A revitalised Vivianne Miedema and Beth Mead breathed life back into Arsenal’s title challenge in a tough defeat of Brighton. “More people die on the way down than on the way up when they climb Mount Everest because people relax and say, ‘Oh, I did that’,” said Arsenal’s manager, Jonas Eidevall, on whether his side had been feeling the pressure of one win in the seven previous games.
“That was the challenge. Every game is a challenge. I don’t relax. It’s football, it’s hard work. It’s about keeping focus.” Despite the poor run, the Gunners are still top of the WSL and were able to extend their lead to four points here having played a game more than second-placed Chelsea.
Their situation looked like it was about to worsen when Emma Koivisto gave Brighton the lead in the first half but in an energetic start to the second Mead provided an assist for Miedema from a free-kick on the left before scoring from a slightly more central set piece herself.
Arsenal had arrested a three-game losing streak on Sunday, with Tobin Heath’s stoppage-time equaliser ensuring Eidevall’s side took one point away from Manchester City’s Academy Stadium. Heath was rewarded for her heroics with a second WSL start in an Arsenal shirt, having made two substitute appearances since her return from a calf injury.
Also included in the starting lineup, much to the relief of Arsenal fans, was the centre-back Leah Williamson, who went to ground in the first half against City before being substituted at half-time as the Gunners manage her return from a hamstring problem. Full debuts were also handed to the new defensive signings Rafaelle Souza and Laura Wienroither, with the former partnering Williamson after impressing when coming on in her place at the weekend, and the latter at left-back in place of the suspended Katie McCabe, who picked up her fifth yellow card of the season at Manchester City.
Hope Powell’s Brighton were in the midst of a goal drought far worse than Arsenal’s before kick-off. The Seagulls had gone five league games without a goal: their last scorer was Maisie Symonds in the 1-0 defeat of Leicester on 14 November.
In the 15th minute Brighton’s fortunes looked brighter, with Koivisto leaping highest between Wienroither and Miedema. With her back to goal, Koivisto sent a looping header beyond the goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger to give her side the lead. After a bright start to the season Brighton had not won in seven WSL games but were ahead against the league leaders, having also secured a 0-0 draw against Chelsea at Kingsmeadow on Sunday.
“They are strong on set pieces and a good crossing team,” said Eidevall before kick-off. But having predicted the threat Arsenal had failed to deal with it and, despite their dominance in possession, were undone by another smart set piece that would briefly energise their opponents.
Whatever was said in the away dressing room at half-time worked. The Arsenal players emerged with the bit between their teeth and kept Brighton pinned in their own half. In the 55th minute they equalised in style. After being clattered just outside the area by Maya Le Tissier, Mead stepped up and swung a free-kick towards the back post. Williamson missed but it was turned in by the alert Miedema behind her.
Five minutes later the Gunners went ahead via a familiar source. Mead and Miedema stood over the ball for a free-kick outside the box but it was the former who stepped forward, curving her strike beautifully round the wall and into the far corner beyond Megan Walsh in the Brighton goal.
“We won’t always have the ball against the top sides but we did some things really well today,” said Powell. “That competitiveness, fight and spirit is sometimes easier when you’re not expecting to win. Sometimes, you play with a bit of freedom and fun. If we can maintain that desire and passion into the next part of the season I can only be pleased.”
After Sunday’s FA Cup tie against the Championship side London City Lionesses, Arsenal play third-placed Manchester United at home then Chelsea away in what will be a critical seven days for their title challenge.