Arsenal ended a wait of nearly three years for a league win against Chelsea in a thrilling 3-2 defeat of their London rivals at the Emirates Stadium.
The Women’s Super League record goalscorer Vivianne Miedema opened the scoring in style and Beth Mead added two for Arsenal after Erin Cuthbert had levelled. A header from Pernille Harder closed the gap but a late surge could not prevent Arsenal from securing a first league win against Chelsea since their 5-0 defeat of the Blues at Kingsmeadow in October 2018.
It was “about time” Arsenal women played a league fixture at the Emirates Stadium, according to Miedema, and while the crowd did not live up to record-breaking numbers seen two seasons ago the mood was good. With 8,705 tickets sold, the dense block of fans were loud.
Arsenal have struggled against Chelsea in recent years, winning only two of the past 15 games between the pair and none of the five most recent games – a late own goal denying them victory in a 1-1 draw at Borehamwood in November last year.
Arsenal are a different force, though. With a new manager in Jonas Eidevall and a clutch of world-class attacking talents added to the squad in Japan’s Mana Iwabuchi, the former Lyon striker Nikita Parris and World Cup winner Tobin Heath of the United States, they are a team intent on not slipping as far behind as they did last season when they finished nine points off top and seven off Manchester City in second place.
Emma Hayes is further into her cycle with her current Chelsea crop and this summer was relatively quiet, with young talent coming in; Aniek Nouwen recruited from PSV before the season ended and Lauren James added from Manchester United. The champions may not have strengthened to the same extent or had the benefit of competitive fixtures before this WSL opener (Arsenal have played three Champions League qualifiers), but they have the advantage of a settled and seasoned squad.
There was, however, some surprise that Hayes did not dip into the market to strengthen her full-back options with Jess Carter and Niamh Charles having struggled in the Champions League final 4-0 defeat by Barcelona and Maren Mjelde still to return from a knee injury.
The decision not to add to the backline looked instantly costly against Arsenal with Carter, playing a part of a back three which looked to compensate for Chelsea’s weaknesses, run ragged by Katie McCabe and Miedema. In the 14th minute the Dutch forward gave Arsenal the lead. She looked to have taken the ball too wide but cut inside, wrong-footing Carter, and sliced a low shot between the near post and a diving Ann-Katrin Berger.
Arsenal should have doubled their lead when the WSL debutant Iwabuchi skied Mead’s cutback but instead Arsenal were punished for their profligacy on the stroke of half-time. A Chelsea corner was played back into the box by the centre-back Millie Bright and eventually reached Cuthbert, unmarked near the back post, and the Scotland forward powered the ball in.
Unperturbed by their late concession, the home team entered the second half with intent and were rewarded. This time Miedema turned provider, playing in Mead through the middle and the forward, forced wide by the Chelsea captain Magda Eriksson, lashed in from a tight angle.
For all their defensive fragility, Chelsea’s forward line is formidable and has the power to compensate. The introduction of the potent duo Fran Kirby and the 2020-21 WSL top scorer Sam Kerr increased their threat up top.
However, Mead – overlooked by Team GB for the Tokyo Olympics – got her second shortly after. Miedema freed Iwabuchi on the right and the Japan forward slipped a curving pass around the defence to the arguably offside Mead who rounded Berger, dummied Cuthbert and rolled the ball in at the far post.
The two-goal cushion did not last, though, and the ball was headed in powerfully by Harder who rose high above Lia Wälti to meet Cuthbert’s cross.
Eidevall revamped his backline as Arsenal rode wave after wave of Chelsea attack as the clock ticked down. In the end, it was enough and Arsenal laid down an early statement in the title race.