Curtain up. As the Women’s Super League season began on a freezing Friday on the outskirts of London, the hazy, sunlit pastures of Wembley felt far away. Maybe this was for the best. There are new games to be fought, new rivalries to nurture and, for Arsenal, a new campaign that brings with it the familiar hope of finally dethroning Chelsea. Time to go to work.
There was a capacity of 3,238 and a glittering welcome for conquering heroes Beth Mead and Leah Williamson. It was Gunnersaurus posing for photos in his black armband, because after all, dinosaurs can feel sadness too. Most importantly, it was a routine victory for last season’s runners-up, a result that felt inexorable from the moment Emma Kullberg was sent off in the sixth minute to reduce Brighton to 10 men.
Arsenal made hard work of it at times, especially in the opening half hour. But when they settled into the game and grooved to the old patterns and moves, the luxury of a relatively settled summer was in full evidence. Caitlin Foord played a good game on the left wing, Kim Little was central in the middle, Stine Blackstenius looks good and Mead’s restless hunger gave her two goals in the second half.
The pressure was strong and new signing Lisa Hurtig made a strong debut, a constant threatening presence on the shoulder of the last defender. Thirty-four shots suggest some ineffectiveness in front of goal. But it was also a testament to fine goalkeeping, and a Brighton defense who faced their numerical deficit with a proud, wounded determination.
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, limiting the terms of engagement. After starting 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 space on the flanks, space in the center was scarcer and for 20 minutes Arsenal fumbled and tumbled, as if trying to peel a satsuma with cold hands.
The dismissal itself owed some fortune. The challenge from Kullberg, gathering Blackstenius over on the edge of the 16-metre box when she ran clean through on goal, was a clear offense with a red card. But replays showed that Blackstenius was perhaps a fraction offside when she received the ball. Kullberg, a member of Sweden’s Euro 2022 squad, certainly looked displeased 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 over the summer, Powell had organized Brighton well. They held their shape and cleared their lines and where they couldn’t win possession they were at least determined to slow it down. And Arsenal, for all their pushing, just lacked a little zip, switches not quite quick enough and too many extra touches. 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 home a low shot after excellent work by Foord on the left, and you could tell Arsenal were beginning to relax a little. Blackstenius hit the crossbar. Lia Walti jabbed Megan Walsh’s fingertips with a hiss from a distance. Vivianne Miedema, who had started as a regular second striker, began to roam and roam and get into the game.
Blackstenius ended the game four minutes into the second half, finishing high into the net after Mead’s pass. And so what followed was truly a glorified training session for both teams, with Arsenal knocking the ball around with one eye on the Champions League against Ajax on Tuesday, and Brighton scraping and sliding in an attempt to get out of the game with some dignity.
Which they did, sort of. Mead scored a third after latching on to Miedema’s brilliantly disguised cut-back, and a late fourth after weaving through a flagging Brighton defence. But for all the running and chasing they had to do, Brighton never slowed down. They even managed to hit Arsenal on the counter a few times, something Jonas Eidevall will have noted with interest. Job done, at night. But for Arsenal, the hard yards have only just begun.