Curtain up. As the Women’s Super League season began on a freezing Friday on the fringes of London, the hazy sunlit pastures of Wembley felt a long way away. Perhaps this was for the best. There are new battles to be fought, new rivalries to nourish, and for Arsenal a new campaign that brings with it the familiar hope of finally deposing Chelsea from their throne. Time to get to work.
There was a capacity crowd of 3,238 and a sparkling welcome for the conquering heroes Beth Mead and Leah Williamson. There was Gunnersaurus posing for photos in his black armband, because after all dinosaurs can feel sadness too. Most importantly there was a routine win for last season’s runners-up, an outcome that felt inexorable from the moment Emma Kullberg was sent off in the sixth minute to reduce Brighton to 10 players.
Arsenal occasionally made hard work of it, particularly in the opening half-hour. But as they settled into the game, grooving the old patterns and movements, the luxury of a relatively settled summer was in full evidence. Caitlin Foord had a good game on the left wing, Kim Little was pivotal in the middle, Stine Blackstenius looks in fine nick and Mead’s restless hunger earned her two second-half goals.
The press was strong and new signing Lisa Hurtig made a strong debut, a constant menacing presence on the shoulder of the last defender. Thirty-four shots suggests a certain inefficiency in front of goal. But it was also testament to some fine goalkeeping, and a Brighton defence that wore its numerical deficit with a proud, wounded resolve.
In a way, the red card hindered rather than helped Arsenal in the short term: breaking their early momentum, forcing Brighton into a defensive crouch, narrowing the terms of engagement. Having begun with a medium to high line, Brighton quickly retreated with numbers to the edge of their own penalty area, and often even deeper than that. If Foord and Mead had acres of room on the flanks, then space in the centre was scarcer and for 20 minutes Arsenal fumbled and fidgeted, as if trying to peel a satsuma with cold hands.
The dismissal itself owed a little to fortune. The challenge from Kullberg, bundling Blackstenius over on the edge of the penalty area as she ran clean through on goal, was a clear red card offence. But replays showed that Blackstenius was perhaps a fraction offside as she received the ball. Certainly Kullberg, a member of Sweden’s Euro 2022 squad, looked disgruntled as she left the pitch. Hope Powell switched Brighton to a 4-4-1 and settled in for a long night.
And yet for a team that has essentially been forced to rebuild itself over the summer, Powell had organised Brighton well. They held their shape and cleared their lines, and where they could not win possession were determined at least to slow it. And Arsenal, for all their forward thrust, lacked just a little zip, the switches not quite quick enough and too many extra touches. Indeed shortly before the opening goal Brighton may even have stolen a shock lead, Elisabeth Terland clipping just wide after a lightning counterattack and a cross from the impressive Lee Geum-Min.
Almost immediately Little slammed in a low shot after excellent work by Foord on the left, and you could sense Arsenal beginning to relax a little. Blackstenius hit the bar. Lia Walti stung the fingertips of Megan Walsh with a sizzler from distance. Vivianne Miedema, who had begun as a conventional second striker, began to roam and rove and come into the game.
Blackstenius finished the contest four minutes into the second half, finishing high into the net after Mead’s pass. And so what followed was really a glorified training session for both teams, as Arsenal knocked the ball around with one eye on the Champions League against Ajax on Tuesday, and Brighton scrapped and slid in an attempt to emerge from the game with some dignity.
Which they did, just about. Mead scored a third after latching on to Miedema’s brilliantly disguised cutback, and a late fourth after weaving through a flagging Brighton defence. But for all the running and chasing they had to do Brighton never really subsided. They even managed to hit Arsenal on the counter a few times, which Jonas Eidevall will have noted with interest. Job done, on the night. But for Arsenal the hard yards have only just begun.