One hundred and seventy-five days after their previous competitive fixture – a late 2-1 defeat to Chelsea in the Continental Cup final – Arsenal’s Champions League dream was extinguished in San Sebastián on Saturday night by another late 2-1 defeat, this time to Paris Saint-Germain.
Their despondent manager, Joe Montemurro, was left to reflect on PSG’s physical advantage. “They are a powerful team with powerful players, the opportunity to play two or three important games prepared them a little bit better that’s the reality, but I make no excuses for that.”
Montemurro’s side had played some practice matches during August in preparation for this condensed tournament, finishing each of them with a penalty shootout regardless of the result to prepare them for all eventualities. But PSG needed only 90 minutes to overpower their undercooked opponents.
The Coupe de France Féminine played out to its conclusion earlier in the month, with PSG eventually losing a gruelling final to Lyon on penalties. They played their semi-final against Bordeaux on 2 August and the final against Lyon on 9 August.
For Arsenal, this strange situation where the beginning of their campaign is actually the end of the previous one means that their season begins on a sour note with a stinging elimination. Having finished third on points-per-game in the WSL last season, they did not requalify for the Champions League through their league position. Arsenal needed to win the tournament in northern Spain to reappear in the 2020-21 competition.
Save for a 30-minute period in the first half between PSG’s brilliant 14th minute opener from Marie Antoinette Katoto and the half-time interval, Arsenal were distinctly second best in this contest. The difference in match sharpness between the teams was obvious, however Montemurro’s decision to leave star midfielder Jordan Nobbs on the bench raised some eyebrows.
“It was a tactical decision,” Montemurro said. “We decided to play with two out and out wingers, we felt that the area where we could exploit them was through their full-backs and Jordan is more of an internal No 10 type.” The defeat left Arsenal’s record in big games open to question – they have lost twice to Chelsea, once to Manchester City and now to PSG in 2020.
The Arsenal coach saw the upside of finally having near enough a full squad available to him after a pair of injury plagued seasons, “I was ecstatic to have a full squad available tonight – I don’t think that’s happened since I have been here,” he said. However, Montemurro drew criticism for not introducing the energy and purpose of Nobbs and Australian forward Caitlin Foord earlier than the 76th minute when Arsenal legs were visibly tiring.
“In hindsight it was a good opportunity to go for it more but then you get exposed in doing so,” he said. All of which is to say that this is a very unsatisfactory way for Arsenal to begin their season as they are left to lick their wounds. Objectively speaking there is not much to choose between the two teams in terms of quality but on the night Paris Saint-Germain were very worthy winners.
The Arsenal squad flew into San Sebastián on Thursday full of hope for an extended stay; but the adventure finished before it had a chance to get started. Now Montemurro and his players must fight off the spectre of anticlimax as they prepare for the start of their WSL season against Reading on 6 September.
The WSL has an extra place in the Champions League starting from 2021-22, meaning third place will be sufficient to qualify for next season’s competition. Arsenal and Montemurro will want to aim higher and re-establish themselves as England’s premier force. In this surreal campaign where the lines between “this” season and “last” season are blurred, the Gunners need to refocus and shake off this brutal PSG uppercut.