Arsenal make perfect start to WSL as Beth Mead punishes Brighton’s red card

curtain up As the Women’s Super League season kicked off on a chilly Friday on the fringes of London, the sunlit fields of Wembley felt a long way away. Maybe that was for the best. There are new battles to be fought, new rivalries to fuel and for Arsenal a new campaign that brings with it the familiar hope of finally dethroning Chelsea. Time to get to work.

There was a capacity crowd of 3,238 and a glowing welcome for conquering heroes Beth Mead and Leah Williamson. There was Gunnersaurus posing for photos with his black armband, because after all dinosaurs can feel sadness too. Most importantly, there was a routine win for last season’s runners-up, a result that felt inexorable from the moment Emma Kullberg was sent off in the sixth minute to reduce Brighton to 10 players.

Arsenal worked hard at times, particularly in the opening half hour. But as they settled into the game, following the old patterns and moves, the luxury of a relatively settled summer was in full evidence. Caitlin Foord had a good game on the left wing, Kim Little was instrumental in the centre, Stine Blackstenius is looking good and Mead’s restless hunger earned her two goals in the second half.

The press was strong and new signing Lisa Hurtig made a strong debut, a constant menacing presence on the shoulder of the last defender. Thirty-four shots suggest a certain inefficiency in front of goal. But it was also witness to some good goalkeeping and a Brighton defense who carried their numerical deficit with proud and wounded determination.

In some ways, the red card hindered rather than helped Arsenal in the short term: breaking their early momentum, forcing Brighton to hunker down defensively, reducing the terms of the engagement. Having started with a medium to high line, Brighton quickly retreated with numbers on the edge of their own penalty area, and often even deeper than that. If Foord and Mead had acres of space on the flanks, space in the center was scarcer and for 20 minutes Arsenal moved and fidgeted, as if trying to peel a satsuma with cold hands.

Emma Kullberg has received a red card.
Emma Kullberg is red carded after just six minutes for a foul on Stine Blackstenius. Photograph: John Sibley/Action Images/Reuters

The dismissal itself owes a little to fortune. Kullberg’s challenge, which bundled up Blackstenius on the edge of the penalty area as he raced clean through on goal, was a clear red-card offence. But replays showed Blackstenius was perhaps a fraction offside when he received the ball. Kullberg, a member of Sweden’s Euro 2022 squad, certainly looked unhappy as she left the pitch. Hope Powell switched Brighton to a 4-4-1 and settled in for a long night.

And yet, for a team that has been forced to rebuild over the summer, Powell had organized Brighton well. They held their shape and cleared their lines, and where they couldn’t win possession they were determined to at least slow it down. And Arsenal, for all their forward thrust, just lacked a little zip, switches not quick enough and too many extra touches. In fact, shortly before the opener, Brighton might even have stolen a surprise lead, Elisabeth Terland just deflecting over after a blistering counter-attack and a cross from the impressive Lee Geum-Min.

Almost immediately, Little hit a low shot after some excellent work from Foord down the left, and you could feel Arsenal starting to relax a little. Blackstenius hit the post. Lia Walti stung Megan Walsh’s fingertips with a spark from distance. Vivianne Miedema, who had started as a conventional second striker, began to roam and roam and enter the game.

Blackstenius ended the game four minutes into the second half, finishing high into the net off Mead’s pass. And so what followed was truly a glorified training session for both teams, as Arsenal hit the ball with an eye on the Champions League against Ajax on Tuesday, and Brighton he dropped and slipped in an attempt to exit the game with some dignity.

Which they did, almost. Mead scored a third after latching on to Miedema’s brilliantly disguised cut-back, and a final fourth after weaving his way through a Brighton defence. But for all the running and chasing they had to do Brighton never calmed down. They even managed to hit Arsenal on the counter attack a few times, something Jonas Eidevall will have watched with interest. Job done, at night. But for Arsenal the hard yards have only just begun.

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