Fiorentina Women’s has drawn one of the more difficult assignments imaginable in Arsenal for the Champions League. Fortunately, we drew one of the easiest assignments in figuring out what to expect from the Gunners, because we got to speak with the Short Fuse’s Aidan Gibson, who gave us the inside scoop.
Viola Nation: It’s been a bit of a rough preseason for Arsenal, but this is obviously a class team, given that they won the league last year. Have there been any notable changes to the roster? Do you think they’ve strengthened that winning side?
Aidan Gibson: The results in friendlies hasn’t been entirely encouraging, but there are mitigating factors: Arsenal had 10 players at the World Cup, with five—Leah Williamson, Beth Mead, Vivianne Miedema, Jill Roord, and Danielle van de Donk—involved all the way through, so pre-season has been a bit disrupted.
In terms of signings, Arsenal acted early: Roord, centre back Jen Beattie, right back Leonie Maier, and goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger were announced before the beginning of the summer. Only Maier is really an addition; Arsenal lost Sari van Veenendaal, who had become second choice, and Dominique Bloodworth, who played centre back and defensive midfield, and it was recently announced that Janni Arnth, who came in during the horrific injury crisis last year, has joined Fiorentina.
I think Arsenal will be better; Roord is an excellent midfield player, and there’s the imminent return of Jordan Nobbs, the influential midfielder who Arsenal have been without since November. It’ll help, too, to have a right back in Leonie Maier, as that’ll allow Lisa Evans to play further up the pitch.
VN: When you think of Arsenal, you think of Arsène Wenger. Did his influence bleed over to the women’s side, or do they have their own distinct style of play? Do you think that, with the new arrivals, they’re going to change anything from last year, or dance with the one what brung them?
AG: Arsenal are largely going to stick with the same approach as last season, I think. Joe Montemurro has his set of general principles that the entire group is familiar with, especially the core players, and then he adjusts based on opposition. The core principles are generally playing out through the passing of Leah Williamson, and Louise Quinn, who is much improved in this arena, and utilizing the attacking nature of the full backs: Lisa Evans is a right-winger, Katrine Veje a left-winger, and Katie McCabe a forward player, but all have played in defence.
Then, it’s about playing quick, sharp passes through midfield, and then getting the wide forwards in behind. There might be some changes if Danielle van de Donk plays a wider role, but she also really added to her goal-scoring capabilities last season so there might not be a huge difference if she plays on the right instead of, say, Katie McCabe.
VN: Everyone knows Vivianne Miedema is one of the world’s best, but are there any other standouts? Any weaknesses in the side (please)? Any matchups that you’re particularly looking forward to?
AG: It’s tough not to name the whole side; as I mentioned earlier, there were 10 players at the World Cup, and that’s with Jordan Nobbs out with an ACL injury, and Katie McCabe’s Ireland not qualifying. After Miedema, the other notable players, though, are Kim Little and Van de Donk; they’re the creative players who make Arsenal tick, especially in the absence of Nobbs. But Leah Williamson has developed into an excellent, well-rounded centre back, and winger Beth Mead led the FA WSL in assists last season.
The only weak link would be in holding midfield; Lia Wälti is excellent, but has been out since January with a knee injury, and Dominique Bloodworth has left. Montemurro has experimented in the position; van de Donk and Roord played as a pivot against Barcelona, Williamson (originally a midfielder) played there in another friendly, and there’s also Viktoria Schnaderbeck, who joined from Bayern last summer, but missed almost the whole season with injury. That’s the area where there’s the most question marks, I think, especially as the cover provided is essential given Arsenal’s attack minded full backs.
VN: It can be tough to set objectives after such a triumphant campaign; what do you think Arsenal’s goals are in the league and in Europe? What will count as a successful season?
AG: I think Arsenal want to win the league again, and re-establish themselves as perennial favourites in the FA WSL. But, it’s also been five years since Arsenal were in the Champions League, so I imagine that the first order of business is to finish in the top 2. I think a league win is possible, but it depends on fitness, and how Arsenal manage the extra games from the Champions League. The squad is slightly larger but still smaller than some of their competitors, like Chelsea. On the whole, I think Arsenal would be satisfied with qualifying for the Champions League and thus finishing at least second, winning one of the cups, and having a deep run in the Champions League—to the quarter-finals, if not more.
VN: Prediction time. Who wins, what are the scores, and what’s the overall run of play?
AG: I’m going to say Arsenal win 4-1 on aggregate; an edgy 1-1 draw in the first leg, before the friendly confines of Meadow Park see Arsenal win 3-0 in the second leg. Goals will come from Viv Miedema, Katie McCabe and Danielle van de Donk.
Thanks so much, Aidan, for helping us out. See you on 12 September!