her in an Arsenal shirt."
Now taking stock as a starter, demonstrating her growth and gaining the trust of the boss, Pelova is proving why she has become so important to Arsenal's beating heart.
Natural playmaker instinct
The 24-year-old Pelova has proven herself to be among the WSL's most incisive and astute passers since she joined Arsenal in January 2023.
Her ability to find open spaces and exploit gaps within her opposition's defence is matched by very few in the division and is a highly sought after attribute. She has demonstrated these skills for the Gunners in their most recent fixtures, featuring in all seven WSL matches so far, starting five of those.
She had two early chances against Leicester, who themselves went on to score twice. But in the second half, the Gunners miraculously recovered to score six, with Pelova getting one and assisting two others for her player of the match award.
"Lately, we think she gives the most value to the team when she's playing in a central midfield position, which I also think is her preference to play in. You see her in the game against Leicester for example, it was so enjoyable to see her play," Eidevall said of that performance.
"[It is] so enjoyable to see how comfortable she is with the ball, how she can manage the one-v-one situations, and I think that's a nice example and a role model for younger players to look up to, to see how you can manage those one-v-one situations."
It is her tenacious ability to win the ball back, paired with her clear vision to spot runs and pass into open spaces for players to capitalise on, that was also instrumental in the comeback. The Netherlands international, hailing from Amsterdam, ranks second in the league for goal-creating actions per 90 minutes and joint-first for assists (3).
Against Aston Villa, with her side trailing 1-0 after 92 minutes, substitute Pelova brilliantly chased down and dispossessed Olivia McLoughlin to set off an Arsenal attack high up the pitch, resulting in teeing up the overlapping Katie McCabe, who sparked the 2-1 comeback.
Whilst facing Brighton, it was another high-class performance, with the former Ajax player slipping into a defensive role again, required to step in to make important tackles on the edge of the area. She would have added an assist to her record if the final product was a little more refined.
Gained the trust of the boss
It is clear to see Pelova is thriving at Arsenal so far in 2023/24 in contrast to the lack of continuity and debate over where was best to play the creative midfielder last season. Whilst versatility is a blessing – something Pelova possesses buckets of – it can sometimes be a curse.
"She's game-intelligent, has great technique, is good both on and off the ball, and shows both here but also with the national team that she can play a number of different positions," Eidevall said ahead of facing Brighton.
Pelova featured more as a winger than she did as a central midfielder last campaign. For her national team, she plays as a full-back or wing-back and, this season, has slipped more into a deep-lying defensive midfield role for the Gunners.
Back in May, Eidevall praised the 49-cap international: "You want Pelova on the ball so where you put her in the team has to be in a role where you involve her a lot. How comfortable she is in one-v-one situations and the good weight she has on her passes.
"Then, depending on how we play, if that is from a wider position where she is dropping in and coming more central or whether she is starting from a central position, she can do both."
Six months on - and off the back of an impressive World Cup campaign - Pelova has rapt the fans and proven her worth to Eidevall, consolidating her place.
Kim Little’s natural heir
Pelova has partnered with Arsenal stalwart Little numerous times. But with the skipper absent for the past two matches and her return a question mark, the 24-year-old stepped up to fill the big shoes the skipper leaves, marking a sign of her development and mentality.
Little has racked up close to 300 appearances for the Gunners, scoring more than 160 goals and winning 14 trophies in the process, playing as both a 'number 10' and as a defensive midfielder.
It is the former Scotland international whom fans have commonly relied on to make game-defining contributions, but Pelova is proving that she possesses the same attributes, leaving her as the perfect candidate to follow in the 33-year-old Little's footsteps.
The maturity Pelova showed to bounce back after squandering chances against Leicester to still have a match-defining role is a mark of her development, adding a composed Little-like pressured pick-up in midfield to assist Stina Blackstenius in the fifth goal that afternoon.
But the ability to learn alongside Little, to then step into her shoes when the veteran's retirement eventually comes, provides an optimal path for Arsenal to follow.
"I think it's really beneficial for my development to be training against some of the very best players in the world," Pelova said shortly after signing for the club. "Kim, for example, is so talented technically, but she's also such a physical player, I love her playing style."
Little is the best player Pelova can learn from at this time as she continues her development into one of the most tenacious and incisive midfielders that no doubt will continue to shine for the Gunners.