How can Arsenal replace the injured Victoria Pelova?

After a stellar start to her Arsenal career, midfielder Victoria Pelova became “undroppable” for manager Jonas Eidevall and, just 18 months after making the switch from Ajax, the 25-year-old was regular starter for both club and country. However, while on international duty with Netherlands this week, Pelova suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury in a 1-1 draw with Finland in Tampere and the Gunners now have a decision to make with the Women’s Super League (WSL) transfer window opening on June 24.

Since September 2022, Arsenal have had seven ACL ruptures across six players (Teyah Goldie suffered the injury twice), and Pelova is now likely to miss most of the 2024-25 season. In fact, it will be a race against time for her to return to the pitch in time for Euro 2025 in Switzerland in July.

But why did it happen and what do the club do now?

The Australia trip

Sadly, ACL injuries have been prevalent in the women’s game for a long time and can happen for a number of reasons, but Arsenal’s postseason trip to Australia is probably a contributing factor in this one. The week after the season ended, the Gunners played a friendly in Melbourne against the Australian A-League Allstars. It was a controversial decision that gained a hefty amount of backlash online, with fans not seeing the need to send players to the other side of the world a week before a series of key Euro 2025 qualifying games.

In February 2024, then-Chelsea manager Emma Hayes said she believed there was a connection between travelling and ACL injuries after Blues’ striker Mia Fishel suffered the injury just after travelling for international duty with the United States.

“It’s not as simple as saying that different teams have a different training load or travelling schedule, or recoveries, etc. We need to really reflect on what we do,” Hayes said. “If you want to do a piece of research, go back through all those major injuries and how quickly they coincided with big changes, combined with menstrual stuff, training, pitches etc. That’s just my opinion. There’s a lot of work still to do.”

Arsenal’s Beth Mead said something similar after suffering an ACL injury a month before teammate Vivianne Miedema. The pair created a documentary called “Step-by-Step” with the club to shed light on the troublesome injury.

“It’s funny how much knowledge you actually get throughout [ACL injury recovery],” Mead said in the film. “I saw Emma Hayes’ interview and I thought it was interesting what she said about the 10 days between swapping from club and country. Mine was actually in that period. I’d just come back from England and transferred to club that weekend. I do believe the stress, mental components and the scheduling are big, big factors that affect this injury.”

It seems to be a similar situation with Pelova’s injury. The WSL season ended on May 18 and, several days later, the selected Arsenal squad flew to Australia to play on Friday, May 24 before returning to England that weekend. Within two days, some of the players were back with their national teams and in training to prepare for the Euro 2025 qualifying games the following Friday on May 31 — just a week after they were 10,000 miles away.

Factor in jetlag and fatigue after a strenuous season, combined with hefty travel and limited rest between games, and it is a high-risk situation for any player.

How important is she?

Pelova signed for Arsenal in January 2023 amid an injury crisis, forcing her to adjust quickly and use her versatility to the maximum — playing as a winger, before switching to central midfield. In the first few league games of last season, she was used off the bench as an attacking midfielder. And, after impressing, she earned a regular starting spot in all competitions and mainly played deeper in a 4-2-1-3 with veteran Lia Wälti and new arrival Kyra Cooney-Cross in a double pivot, with Kim Little and Frida Maanum as No.10s.

Despite being a right-back for Netherlands, Pelova is a creative force for her club and topped Arsenal’s assists list in WSL this season with five, while she was in the 97th percentile for attacking touches in the opposition box, created 30 chances and had an 81.8% pass success rate.

The 25-year-old is just reaching her prime and registered the second-most minutes in all competitions this season (only behind summer signing Alessia Russo), making 20 starts from 22 WSL games to show just how crucial she has been to Eidevall.

Who could replace her?

Arsenal have several other midfield options. Denmark international Katherine Kühl was signed at the same time as Pelova but spent the latter part of last season on loan at Everton and, having gained valuable experience, the 20-year-old will likely return to the club.

Cooney-Cross will also be key. She signed for Arsenal for a reported fee of around £300,000 last summer and proved a valuable defensive asset, working in tandem with Pelova in a double pivot after Wälti suffered an ankle injury.

Meanwhile, Maanum had a similar story to Pelova last year, as the Norway midfielder worked her way into the team and took her chance amid the injury crisis to win a regular starting spot. Yet, the 26-year-old fell out of favour under Eidevall as a starter for some time, leading to speculation over whether she could leave. Sources told ESPN that there was interest from several clubs in January, and that could be revisited with the summer window opening imminently.

Arsenal also have another midfield hole to fill as the WSL’s all-time top goal scorer Miedema revealed last month that she would not stay past the expiry of her contract this summer. ESPN sources said that Manchester City are leading the race to sign her but the return of Kühl — while nowhere near a like-for-like switch — should help cover them here.

Do Arsenal need a new signing this summer?

Unless Arsenal accept an offer for Maanum, it is unlikely they will go in search of a new midfielder. With five options already — Little, Wälti, Kühl, Cooney-Cross and Maanum — and players like Russo able to drop into an attacking midfield position when required, they do not need to panic and sign a new player.

Kühl and Cooney-Cross were brought in by Eidevall with a plan and his trust in them to fill the void is essential. Throwing money at a short-term replacement may also add friction to the dressing room. The club could look to integrate one of their academy graduates — such as Maddy Earl or Vivienne Lia — into the fold, but a loan spell would likely be the favoured option here.

In the current market it would be almost impossible to find a replacement who offers the same calibre of footwork, vision, versatility, and physicality as Pelova. But Arsenal will be wary that, as we’ve seen with Miedema, players can struggle to return from such a significant injury at the same level, so potentially dipping into the transfer kitty in the future can’t be ruled out.