A hat-trick from Daniëlle van de Donk, with each goal poked in from a corner, and a long-range Kim Little effort showed Arsenal can win ugly as they came from behind twice to take all three points in a 4-3 win against a tough-tackling West Ham.
Arsenal have been the team to watch early in the season. Their attractive attacking football had resulted in 12 goals in two league games – sandwiching a 9-0 defeat of Lewes in the League Cup – and they were yet to concede as they welcomed West Ham to Meadow Park. However, if there was a side confident of breaching the Gunners’ defence, it was West Ham. The east London club are the only side to have done so this season with Brianna Visalli’s goal in their 3-1 defeat on the opening Continental League Cup weekend.
Here Matt Beard’s side looked very much at home against the league leaders and after a fairly even opening exchange took the lead in the ninth minute. A fine cross from Alisha Lehmann on the right was met with a strong header by Kate Longhurst, who had lost her marker.
If Arsenal were rattled by the goal, they did not show it and in two minutes the scores were level as Van de Donk scored her first from an inswinging corner loose in the box.
As Beard shouted instructions from his technical area the Hammers continued to look stronger, though. With Arsenal’s swagger disrupted and the architects Little and Jordan Nobbs forced deeper and deeper, it seemed only a matter of time before West Ham would score a second. This time some calamitous defending was responsible. Applying pressure on a home throw-in they forced Arsenal to play the ball back to Pauline Peyraud-Magnin in goal but she passed the ball to Leanne Kiernan and, though the keeper recovered to parry, Longhurst was following up to fire home the rebound.
It was the wakeup call the hosts needed. Suddenly they began to find pockets of space between West Ham’s midfield and defence and they should have levelled again when confusion in the Hammers defence saw Nobbs pick up the ball on the edge of the box and drive through one-on-one with Becky Spencer. But the former Chelsea keeper spread herself to make an excellent save. Then Little drove across the edge of the box, outwitting the entire West Ham back line, but she was unable to find a clear sight on goal.
Though Arsenal’s slick passing was drawing plaudits – their seventh goal against Yeovil in midweek was the result of a 13-pass move, the longest in the WSL so far – it was nonetheless another set piece that led to the second equaliser just before the break. Another corner fell free in the box and again Van de Donk was there to fire past Spencer.
In the second half the Gunners started to stretch their legs but a defence marshalled by the former Chelsea player Gilly Flaherty was proving equal to Arsenal’s impressive forwards.
Little, finding herself with more and more space, started to command the tempo of the game. She gave Vivianne Miedema, who had been kept quiet in the first half, her first real sight of goal but West Ham bodies flew in front of her shot and the visitors were able to clear.
On the 62nd minute, though, the home team took the lead for the first time. A carbon copy of their first two goals, albeit this time from a corner on the left, saw Van de Donk complete her hat-trick.
Less than 10 minutes later Arsenal were rewarded for their second-half dominance with a goal worthy of it as the captain, Little, struck from 25 yards – her third in the league and sixth in all competitions – to put the game beyond a tiring West Ham.
With 15 minutes still to play Nobbs, released on the left, slid a delightful pass to Miedema but again Spencer made herself big enough to put off the forward and claim a tame shot.
Arsenal were given a late scare as Claire Rafferty curled in a free-kick from an acute angle to reduce the deficit to one but they saw out their third win in three and sent out a message of their resilience to the rest of the league.