When Tottenham welcome Arsenal to the Hive on Saturday it would be easy to expect another walk in the park for the league leaders. The Gunners have an impressive record against their north London rivals, having beaten them on the three occasions the teams have met in the Women’s Super League, with an aggregate score of 11-1.
In the opening fixture of Women’s Football Weekend, Arsenal are still firm favourites as the only team yet to drop a point after six games. However, Tottenham’s impressive form has caught the eye. Spurs sit third, five points behind their opponents, and under the former England assistant coach Rehanne Skinner have been turned into a team that know how to utilise the sum of their parts.
“They’re a well-organised team that are consistent in the way they perform and in what they do,” said Arsenal’s manager, Jonas Eidevall, before reflecting on Tottenham’s 1-1 draw at home to Manchester United last Sunday. “You could see in the game against United, they kept believing, they kept doing the same things over and over again. And that’s usually a very good way to take points or win football matches. They have a clear identity and players who believe in it.”
Skinner arrived after the sacking of the widely respected management duo of Karen Hills and Juan Carlos Amoros, who had guided the team into the top flight. There was a feeling that the club were short-sighted, putting short-term gain ahead of the patient work that had allowed the side to climb steadily up the leagues. The recruitment of the US superstar Alex Morgan, making her return after pregnancy with her daughter Charlie, at the start of last season added to a feeling that Spurs wanted to accelerate the pace of their drive to the top.
However, with Morgan returned to the NWSL and Skinner in the door, that has changed. There was smart recruitment over shiny big-name signings. Players with WSL experience and young talent such as Asmita Ale and Eleanor Heeps were added. The squad was balanced.
A win over Manchester City in their second game and the draw with United speak to the growth under a manager approaching her first anniversary at the club. Breaking the grip of City, Chelsea and Arsenal on the top three spots will not be easy. United went closest last term and Everton have overhauled their squad in an attempt to challenge. But when trying to compete with such long-established clubs upheaval is not necessarily advantageous.
“It takes time to build a squad,” Skinner says. “It takes you time to make sure you understand what the direction of travel is of the league, because it’s not just about the players here and now – you’re trying to build for the way that the game is going to actually change.
“In the year where we had a lot of Americans coming into the league, for example, the expectation probably wasn’t that they were going to influence the league as much as they did. Sometimes you end up playing a bit of catch-up, but we’re just trying to make sure that we set our stall out for what we want to try and be about as a team, and how we feel that’s going to build us into games and build us into this league.”
What matters is time, but patience is in increasingly short supply. Clubs want to see a return on investments, whether that return be financial or sporting. With more and more teams investing to break through into the top three, measuring success on the basis of league position becomes increasingly hard.
“We’re not under any illusions that [getting into the top three] is going to happen overnight,” Skinner says. “Those top three have been in this game and in this league for a long, long time and it’s a building process. We obviously all want to try and bridge the gap as fast as possible but it is going to take time.”
How then does the manager and do the players manage their expectations and those of fans and directors? “I think the biggest, most important thing for us is our honesty and openness around where we are and what we’re trying to achieve,” says Skinner. “Hopefully the fans can see that there’s been progress and be on board with the fact that you don’t get that overnight. It’s really difficult.
“If we’re making statements that we can’t live up to, that creates a challenge. But we’re being really open about the fact that this is a journey. Hopefully if we can keep evolving what that experience is like for our fans, there’s enough within there that they can see there’s progress and they want to back us and they want to support us for the longer term.”