Why did things not work out for USWNT star Tobin Heath at Arsenal?

Tobin Heath Arsenal Women 2021-22Getty

Arsenal head coach Jonas Eidevall described Tobin Heath as a "points player" upon the USWNT star's arrival at the club.

“She wins you points and makes the difference in games at the highest level,” he said.

With Heath a childhood supporter of the Gunners, it was a dream move but, as it transpired, injuries wouldn’t let her be the player Eidevall described. On Thursday, her premature departure was announced.

After making her debut in a 5-0 win over Manchester City in late September, niggling muscle injuries meant the 33-year-old would only play 17 of Arsenal’s next 32 games. She didn’t play 90 minutes once and scored three goals. As for points those goals won the club? Just the one.

Though surely a relief for Arsenal’s opponents, it was a shame for any neutral watching the WSL that a player with such quality was not on show much. This is someone who has won two NWSL Championships, two World Cup titles and two Olympic gold medals, all while being one of the best players in the world.

However, it was fitting that the single point her goals won for Arsenal could be one that makes a huge difference when the title race does come to its conclusion.

The Gunners were away at Manchester City and the game was deep into stoppage time, with the hosts 1-0 up. That was until the ball kindly found its way to Heath on the left-hand side of the box and she arrowed it through a sea of City defenders, into the bottom corner, to seal a point in a controversial finish.

The contrast in emotions as the net rippled was a sight to behold. Lucy Bronze, City’s well-decorated right-back, threw herself to the floor as Arsenal striker Stina Blackstenius threw her arms in the air.

It’s not just big moments like that which Arsenal will miss from Heath. It’s what she brings to the team off the pitch that was equally huge. To lose that as the title race is coming to a head is a blow.

An insight into just what that is like was offered after the Gunners fell behind against Brighton in January, but came back to win 2-1.

“From the whole team it was an impressive second half,” Eidevall said. “It’s not easy but we have great players for it. It’s great to have a player like Tobin Heath who said in the dressing room at half-time: ‘Remember that it’s better when it’s hard.’ That gave us perspective.”

What so many of Arsenal’s young forwards will have learned from having Heath as a team-mate will have been crucial. What the defenders will have learned, too, coming up against a player of her quality in training, will have been as big.

“I think there are a lot of reasons that it has worked out that way so far, if you look at the injuries she picked up at unfortunate timings,” Eidevall said just last month, reflecting on a difficult season for Heath.

“We haven’t been able to quite get her over them well enough to complete 90 minutes yet. It wasn’t part of the plan when we brought her in, and I would have loved to see her play 90 minutes more often in this team because she is a great player with really great qualities.”

Upon her arrival at Arsenal, it was known that this wasn’t a signing that was going to shape the club’s new era under a new manager. Heath’s contract length wasn’t initially disclosed, but, in his first press conference after her arrival, Eidevall said that her stay would be “more short-term than long-term”.

However, it’s disappointing that things worked out how they did, given Heath’s obvious world-class ability, big experience and genuine passion for the club.

“Although I’m disappointed that my time at Arsenal has come to an early end, I have loved every minute of my time here,” she said on Thursday. “I would like to thank everyone at the club who has made me feel so welcome. Arsenal is a special club and this is a special group of players.

Tobin Heath quote PS 1:1Getty/GOAL

“I have no doubt that they are bound for success in the near future and I’ll be supporting the team with the rest of the Arsenal family from now on.”

Uncertainty surrounds Heath’s next move. Racing Louisville, the NWSL’s 2021 expansion team, took her rights from the Portland Thorns during the 2020/21 season, when she was shining in the WSL with Manchester United before injury cruelly cut things short again.

But a first-ever collective bargaining agreement in the United States’ top-flight has given players in the league more control over their movement. Should she choose a club in her home country for the next chapter of her career, it appears it would not have to be Louisville.

While the winger thinks about that, Arsenal will be looking to ensure this isn’t the last contact they have with her. The Gunners are one point behind league leaders Chelsea and need to be perfect in their final three games while hoping the Blues slip up, in order to take the title.

But should they be able to send Heath a winners’ medal come the end of May, her goal in Manchester on that cold January evening will have been as crucial as any.