Stina Blackstenius was the saviour as Arsenal came from a goal down with 10 players to secure a vital point against Manchester United in the WSL title race. They could have had all three but familiar failings in defence denied them the chance to really put some distance between themselves and their closest challengers, Chelsea.
The Gunners were missing two first-choice defenders in Leah Williamson and Lotte Wubben-Moy, with Jen Beattie and Steph Catley replacing them in a rigid back four. Both found it difficult to stifle United’s interchangeable front three, and it seemed as if the United manager Marc Skinner had planned it that way, with his team set up in a 4-3-2-1. There was an obvious target in all this: Katie McCabe, who was facing Alessia Russo on the left flank.
With the United forwards’ darting runs causing problems on the counter, midfielders Jordan Nobbs and Tobin Heath often had to track back to help McCabe. The combination marking, however, was not enough to prevent Russo popping up to score with a header from Katie Zelem’s corner after 10 minutes to make it 1-0 to the visitors.
Marc Skinner expressed delight at how his captain and Russo had combined for the goal.
“The positioning, concentration, it’s so much more than physical to be in the right places in those moments,” he said. “Coming to Arsenal on the back of the week we had and to do that, it was brilliant.”
Confusion continued to reign in the Arsenal defence and it seemed likely Russo would add to her tally. There was no reprieve in attack either. Though Arsenal were working to create opportunities, United’s high press effectively cut out spaces for their runs.
It took a real moment of magic from Vivianne Miedema to change the pattern. The forward made her trademark run down the middle of the United defence but her fierce shot rattled the bar. It was exactly what Arsenal needed to breathe some life into their attack. Where Heath and Beth Mead had cut lonely figures in what should have been quite an attacking 4-3-3, they were now making frequent runs into the United box.
The response from Jonas Eidevall at the break was to replace Heath with Caitlin Foord. The Australian international provided more stability in the middle, giving Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema more space to operate in. The latter was really coming to life after moving from the centre to the left wing.
Eidevall then shifted from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2. That meant Lia Wälti was back in defence and Kim Little pushed up higher into the attack. The impact was immediate, resulting in one of Arsenal’s best chances of the game. Mead made a swashbuckling run from midfield, delivering a fierce cross that was met by Foord’s left-footed volley, only just parried away by Mary Earps.
United really should have made it 2-0 halfway through the second half when Ella Toone latched on to a stray pass from Nobbs. She was through on goal but uncharacteristically her strike flashed past the post into the side-netting, a miss that would come back to haunt her.
Arsenal’s Katie McCabe was shown a second yellow card for a tackle on Ona Battle. With no substitutions left the only option looked to be to double up in midfield and abandon their high press. In typical Eidevall style Arsenal did the opposite, and the substitute Blackstenius blazed through to slot the ball past Earps, levelling the game against the run of play with 11 minutes remaining.
Both teams held on through seven minutes of added time. Arsenal will be the more disappointed of the sides, both at their defensive failings and at what this might mean for their hold on top spot in the league.
“We had to adjust things,” Eidevall said afterwards. “It was disappointing that we didn’t start the game with better relationships but it was always a part of the plan.”