Chelsea’s 2021-22 FA WSL season gets started with a bang, as we head to North London to face a reinvigorated Arsenal at The Emirates. To get a sense of how our
friends enemies at The Short Fuse, Aidan Gibson and Aaron Lerner, are feeling ahead of this one, we picked their brains about their new manager, new signings, their weaknesses, and of course, their predictions for Sunday’s clash. Here’s what they had to say...
WAGNH: First things first, what are your feelings on former coach Joe Montemurro’s departure?
Aidan Gibson: It was definitely the right time, things had gotten stale. Credit to him for taking the decision when he didn’t have to.
Aaron Lerner: Absolutely agree. He had a pretty good run - a WSL title, League Cup title, and a handful of runner-ups, but it also feels like his teams might have underachieved just a little bit. He struggled against Chelsea and Manchester City, which is the measuring stick for the WSL. It was time to move on.
WAGNH: Fair enough, so now your thoughts on the new manager Jonas Eidevall? You’ve played a few matches already, has there been a noticeable change in playing style yet?
AG: I’m loving everything so far. He’s saying all the right things. Of course a lot to be determined on the pitch but thus far Arsenal are playing with a higher intensity off the ball and are noticeably more direct.
AL: The higher pressing is a welcome change for me. Arsenal may lack a bit of defensive bite in the midfield, so winning the ball higher up the pitch can cover for that deficiency. And as Aidan said, Arsenal are more direct in their attacks, but they also have more varied attacking patterns, which is in part down to the sheer number of different attacking options Eidevall can deploy.
WAGNH: Arsenal had a fairly busy transfer window; how are Mana Iwabuchi, Nikita Parris and Frida Maanum fitting in?
AG: Mana looks like she’s been at Arsenal her entire life — Eidevall actually spoke about how easy the transition has been because of her intelligence, and the intelligence of her team. Keets (Nikita Parris) has slotted in quite well, and Maanum has the potential to be transformative in midfield. Her power is something Arsenal didn’t have, but she’s got a really nice eye for a pass too.
AL: I love Mana Iwabuchi’s willingness to drive into the box and have a shot if it opens up for her. That willingness is going to open up room for Viv Miedema, Nikita Parris, and whoever else is on the pitch, which will be a nightmare for opposing defenses. And she always seems to make the correct decision with the ball. Nikita Parris has looked great as has Frida Maanum, but Mana has really stood out for me. Of course, the addition of Tobin Heath to the attacking stable has me super excited, and if she’s healthy and fit could have a massive impact.
WAGNH: The best move of the transfer window may have been not losing Viv, do you think this will be her final season with Arsenal, or do you think she’ll stay if the squad obtains silverware?
AG: I don’t think there was ever any real danger of Viv leaving this past summer, but the smart money is on her leaving, unless Arsenal start the season amazingly well, and, like, beat Lyon or something in the Champions League group stage.
AL: I was more concerned that Viv might leave this summer, but I think the coaching change and the attacking additions to take some of the scoring load off her were enough to convince her to stick around for another year. Totally projecting there, by the way, but it seems a reasonable explanation, right? I have no idea whether she will stay, but winning some silverware won’t hurt things!
WAGNH: What one weakness is your biggest worry heading into the season?
AG: Central midfield looks light in numbers, with only one true holding midfielder. The best backup to Lia Wälti is probably Leah Williamson...the starting centre back. Arsenal were vulnerable to crosses last season too. Finally, I would love a left-footed centre back, but those are rare.
AL: Arsenal’s keepers are...fine. They’ll make the saves they are supposed to make, but they’re not going to steal matches for the Gunners.
WAGNH: We love that this match is at The Emirates! Chelsea have played at Stamford Bridge once and we’re hoping for more, but how excited are you for the season opener on a grand stage?
AL: I’m super excited to open the season with a London Derby at the Emirates. It’s a great showcase for the WSL and for two of the top clubs in the league. As we’ve seen with NWSL matches, putting women’s games in bigger stadiums is a good thing. The demand is there!
AG: I’m concerned about the Emirates specifically, just because it is such a massive stadium and the effect of having it only partially filled might not be great—echoes, empty seats, etc. Reports are that just 7,000 tickets have been sold, and he Emirates seats 60,000. Hopefully that number ticks up before kickoff on Sunday, especially now that the word has gone out. I’m not expecting anything close to a capacity crowd, but I’d love to see that get to 10 or 15 thousand. I expect there will be a decent number of day-of walk-ups, too. Where else can you see some of the best players in the world for 10 quid? And however many supporters show up, I’m sure they’ll create a fantastic atmosphere.
WAGNH: Finally, how do you see the match playing out Sunday? Think Arsenal will be sharper than Chelsea having already played non-preseason competition? Score prediction?
AL: We’re going to see some goals on Sunday. There is too much firepower on both teams not to. I would not be surprised by a 3-1, 3-2 scoreline. I’m giving Arsenal a slight edge because those three Champions League qualification matches should have them slightly sharper, although you could question how much sharpening a 4-0, 3-1, and 3-0 can actually manage.
AG: If it goes Arsenal’s way, it will be because the Gunners’ wide attacking talent caused problems running at what I think is the biggest hole in the Chelsea roster—fullback. If Chelsea prevail, it will be because they controlled the midfield, and Arsenal weren’t able to prevent enough of the service to Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder nor get the ball to their own attackers reliably enough. I’ll say 3-2 to Arsenal.
Hmm, those predictions are solid and based on substantive analysis. Let’s prove them wrong, shall we?