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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Arsenal’s Leah Williamson was unused against Liverpool, but her recovery progression continues

Leah Williamson is both eager and patient.

The 26-year-old defender was the first outfield player to emerge from the tunnel at Prenton Park for Arsenal’s warm-up ahead of their 2-0 win over Liverpool in the Women’s Super League (WSL) on Sunday. Arsenal fans, packed into the Cowshed stand, applauded Williamson as she ran towards them. Later, as the team was read out, her teammates Katie McCabe and Alessia Russo received rousing applause, but it was Williamson’s name, listed among the substitutes, that had the crowd reaching its loudest decibels.

Four days earlier, the England captain had made her return to action after 280 days out due to an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury that she suffered in April. Williamson’s half an hour run out at Reading in the Conti Cup was a reward for her patience and hard work. The assist the ball-playing centre-back picked out for teammate Beth Mead in that 6-0 cup rout was a bonus.

Mead, who made her own comeback from an ACL injury this season, warmed up with Williamson in Merseyside. Tricks, flicks and no-look passes pleased home supporters and a sold-out away end.

England manager Sarina Wiegman, fresh from her 2027 contract extension earlier this month, was also there to witness what many hoped would be Williamson’s second appearance in four days. She watched from the boardroom as Williamson worked her way out of Arsenal rondos as quickly as she entered them. When it was time for shooting practice, Williamson spewed the first shot wide. But she shook off any remaining rust in her next efforts, each strike celebrated. As kick off approached, Williamson sprinted off the pitch as though she was in a rush to get back on it.

She was among the first Arsenal substitutes to stretch their legs once the game was underway. In these moments it is easy to gauge what she means to Arsenal fans. But as the European Championship-winning captain, her stardom is far reaching. Even Liverpool fans called her name, waving to her whenever she appeared from the dugout.

Liverpool midfielder Missy Bo Kearns, who plays for England under-23s, was delighted to spend a few minutes chatting to Williamson as they both warmed up. Williamson seems to understand what her time means to other people, and she is generous with it.

Leah Williamson signs a shirt for a fan following the WSL match between Liverpool and Arsenal. (Photo by Alex Burstow, Getty Images)

Despite the cheers, Williamson remained an unused substitute on Sunday. Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall used all five substitutes and explained why Williamson was not among them.

“You always have a plan (for returning players). Leah was available to play but not for many minutes,” he said. “Sometimes that opportunity comes when we can use that (plan) and sometimes like today I felt we needed other things to manage the game.

“It is not going to be anything that hinders her from her progression. Now, she has the opportunity for a great training week ahead of her and competing for minutes against West Ham.”

From the bench, Williamson celebrated Vivianne Miedema’s ripping finish on the hour mark. The strike was Miedema’s first goal for Arsenal since December 2022, having returned from an ACL injury in October. The Netherlands international knows the perseverance needed to make that comeback, which is why Miedema wants any pressure or expectations being placed upon Williamson to be lowered as she works her way to full match fitness.

“We all know what Leah can bring to the team,” Miedema said. “We all know she’s probably one of the best – if not the best – centre-backs on the ball in the world, which is going to help us improve going forward massively.

“But I also think, and we’re all really bad for it, but we need to give her time. We need to not push her. We need to give her the right time to actually come back into the team so that (injury) is not going to happen again.”

After Arsenal’s post-match huddle, Williamson joined the other unused substitutes in running lengths of the pitch. When she got to each side she was met by adoring fans, a theme of the night.

Once she was done she walked over to a group of Arsenal fans and gave away her shirt which she signed before handing over. After a few minutes of taking pictures and signing autographs, Williamson left the pitch. She didn’t need to apologise for not being able to stop for everyone but lifted her hand to ask forgiveness.

Though Williamson did not pick up minutes on Sunday, true to form, she gave plenty away.

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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