Arsenal Women 2023-24: A WSL season review

The Women’s Super League season usually ends with a number of goodbyes, but no season has arguably reached its climax with as many landmark conclusions as this one. The final day of the season featured farewells from Emma Hayes, Fran Kirby, Steph Houghton, and, most pertinently for this piece, Vivianne Miedema.

Arsenal’s decision not to renew her expiring contract whipped up intense emotion among fans, mostly ranging from confusion to disgust. Miedema is the WSL’s record goalscorer, and is beloved by the Arsenal fanbase. The last 18 months of her career were hugely disrupted by an ACL injury, so we haven’t seen the best (or much) of her this season, and as I took my seat in the Mangata Pay UK stadium for Arsenal’s final game of the campaign, an odd feeling pervaded the ground.

The game against Brighton had no implications beyond the 90 minutes, which allowed my mind to oscillate between trying to comprehend why Miedema has been allowed to leave, and why Arsenal’s season was ending in relative disappointment.

Despite achieving the same as the previous campaign (3rd place and Continental Cup winners), the context for this season was markedly different. Last time out, a smaller squad was wrecked by severe injuries. Arsenal were half-football club/half-hospital ward, so to end that season with anything deserved praise. 

However, this season saw them make significant moves in the transfer market. Now with two decent players in most positions, improvement was expected. A title and Champions League challenge was to be taken as read.

So why didn’t that happen? Thinking back over Arsenal’s four WSL defeats, I realised that the Kubler-Ross model was one way to make sense of it all:

October 1, 2023: Denial

The fans turned up to Emirates Stadium in an anticipatory mood for the opening game of the season against Liverpool. Arsenal had already been eliminated from the Champions League qualifiers by Paris FC. But there was mitigation. The early start to the season robbed the team of any pre-season worthy of the name, exacerbated by the late finish to the World Cup.

So the 54,000+ crowd were full of optimism. But Arsenal failed to score in the first half, before the team and crowd were left stunned as Liverpool took the lead. A lead they held onto to beat Arsenal in the WSL for the first time.

But hey, nothing to worry about. Arsenal still had players to return from injury. New signings can take a minute to acclimatise. An early defeat can happen. After all, a year earlier, Liverpool beat Chelsea on the season’s opening weekend. Just a minor setback.

Why? That seemed the prominent reaction from Arsenal fans, and the wider football commentariat. Why would you willingly allow Vivianne Miedema to leave your club? If you were to craft an all-time XI from Arsenal players, much of the team would consist of the quadruple-winning side from 2007, featuring legends like Alex Scott, Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey and Emma Byrne. But no doubt a place would be found for Miedema. Who cares if her and Smith wouldn’t be the most natural front two? You’d trust players as gifted as them to work it out.

December 16, 2023: Depression

Arsenal went to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on a high. Six days earlier, they’d dismantled champions Chelsea 4-1 in probably their best performance of the season. Now level on points at the top, they were looking to go into the winter break with a win over their local rivals—which had been standard practice.

But after a strong start, which failed to produce a goal, Tottenham put together an outstanding back-to-front passing move that opened Arsenal up, and the Gunners were 1-0 down. Despite emptying the bench, Arsenal were all perspiration, no inspiration. The win over Chelsea was for naught. Tottenham won the North London Derby for the first time, and with the mid-season break beckoning, Arsenal had to stew on this crushing loss for the next four weeks.

Arsenal were having consistent problems finding a way to score regularly past teams with deep-set defences. While Miedema seemed an ideal solution, she was either injured, short of match sharpness, or lacking her usual effectiveness when she did play. A perusal of her numbers for the past season shows only two goals and one assist in nine WSL games—which aligns with her overall underlying statistics. The cold facts start to shed potential light on why she won’t be at Arsenal next season.

It’s been thought for a while that Miedema doesn’t easily suit manager Jonas Eidevall’s playing style. So even though, pre-ACL injury, she was a regular in the team, there was an assumption that Eidevall didn’t appreciate her the way the fans—or his predecessor, Joe Montemurro—did.

We’ve heard plenty of incredulity at Arsenal (it’s believed to be a club decision, not just Eidevall’s) moving on from Miedema, with received wisdom declaring her the best player Arsenal have. But her form since returning from injury does beg a question fans may not want to ask themselves. Are we talking in the present tense, or the past? Simply put, is Miedema still capable of the output she produced up to 2022?

This may not be as outrageous as it sounds. ACLs are maddeningly common in women’s football. Miedema’s was especially severe, as she also suffered meniscus damage. The phrase “final action” is a newer one in football’s vernacular, meaning the last pass, shot, or dribble leading to a goal. Miedema is one of the best final action players on the planet. Or should that be “was”? Watching her this season, moments with Miedema that usually led to a goal suddenly weren’t. And her acceleration—an unsung part of her game—was also conspicuous by its absence.

February 4, 2024: Anger

Arsenal’s margin for error was gone. History says if you lose more than twice, you won’t win the WSL. Losing three times and being champions? Never done before (until this season). So Arsenal had to win, and keep winning.

Few thought that playing away to West Ham would be an issue. The Hammers had hovered worryingly close to the relegation zone, so Arsenal came into this as heavy favourites, and started about their business in routine fashion, leading 1-0 at half-time, and probably should have scored more.

But West Ham made a second-half adjustment. Their players pushed higher up, with Katrina Gorry having more influence in midfield. Arsenal failed to react accordingly and delivered a second-half display riddled with carelessness. The concession of a sloppy penalty soon followed up by a goalkeeping error, turning the 1-0 lead into a 2-1 deficit. Despite having over half an hour remaining, Arsenal looked hamstrung by anxiety and panic, playing as if the game was already in stoppage time. Only creating one further chance, which was spurned, they lost to West Ham for the first time in the WSL (noticing a pattern here?).

I mean, what the hell was this? Contrary to common belief, most titles aren’t won from besting your direct rivals, but from beating the teams you should be beating. Routine 2-0 wins against mid-table clubs may not do much for Football Twitter discourse, but they’re the foundation of championship-winning sides.

Arsenal may have handled Chelsea, and also beaten Manchester City. But they’re fool’s gold when you also lose to Liverpool. To Tottenham. To West Ham. Arsenal seemed to be gifting teams a “beat us for the first time ever” present, playing up, or down, to the level of their opposition—the antithesis of what’s required to win a competition that inherently rewards consistency. They had now lost three WSL games. It was only February, and the title was already gone. I was starting to feel about this team the way Logan Roy felt about his children on Succession: “I love you, but you are not serious people.”

Miedema wouldn’t be the first player to lose something from their game due to serious injury. Ada Hegerberg, Christen Press and Alexia Putellas—three of the world’s finest players; two of them Ballon D’Or recipients—also injured their ACL in their peak years. While back playing, both Hegerberg and Alexia are yet to hit the vertiginous levels they had pre-injury. Press, meanwhile, hasn’t played a game in two years.

So while an ACL injury doesn’t have to end a top-level career, the notion that it can denude a footballer is hardly without rationale. Right now, the Miedema question is a great huge unknown. Arsenal can’t know that Miedema’s best years are behind her. Those who find jettisoning her outrageous can’t know that they aren’t. It shouldn’t be ignored that those on #TeamViv may be somewhat influenced by the magnificent football she has produced, but Arsenal are making a projection based on what she will do, not what she has done. However, this huge unknown will eventually have an answer, and in this writer’s opinion, I would have liked to have found the answer out with Miedema in an Arsenal shirt.

March 15, 2024: Bargaining

The title may have gone, but one sign of women’s football coming into line with men’s is the media hype industrial complex. Broadcasters weren’t about to let the narrative of a three-team title race go. Arsenal went to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea, trailing them and Manchester City by three points. Chelsea were beset by injuries, but were in no mood for a repeat of the Emirates Stadium loss.

In a game that will be best remembered for Arsenal bringing the wrong socks to the match, Chelsea tore them apart in a contest that was the inverse of their match in December. In that game, Chelsea barely won a single duel and were opened up easily. This time, Arsenal were bedevilled by the same issues. Chelsea were 3-0 up by half time, eventually winning 3-1 (with Arsenal lucky to get 1), burying the Gunners’ title hopes.

However, these two would face each other one more time. The Continental Cup was the only thing Arsenal could now win. So I could accept this WSL defeat——the idea that Arsenal would beat Chelsea three times in a season had always felt unlikely—as long as Arsenal made amends on March 31.

As to how this decision will be remembered? There is no middle ground. Arsenal have taken a massive gamble. Miedema is still only 27 years old, and her potential revenge tour might not only be damaging for Arsenal’s fortunes, but could make them look exceptionally foolish and hubristic.

And even beyond Miedema, Arsenal have wider concerns if they intend to meet their ambitions and satisfy their fans’ expectations. As far as personnel goes, their squad can match anyone’s in England, so it’s now Eidevall’s obligation to ensure he gets close to the best from them. 

Guardian journalist Jonathan Liew said, “the very essence of sporting greatness is the ability to do the thing that is required, when it is required.” So often when attacking, Arsenal would progress the ball wide, only to demur from playing a probing forward pass. The ball would go backwards to the full back and then to the centre half, allowing the opposition to regain their defensive shape, and the chance to score was lost. Failure to rectify this bad habit will result in another season of underachievement.

Yet, if the team underachieved, it can’t be said that the club did. The women’s team have been ably supported by those in charge at Arsenal. Huge attendances at Emirates Stadium are something normalised where it barely needs mentioning anymore. The burgeoning and voluble fanbase regularly made their voices heard, and not just in home games. They often took a decent number of fans on the road. If you were watching a WSL game and could hear fans chanting, chances are you were hearing Gooners.

Arsenal Women, WSL, Women's Super League, season recap, season review, women's football, Vivianne Miedema, fan culture, Conti Cup, trophies, success
Artwork by Anita Sambol Baniček

One area this particularly stands out is in their serenading of every player. Even youngsters like Vivienne Lia and Michelle Agyemang have their own chants after only a few minutes of game time. Emily Fox arrived in January, and had a song of her own before she’d even kicked a ball for the club.

And of course, we’ll always have the Conti Cup Final. An attritional game that was won in extra time, ensuring Arsenal retained the cup. The shared chorus of “The Angel” sung by fans towards the players, and back again, was a moment of symbiotic communion that all who were there will never forget.

It was a season where the whole didn’t equal the sum of its constituent parts. But those discrete moments were bursting with joy: Russo against Villa; Stina at Molineux; players returning from ACL injuries; Viv’s first goal after injury; fans figuring out the Emily Fox signing; the Cloe Lacasse song; Viv’s second (and final) goal after injury; and knowing that when you go to games, you’ll be surrounded by thousands who care just as much as you.

The season is gone, and sadly so is Miedema. After she gave an emotional goodbye wave to the fans, I left the Mangata Pay UK stadium—possibly for the last time in a while, given recent news— and there was only one thing left for me to feel: acceptance. 

Shane Thomas

Shane Thomas is an increasingly sporadic writer from South London. He will tell anyone who'll listen (and anyone who won't) that he's from the same hometown as Naomi Campbell. He was a contributor to The Women of Jenji Kohan: A Collection of Essays.