Arsenal were handed a sudden reality check as Birmingham delivered the shock of the season with a 2-0 victory at St Andrews.
The Gunners had been flying in the league prior to yesterday’s game. An outstanding win against Chelsea on the opening weekend of the season kick-started a nine-match unbeaten run, which included decisive victories over Man United and Man City.
New signings such as Mana Iwabuchi and Nikita Parris appeared to have added much-needed depth to the side. Existing players, notably Beth Mead, had rediscovered their best form in years. Plus, recently appointed manager Jonas Eidevall had brought a fresh style and sense of impetus.
Before the Birmingham defeat, Arsenal sat four points clear of Chelsea at the top of the Women’s Super League. It was a buffer that seemed significant. Indeed, even if Arsenal lost the return fixture to Emma Hayes’ side, they could still mathematically remain top should they win all other games.
But this humbling loss has put things back into perspective. The seemingly imperious Arsenal are evidently beatable, the gap is just one point, and the league is far from over.
Are the Gunners still title favourites? While it’s difficult to judge based on one performance alone, losing to a side who had failed to win a game all season before now, is not a good sign.
Birmingham deserve credit, particularly interim manager Darren Carer who has transformed the Midlands-based club into a far more organised and competitive team. Their win yesterday was not down to fortune or favour –– it was richly deserved.
Nonetheless, Arsenal’s showing was unacceptable for a side chasing silverware this season.
Eidevall took full responsibility for the defeat: “There were a number of occasions during the game when we lost the ball at the wrong times and didn’t have a good structure around the ball which meant the counter-attacks hurt us,” he stressed.
“We didn’t play well enough under their pressure, and we didn’t break their low block down well enough, so [I’m] very disappointed with our performance today.”
Absorbing all blame for the defeat was no doubt a tactical ploy from Eidevall and could well prove to be commendable management should this result be a one-off blip.
But recent results show that perhaps the wheels are starting to come off altogether. Arsenal have lost four of their last five games. They were thrashed by Chelsea in the FA Cup final, dismantled by Barcelona in the Champions League and embarrassed by Hoffenheim in Germany.
What’s worse is that those players who had been in fine form, have ostensibly hit rough patches. Mead and Little have both failed to score in nine, while Ballon d’Or nominee Vivianne Miedema has just one in five.
Leah Williamson’s seven-game absence has also contributed to the Gunners downturn in fortune. The centre-back is not only the team’s most vital figure in defence but her composure and ability on the ball adds a lot going forward.
Despite these problems, for Eidevall it’s a case of hanging in there. Williamson’s return is likely not too far away. World-class forwards like Mead and Miedema will almost certainly rediscover their touch and of course, there is no guarantee Chelsea will win every game themselves.
There is still a strong chance of league glory this season. Except, the task has now got a lot harder. The new year has thrown up fresh challenges and how the Gunners respond to these setbacks could define the title race.