As Arsenal Women walked across to applaud their travelling supporters after a 5-0 whitewash of champions Chelsea, the Blues were left to reflect on a defeat which was humiliating and comprehensive.
Kingsmeadow had never witnessed such a league drubbing of the women’s team, but manager Emma Hayes and captain-for-the-day Millie Bright know they have to lift the team ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League game against Fiorentina.
Chelsea were lucky to finish with 11 women on the field after Drew Spence, on a short fuse and frustrated by the scoreline, flew into a tackle which would probably have earned a red in the Premier League. Her 150th appearance for the Blues, marked by a framed shirt presentation before the match, was one she’ll try to forget after she had a string of run-ins with Arsenal players.
Gunners captain Jordan Nobbs had difficulty suppressing her anger in immediate post-match interviews, confirming that Kim Little’s ankle had been injured in what she felt was a challenge executed without proper care or consideration for the consequences.
All in all it was a dreadful afternoon for Chelsea Women, played in driving rain which left supporters soaked as well as shellshocked.
The Gunners went ahead in the 21st minute, Little converting a penalty conceded as a result of Jess Carter bringing down Emma Mitchell. The Blues had actually had the best of the opening quarter of an hour, but the warning signs were there for all to see.
Without Maren Mjelde in defence, Chelsea had lined up with a back four of Carter, Bright, Magda Eriksson and Jonna Andersson, but Arsenal’s lightning-fast attacks left the defenders exposed time after time.
Markswoman Vivianne Miedema raced through in the 38th minute to make it 2-0 to Arsenal, her shot deflecting off Eriksson’s outstretched leg to beat Carly Telford for a second time.
Two down at half-time, Chelsea should have pulled one back when Spence sprinted through just after the restart, but put her shot wide. Andersson fired over the bar as the Blues began the second half at the gallop… but a freak goal by Nobbs, sending a high cross towards a team-mate, meant the Gunners found themselves 3-0 up.
“Yeah, it was meant to be a cross,” admitted Nobbs afterwards, but the ball sailed over Telford’s head and into the net. “It was a definite cross, but I’ll take it; as long as they go in, I’ll take it wherever it hits off me and goes in!”
Five minutes later it was 4-0. Telford came out to intercept Beth Mead, but the ball rolled free to Miedema, who pounced to fire into an empty net.
Ali Riley came on for her debut for Chelsea as a sub, but there was no stemming the tide, and Nobbs made it 5-0 with more than 20 minutes remaining.
Captain Bright called a huddle in the centre of the pitch; a players’ pow-wow to decide how best to approach the final quarter of the match. “We just chatted about getting the organisation right,” she said afterwards. “We were not pointing fingers at anyone – it’s a team effort. But we had to try to stay positive.”
Chelsea did steady the ship, but there was no escaping the fact that Arsenal – unbeaten in four league outings and without European distractions – were superior and will almost certainly now go on to lift the WSL trophy at the end of the season.
No other team in the league looks as strong, as disciplined or as full of self-belief. Manager Joe Montemurro bought wisely in the summer and strengthened, while the Blues lost Katie Chapman and Gemma Davison (now enjoying a new lease of life at Reading), and with them a wealth of experience for coping with situations like this.
“We’ve got a lot to reflect on, but we’ve got to pick ourselves up again to go on Wednesday,” said Bright. “It’s tough when you go 2-0 down; we were very exposed, but we stuck together.”
For the Blues’ young army of supporters (2,020 saw the game, despite the appalling weather), this kind of defeat is unfamiliar. Indeed Emma Hayes has to go back more than a dozen years, to her days coaching football at Iona College in New York State in the mid-noughties, to recall a worse thrashing that she has experienced as manager.
“I thought we were dominant up until the [first] goal,” said Hayes. “We stifled them, we suffocated them… and they got their first attack and they got a penalty. At half-time the third goal is important, and – I don’t know – if Jordan Nobbs does that 100 times she won’t score that goal.
“In key moments in the game we haven’t been clinical enough. I’ve had more good games in football than I’ve had bad, and being humbled reminds you you’re alive. As far as I’m concerned this is part of the journey. We’ve gone 25 games here without being beaten. We talk about it like there’s an expectation we should win, but Arsenal have spent a lot of money over a long time and they’re producing the sort of results that we’ve been expecting over the last five or six years.
“They’re in the ascendancy. I’m old enough and wise enough to know you can lose games like this, even as a top team. I don’t expect the dressing room to be happy, but I expect them to analyse and reflect on this. They punished us today.
“The league’s too topsy-turvy to be all over; them having one game a week, they’re in the driving seat for sure, but they’ll have surprise results – they don’t have a lot of depth.”
Of Drew’s temper flare-ups on the pitch, when she had to be held back by colleagues to avoid getting anything worse than a yellow card, Hayes said: “She’s passionate. It’s a big derby game; she cares about it. I don’t want them to boil over with that. I trust her; she was fair in everything she did. We have to just reflect and be calm about this. It’s not the worst thing in the world.”