It wasn't that long ago in the women's game that Arsenal were the dominant force in England, boasting the best squad in the country and the most advantageous opportunities for semi-professional players. Regardless of new up-and-comers arriving, the Gunners were consistent in their ability to deal with any challengers and when it came to domestic silverware and few could deny the only British women's team to win a UEFA title (the UEFA Women's Cup in 2006-07).
The advent of the Women's Super League for the 2011 season saw a restructuring of women's football in England that ultimately put an end to Arsenal's almighty dominance. Although still involved in title fights and cup finals, the Gunners were no longer the only big dog on the block with Chelsea eventually emerging as the challenger with the loudest bark as the game professionalised. It wasn't just the gentle exodus of players to their London rivals after former coach Emma Hayes made the switch to Chelsea and built one of the more potent dynasties in English women's football -- it was the silverware that began to flow to a new home in the capital.
Even as Arsenal began to fade in and out throughout the WSL seasons, buzzing near the top of the table but consistently struggling to make a real fist of a charge for the title, the Gunners were steadfast in their cup performances. Indeed, the seasons when Arsenal failed to pick up a trophy were few and far between with the London club managing to scoop a trophy each year from 1995-1996 until 2019-2020 when they notably lost the league cup final to Chelsea just before the curtailment of the season due to the COVID pandemic.
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Throughout Arsenal's years at, or near, the top of the game in England, they learned an ability to show up in finals with a relentless self-belief that only comes about from chronic success, and that allowed them to carry their past dominance into the modern game.
Coming into Sunday's 2022-23 league cup final -- officially the Continental Tyres League Cup, or Conti Cup for short -- Arsenal were in a sorry state by their own standards. They had lost two key players and vital goal scorers in Vivianne Miedema and Beth Mead, and ever since had been struggling for that killer touch in front of goal against tougher opposition.
Making matters worse, Arsenal had to face Chelsea, of all teams, in the Conti Cup final: the Gunners hadn't beaten Chelsea in their previous five meetings (three losses and two draws), and it was Chelsea who had repeatedly tormented the Gunners in big games. The Blues first dealt their title-bid a blow with a last-gasp equaliser at the Emirates at the start of the year. And a week ago, Chelsea knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup with the Gunners unable to score against their cross-town rivals despite hammering the Chelsea goal repeatedly.
As such, things were looking desperate for the Arsenal heading into Sunday's final: not only was it their first piece of silverware available, but having lost pace on the top of the WSL pack, there was the threat it would be the only piece of silverware available to them at all this season, and there were real doubts about whether they could challenge for it. Those fears became realised when Chelsea striker Sam Kerr powered a header beyond goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger just 98 seconds into Sunday's final.
Instead of retreating into their shells and trying to spring on the counter, however, Arsenal pressed ahead, dominating the ball in search of an equaliser. For all of the meetings between these two teams -- be they league games or cup finals -- Sunday's match began to take on the complexion of the 2020 Conti Cup final when Chelsea claimed the trophy in their first league cup final. On that cold evening in Nottingham, Arsenal had come into the match as underdogs, looking scrappy and off the pace in the league but had bossed the game, the only problem for the Gunners, their unwillingness to strike at Ann-Katrin Berger's goal, which left Chelsea's two goals decisive. But unlike that day at the City Ground, Arsenal found their equaliser in timely fashion at Selhurst Park.
For a player who had been wrestling with her own ability to finish her chances, Arsenal striker Stina Blackstenius found what could be labeled a redemption arc when she sent the ball into the back of the net 14 minutes after Kerr's opener. Far from done, Arsenal continued to attack with the type of chest-puffed-out arrogance you would have expected from the team once claimed the full quadruple (English triple and European honours).
Sophie Lawson reflects on Arsenal's Conti Cup final win over Chelsea and how it might affect the remainder of the WSL season.
Arsenal's vigour paid dividends when Katie McCabe was felled in the box less than ten minutes after their equaliser and Kim Little tucked her penalty away with ease. With the game poised, Arsenal found the cushion they were desperate for when Chelsea's Niamh Charles nodded the ball into her own net as she went up to challenge for a corner with Arsenal's Brazilian centre back, Rafaelle.
With a 3-1 win over Chelsea in the Conti Cup, Arsenal had finally managed to tap into their belief and for the first time in a long time, there was the feeling that their chances would turn into goals. It was Arsenal's sixth time winning the competition, and their first since 2018.
Recently retired defender Gilly Flaherty, who spend her career playing both for Chelsea and Arsenal, once said of her time with the Gunners: "When I came into the Arsenal team at 15, they had already built their history and I was playing alongside players who had already won so much. So I had that winning mentality from when I was young."
Flaherty was speaking ahead of the 2016 FA Cup final when then-holders Chelsea clashed with record-winners Arsenal. On that day, it had been Arsenal who had leant on their sizable final experience to come out on top against a Chelsea team who were only getting stronger. Since then, the Blues had shown their growing killer mentality time and again in the league and in multiple cup finals but with each passing year, Arsenal's seemed to be waning. But Sunday was a return to form for the Gunners.
There is nothing to say the floodgates will open for Arsenal and they'll consistently be able to score over the rest of the season in the league and in Europe, with a two-legged tie against Bayern Munich at the end of the month. But maybe it doesn't matter if the Gunners aren't the very best in the land this season. Because they're still Arsenal and they can still, despite their injuries and whatever else is happening off of the pitch, find a way to loft trophies and give their fans those big breathless days out.