July 27, 2022

A hard lesson for Arsenal, maybe even some kind of reckoning. The defeat at Hoffenheim could be seen as an aberration and their humiliation by Barcelona excused by the sheer class of the opposition. But on a freezing night in Lower Saxony, there was no escaping the cold reality that Arsenal – and by extension, the English club game as a whole – are still far from where they need to be. .

Jill Roord and an own goal from Leah Williamson propelled Wolfsburg to the semi-finals of the Champions League. In truth, they dominated without even being at their best. Admittedly, they will have to step their game up several notches to confuse the brilliant Barcelona Femení in the last four. But their quick, enterprising, and tough play was more than enough here, a reinforcement of the old truth that a team with a plan will usually beat a team without none.

Maybe it looks a little harsh from Jonas Eidevall’s side, missing Beth Mead and Lia Wälti through injury, but there were long stretches here where Arsenal seemed to have very little idea of ​​how to progress the ball , how to convert possession into chances, how to penetrate a level of organization they have so rarely faced in the Women’s Super League. In part, Arsenal didn’t have answers because they are so rarely forced to find them.

The WSL is a fine product that has made supreme progress, but it remains a league in the grip of the quality of individual stars, where the art of team building remains – with very few exceptions – largely neglected. . To take an example: how did an Arsenal resource club manage to arrive at this crucial stage of the season without any idea of ​​their best midfielder?

The lack of imagination here was collective, and in a game that was essentially the opposite of the first leg at the Emirates Stadium – Wolfsburg racing, Arsenal forced to soak up the pressure – their inexperience at this level was telling.

But you really only learn those lessons by living them, and Arsenal will be better for that experience. They will learn from Wolfsburg’s superior game management, how they work with officials, how they invariably come out 50-50 with a free kick.

They will also learn from the scene: the still vertiginous novelty of the great European days outside, the tyranny of beautiful margins, the importance of starting well.

Mixed emotions at Volkswagen Arena after Leah Williamson's own goal settled the tie.
Mixed emotions at Volkswagen Arena after Leah Williamson’s own goal settled the tie. Photograph: Focke Strangmann/EPA

Even before Roord’s goal, small fires were appearing everywhere. The threat from Svenja Huth on the right flank pulled Steph Catley wide, leaving a big gap in the channel to exploit.

More than once, the brilliant Lena Oberdorf made dangerous runs in this space, while a series of crosses and set pieces created an early wave of pressure.

On a corner in the ninth minute, a rush to the goal and a goal. Oberdorf won the first ball, Sveindís Jónsdóttir pushed it towards goal and despite misdirection Roord managed to lay the ball on with marvelous agility and improvisation against his former club. It never quite worked out for Roord at Arsenal, more for lifestyle reasons than football – a product of being stuck away from home in the middle of a pandemic – but here’s a bittersweet glimpse of what would have could be.

Arsenal had no answer to Roord between the lines, no real counter to Oberdorf in midfield. Stina Blackstenius and Tobin Heath struggled to get into the game, and Heath was then taken off at halftime. Other chances arose: Tabea Wassmuth had a goal ruled out for offside, Manuela Zinsberger saved Huth. Still, the margin remained just one goal and, in the second half, Arsenal slowly started to enter it.

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Perhaps fatigue was a factor for Wolfsburg. It was their eighth game in a month, with Bayern Munich coming on Sunday. And so even as Arsenal’s half chances started to appear like small snowflakes, they seemed happy to be in control without pushing too hard, confident in their ability to finish the game. And with 18 minutes to go, they were right. Again Arsenal failed to clear their lines, Jónsdóttir put in a hopeful cross, Williamson took a foot out and Zinsberger was powerless to stop him.

It was a warm and deserved triumph for Wolfsburg, who over the past decade have shown what you can surpass with a little investment, a little pride and a little care.

The crowd of more than 11,000 at Volkswagen Arena – nearly a tenth of the city’s population – included several members of the men’s team who normally play here, and produced a relentless fiesta of song and drumming, of streamers and confetti, just 24 hours after 91,533 fans packed the Camp Nou. It will be small comfort to Arsenal, but these are incredibly exciting times for women’s football.

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