“It was the elephant in the room the whole week,” says the Arsenal centre-back Lotte Wubben-Moy, thinking back to the buildup to the WSL game against Manchester United. “We all knew the pressure on the game, we all knew what the game meant. No one really outwardly said: ‘If we lose today then we don’t get to the Champions League,’ because you never really want to confront that reality. But, as an Arsenal fan, Arsenal player, I knew how much it meant.”
The Arsenal manager, Joe Montemurro, had teased the press about an injury before Arsenal’s critical game against United in the race for the third Champions League spot and when the teamsheet was released there was despair for fans at the absence of the ever-present, heart-on-her-sleeve defender Leah Williamson.
Without Williamson, responsibility for marshalling the backline fell to her fellow Arsenal fan Wubben-Moy who, on rejoining the club last summer, expected she would spend the season “on the bench twiddling my thumbs watching Arsenal clean sweep everything”.
The experienced Swiss midfielder Lia Wälti stepped back to play next to her, but it was the performance of the 22-year-old Wubben-Moy, leading from the back and scoring to double Arsenal’s lead and quash United hopes of a fightback, that stood out in the 2-0 win. It meant Arsenal closed the gap on United and they have since drawn level with a game in hand.
“I thought: ‘I am going to put everything into this game. I don’t care what happens,’” Wubben-Moy says. “I don’t score often. So when it does finally happen, one, you don’t expect it, and two, you go absolutely mental, like I did. It’s not scripted. It is probably one of the most natural things in the most unnatural way.”
Despite Williamson’s absence and longer-term injuries to Jen Beattie and Viki Schnaderbeck leaving Arsenal short, they kept clean sheets in their three games in March. Williamson was out for two of them but Arsenal did not suffer and a big reason for that was Wubben-Moy, named the Barclays WSL player of the month as a result.
“I would prefer not to score because it’s a sign that maybe we’re not getting as many chances up top,” she says. “So for me those clean sheets mean so much more, knowing that you’ve been able to nullify the attack and, as a result, put the forwards, the strikers, in the best possible situation to then go and score.”
Williamson and Wubben-Moy, both Arsenal fans, both ball-playing centre-backs and with two years between them, are in many ways very similar but their journeys have been very different. Whereas Williamson recently passed 100 appearances for the club, Wubben-Moy took the “extremely hard” decision to leave in 2017, after 13 appearances, to play at the University of North Carolina under the influential Anson Dorrance, architect of the first US World Cup win in 1991 and of the fabled “winning mentality” that is the beating heart of the team today.
“Particularly for young players it’s a danger when you look at other players and try to compare,” Wubben-Moy says when asked whether she looked from the US at Williamson’s rise at Arsenal and had concerns about her choice. “I see it so often, that you count yourself out before you’ve even got into the race. And, at that point, when I was watching Leah, I hadn’t even started the race yet and she was well ahead of me. It’s not a case of I’m trying to catch her but it’s a case of I want to push her to be better and she’s going to push me to be better.”
It would be naive to assume that leaving the professional game to play in the US college system, particularly under Dorrance, was a step down. “It is the pinnacle of competition,” says Wubben-Moy. “It is just relentless. I feel lucky that I was able to play under him and learn from him and develop my mindset. I wouldn’t say it’s the same as his, but there’s a lot of similarities.”
It takes a special player to thrive at UNC. In Dorrance’s “competitive cauldron” every bit of a player’s performance is analysed and the players’ rankings are posted on a public bulletin board each week. “It doesn’t suit everyone and it is brutal, as in the numbers don’t lie,” Wubben-Moy says. “But while so much of the game today is dictated by stats the bottom line is still whoever scores more goals, whoever’s better on the day, whoever’s feeling more confident, that’s who wins.
“So while the ‘competitive cauldron’ is a masterpiece in itself, there are also so many other components. As a player, I would try not to beat myself up about it if maybe I had lost 50% of my one v ones, because, all right, one, that’s not a good thing, but, two, if you beat yourself up about it, then maybe next time you’re going to lose 75% of them.
“It also taught me the value of mindset and positivity and teamwork. There’s only going to be so many winners but if as a team you can lift each other up while being competitive and go from saying, ‘Ah, I could be better there’ to looking at your mate and saying, ‘She’s gonna help me get there’, I think that’s next level.”
Although she lives and breathes Arsenal (her earliest memory is her aunt buying her “the gold JVC shirt, with the old badge. It was such a sweet shirt. I’d rock that today if I could”) there is more to Wubben-Moy than football. Born in Bow, she has her own blog and majored in sport and exercise science but minored in art history.
“Random, right?” she says. “My mum’s a fashion designer, my dad’s a furniture designer and my sister’s a graphic designer. I’ve got a little bit of their artistic juices in me but I’m definitely the odd one out. It’s nice to be open-minded and have different things going on, different components. It’s obviously not a Banksy or anything but football is an art in itself. I like creating, I just do it on the pitch.”