Few players in the game combine tenacity and creativity like Danielle van de Donk.
The ability to hassle opponents, press tirelessly, carve out chances and win games for the Gunners makes her indispensable to Joe Montemurro – and she showed it all in a match-winning 20-minute cameo against Manchester United, stealing a late, late 1-0 win for her side.
Arsenal battered Fiorentina midweek in their first Champions League fixture for five years, and the focus was on how they would cope with a short recovery.
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Unanimously tipped as favourites to win the league again this year, the reigning champions went to Leigh on Monday night expected to win too – but a sluggish performance wasn’t the only shock on the night.
Montemurro was able to give all of Vivianne Miedema, Van de Donk and Jill Roord a well-deserved rest with his second-half substitutions, while Jordan Nobbs, coming back from an ACL injury, got 30 minutes under her belt.
No one suspected, then, to see Nobbs’ name among the starting XI in Leigh on Monday night.
It had been 302 days since the 26-year-old’s last start, scoring before being stretchered off in a 4-0 win over Everton, and it seemed like a strange time to conclude the countdown to her next – especially with much kinder fixtures against London City Lionesses, Fiorentina and Brighton coming next.
It was no surprise, however, to see Nobbs replaced with 20 minutes to go by Van de Donk, who shone throughout last season and the summer’s World Cup, helping the Netherlands to the final.
Only Miedema and Beth Mead created more chances for Arsenal than the 28-year-old in the league last season, and it was her presence that was missing as captain Kim Little strived to almost win the game single-handedly on a tough night against newly-promoted United.
With eight of the starting XI having played a full 90 minutes in Florence, there were perhaps signs of a European hangover – a feeling their men’s side know all too well.
Roord struggled to get hold of the game in a deeper midfield role, Nobbs played more like a second striker to leave the Gunners short in midfield, leaving Little in charge of pulling the strings.
It was the skipper’s clever flick to Lisa Evans that almost led to a goal in the first half, when Miedema forced a double save from Mary Earps after connecting well with Evans’ cross.
But other than that moment, Arsenal didn’t look like scoring under Van de Donk was on the pitch, as she was for all four goals against Fiorentina.
United have made no secret of their want to challenge the very best in the league, and they did that tonight.
But Arsenal showed their gritty, title-winning qualities in a win ground out with the perserverence that Van de Donk embodies.
Lia Walti’s return to the Gunners’ midfield is also not far away, with the Swiss international to add some well-needed depth to a team playing in four competitions this year.
“We’ve only had three days to prepare following our Champions League game against Fiorentina, but that’s our reality this season and I’ll make sure we’re ready to go,” Montemurro said before the game .
Their Dutch dynamo saved them tonight, but if this Arsenal side want to succeed on all fronts this season, they’ll need to be better than they were in Leigh.