On the ladies

It may not have escaped your notice that Arsenal Ladies have undergone quite a churn of players recently. Steph Houghton, Gilly Flaherty, Ellen White, Gemma Davison, Jennifer Beattie, Kim Little and Katie Chapman – all first team players – have departed in the last six months. On top of this, Faye White and Jayne Ludlow have retired. Scottish youngsters Caroline Weir and Emma Mitchell, experienced England internationals Siobhan Chamberlain and Casey Stoney and Arsenal Ladies’ first ever overseas signing Anouk Hoogendijk have joined, with a few more likely to follow them in the coming weeks.

It seems paradoxical that so many good players would want to leave a team that has dominated women’s football for the best part of the last 20 years. So what on earth is going on? It’s a question I have seen asked, been asked and asked myself a few times over the last month or so, as on a seemingly daily basis, news broke of another established player leaving Arsenal Ladies. I can’t pretend to be privy to any privileged information, but I thought that I would try to explain (and speculate on) this turnover.

The most prominent factor is that the league is more competitive now than it has ever been. The curtain was brought down on Arsenal’s unbroken 9 year streak as top flight champions by Liverpool in 2013. The restructure of the women’s game back in 2011 was designed to make the league more closely contested. Eight teams were elected to the elite Women’s Superleague with the Football Association resolving to concentrate resources into a small band of clubs. This would in turn promote a better spread of talent. The F.A. has contributed £70,000 a year to each of the eight clubs from its Development fund.

A salary cap of sorts was introduced. The rules decreed that each club could only pay 4 of its players in excess of £20,000 a year and squad numbers were also capped at 20 (this was later raised to 23). Even though Arsenal won the WSL in 2011 and 2012, the gap was clearly closing. Score lines of ten and twelve nil were once de rigueur for Arsenal Ladies, but these habitual thrashings were not a common occurrence. Though there was still a clear hierarchy, the league did become more congested. Each club had quality players. Relatively lowly Lincoln City boasted England captain Casey Stoney until Arsenal signed her recently.

With the women’s game becoming more attractive, clubs have begun to invest more money into it. The funding situation in the WSL is complex. In the F.A.’s 2011 restructure document, they outline their desire for clubs to become “small, sustainable businesses in their own right.” Most women’s football clubs operate as franchises, a separate entity from their respective men’s sides. However, there is nothing to stop men’s teams from subsidising their women’s teams.

It’s difficult to unearth how individual clubs are financed though. Last season, Liverpool plunged significant funds into their ladies side, enabling them to train 5 days a week. Most Ladies’ sides (Arsenal included) only train twice a week. Liverpool became professional in all but name, which in turn enabled them to attract top level players. Bristol Academy were able to sign a pair of Spanish forwards- Natalia Pablos and Laura del Rio- and improved markedly as a result, finishing as runners up in both the WSL and the F.A. Cup.

Despite enduring a rather poor season in 2013, Chelsea have invested heavily in their squad, with the capture of a genuinely world class player in Japanese striker Yuki Ogimi last year. Now they boast England internationals Eniola Aluko and, of course, Katie Chapman and Gilly Flaherty. In 2014, the cash piñata has exploded further. The formulation of the two tiered WSL was decided on an ‘election’ basis, with clubs invited to apply. Controversially, long time custodians of the women’s top flight Doncaster Belles were demoted and cash rich Manchester City were elected to the new WSL1.

Much like the men’s team, City haven’t been slow to recruit with their wealth. Renowned internationals Karen Bardsley, Jill Scott, Toni Duggan and Arsenal’s Steph Houghton have all joined their revolution. Notts County Ladies, who have absorbed Lincoln City, have made a couple of marquee signings with the acquisitions of Ellen White and Canadian international Desiree Scott. In short, there’s a lot more money in the women’s game and that leads to greater migration. Club contracts in the women’s game are typically for 1 or 2 years, so transfer fees aren’t always exchanged and when they are, they’re not sizeable.

International players will have a separate contract with their respective association for international matches and any affiliated commercial activities. England internationals can fetch around £16,000 per annum on top of their club contracts. Whilst a wage cap of sorts does exist in the WSL, it is not overly constricting. There is nothing to stop a club paying 4 players over £20k a year as capped by the quota, but then paying the remaining 19 players £19k a year.

At this point, there is no suggestion that Arsenal are cutting costs. Siobhan Chamberlain, Casey Stoney and Anouk Hoogendijk are vastly experienced internationals. Right back Alex Scott also signed a new contract. Scott is comparable to Ashley Cole, in that her spot in the England side and at club level has been undisputed for some years. At 29 years old she is entering her prime, so her terms will not have come cheap. The rumblings from the rumour mill suggest that Arsenal will be making a few more signings of this calibre before the season begins.

Arsenal have ridden the nouveau riche storm in the women’s game before. Fulham Ladies became a professional outfit back in 2000 and dominated for 2 or 3 years until that project became unsustainable. Arsenal have lost elite talent to the United States several times over the last few years too. Typically, Arsenal have waited for other professional outfits to collapse before picking over the wreckage. They acquired Katie Chapman from Fulham in this manner in 2006, whilst Alex Scott, Kelly Smith and Gemma Davison all returned to the club following the collapse of America’s Women’s Professional Soccer League in 2012.

The coaching setup has undergone a big change at Arsenal Ladies in the last 12 months too. Shelley Kerr is the first ever external appointment to the manager’s position at Arsenal Ladies. Previous appointments, Tony Gervaise and Laura Harvey, were promoted from within. Kerr began to make her mark last season with some tactical tinkering. One can only speculate of course, but some of the girls that have left in the last month were playing slightly different roles under Kerr.

Kim Little reverted to a deeper midfield role last season, taking a notable toll on her goal tally, which reduced from eleven in 2012 to three in 2013. That said, Little was always likely to leave for America. The standard of English women’s football has risen over the years, but not fast enough for Little’s talents, which are of world class calibre. Though she told me last year that she didn’t have a preferred position, Steph Houghton was repatriated from midfield to centre half. It will be interesting to see where Manchester City utilise her.

Attacking players want to play through the centre it seems, no matter how impressive their goal tallies are from elsewhere (think Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski). Ellen White was often played on the right of the front three. One suspects that Notts County will play her through the centre. On the contrary, Jordan Nobbs was shifted into a more attacking midfield role and Danielle Carter was given a run of games in the central striker’s role by Shelley. Both have signed new contracts. Where does “play your employee in a position where they can score more goals” figure on Maslow’s pyramid.

Kerr hinted many times last season that the scene was set to change at Arsenal as a direct response to greater competitiveness in the women’s game. Back in October she said, “I think that in England other teams are bridging the gap and we need to move forward. There’s been players at this club for a long, long time and they’ve been very successful. You need to look at the future and perhaps we need to look at rebuilding.”

If Arsenal continue to make the level of signing they have made thus far, then expect them to be very competitive for the big honours in the women’s game for a while yet. They will be bedding a whole new team in next season but given the amount of movement across the league, they’ll hardly be alone in that respect. But the days of Arsenal Ladies walking the treble are probably over for now. Which is of course, very exciting for the wider interests of the women’s game in England. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA






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