Soccer  

Arsenal 2-3 Manchester United: Late show blows the WSL title race wide open

It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.

Few who watched Arsenal’s record 14-game winning run in the Women’s Super League end on Saturday night at the hands of Manchester United will remember the direct, defensive and error-strewn football which made up the first 75 minutes or so.

They will remember the ecstatic celebrations of United manager Marc Skinner, his players and the fans after Millie Turner and Alessia Russo’s late headers.

On the final day of the dry period between the Premier League ending and the World Cup starting, this WSL game provided a conclusion that will stick in the mind for a long time to come.

As Helen Ward said on BBC 5 Live Sports Extra: “What an advert for the game at a time when there’s no Premier League football, two fantastic teams and it blows the title race wide open which is what we all want to see. “

As the dust settles, it becomes clear how right Ward is about the realistic title race expanding from three to four clubs. Manchester United are now part a conversation that has usually been restricted to Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City.

With both Arsenal men and women top of their respective leagues going into this weekend, the buzz around Emirates Stadium pre-match was about the possibility of a unique double this season.

That buzz is now much more of a murmur after a 15th consecutive league win was turned into a first WSL loss of 2022-23 in the space of five minutes, leaving Skinner dancing and pirouetting on the sidelines.

Speaking to Sky Sports, Skinner said: “I asked them before the game to show personality in these bigger games and I’ve had that in abundance tonight so I’m the happiest manager on the planet.

“What we probably lose out on with the other teams is the experience we have, but nights like this give us that. When you become autonomous on the football field and make your own decisions, you become a ruthless team and that is what we saw in the performance tonight.”

There was plenty of focus pre-match on Arsenal’s Lionesses, with Beth Mead, Jordan Nobbs and Lotte Wubben-Moy all starting despite withdrawing from England duty last week.

However it was United’s England players who stole the show – Russo scoring the winner, Katie Zelem providing assists for both late headers, and Ella Toone scoring the opener and running the midfield show.

Russo told Sky Sports: “The result reflects that belief, the moment we’d conceded we came in as a group and we had an honest conversation.

“When we’re on the pitch, especially in front of 40,000 people, we can’t hear what’s coming from the side so we have to take ownership as players and that’s what we did tonight.”

Russo once again showed she was the player for the big occasion and was named player of the match but Skinner also reserved special praise for Toone in his post-match press conference.

“Her ability to find space I’ve always admired. My job is to keep her on her toes, keep her doing what she does better than most in women’s football, finding space. She is mesmeric. She has had a great summer, now I need to manage the next phase.”

United won their opening five WSL games, including three out of three in October earning Skinner the manager of the month award.

However they suffered a 3-1 home defeat to Chelsea a fortnight ago that saw United slip to third in the table, and seemed to indicate they would once again have to settle for being the best of the rest.

This win, and the manner in which they fought for it, suggests otherwise.

Former England midfielder Karen Carney said the victory came down to a change in “mentality” from the United players, who showed they really believed they could win.

“That’s the shift Marc Skinner has wanted in this side. They can do it, he has always believed it – and they needed to show it,” she told Sky Sports.

Arsenal, United and Chelsea on Saturday night all sat level at the top with identical records of six wins and a defeat from their opening seven games.

Chelsea can strike ahead on Sunday if they beat Tottenham, in another game played at the home club’s main stadium – Stamford Bridge.

If that game has anything like the conclusion the 40,064 fans witnessed at Emirates Stadium, it will seal a brilliant weekend of advertisement for the WSL – and whip up further excitement for the title race we have to come.