“I was just captivated,” Tobin Heath tells Sky Sports with a smile. The 33-year-old forward, a two-time World Cup-winner with the United States, is reflecting on how she fell in love with Arsenal as a football-obsessed young girl growing up in New Jersey.
“There were two teams that broke into the landscape of football in the US early and they were United and Arsenal,” Heath says. She has now played for them both following her spell at Manchester United last season. But it has always been Arsenal. “I loved the way they played,” she adds. “I loved everything the club stood for.”
The bedroom walls of her childhood home were adorned with posters of Arsene Wenger’s title-winning sides. At the same time as celebrating their successes, Heath was watching Arsenal Women, in her own words, “pave the way for women’s football in the UK”.
“Arsenal have not only a rich history on the men’s side but also an enormous history on the women’s side,” she says. “It was just a childhood dream come true signing for the club – and I know that’s not always the case as a player.”
Her move to Arsenal, confirmed in early September, sent ripples across the sport. In addition to her World Cups, Heath has won two Olympic gold medals. There have been 181 international appearances and 36 goals. Her club career spans three decades.
She describes her first few months at Arsenal as a “whirlwind”.
“I was joking with the girls today saying that I haven’t even had a full training session,” she says, smiling again. “It’s just been matchday minus one; game; matchday minus one; game.
“It was really good to just jump right into it and now we have a little bit more regularity in terms of me understanding things. It’s always interesting when you first come to a club because they are all the same but they are all very different in the way they work.
This team that I’ve joined is really strong in terms of the quality of the players and I really do believe it’s a team that can compete for the highest honours
“It’s just about figuring out all the differences, getting on the pitch and having those new relationships. So it’s been a whirlwind but it’s been enjoyable.”
The romantic pull of Arsenal was strong – “in the back of my mind, I always thought that towards the end of my career I would actually try to make one last-ditch effort to get here,” she says – but the decision to join them was not just about fulfilling a childhood dream.
“I would never go to a place that didn’t share the same ambitions as me,” she says. “I don’t have that much time in my career, so I’m not really looking to go to a place that’s in the beginning stages.
“This team that I’ve joined is really strong in terms of the quality of the players and I really do believe it’s a team that can compete for the highest honours.”
The manner in which they have started the season bodes well.
Arsenal Women, third-placed finishers in the Women’s Super League last season, now sit three points clear at the top of the table having won five games out of five, scoring 19 goals and only conceding two.
Heath’s debut came in a 5-0 thrashing of last year’s runners-up Manchester City. Her first start came in a 5-1 win over Tottenham in the FA Cup quarter-finals. Arsenal have also beaten champions Chelsea, who they face again in FA Cup final next month.
They have won 12 games out of 13 in all competitions and the scintillating start has been masterminded by new head coach Jonas Eidevall, who outlined his plans for the club in an introductory phone call with Heath before her arrival.
“Immediately, he stood out as somebody who was absolutely passionate about the game, passionate about winning and passionate about taking this football club to another level,” says Heath.
“I think we had shared interests in those things, so I was really eager to get in and just start working with him. I think each day I’ve gotten to understand him a little bit more.
“I’ve been in football for a long time but there are certain aspects of him as a coach that I have been very impressed by. I’ve also seen how he’s transformed this team in a short period of time, and how eager the players are to take that next step with him, so those are good signs for the club.”
He stood out as somebody who was absolutely passionate about the game, passionate about winning and passionate about taking this football club to another level
Heath has been even more impressed by the quality of her new team-mates.
This summer, in addition to Heath, Arsenal added Nikita Parris, Mana Iwabuchi and Frida Maanum to a squad which already contained outstanding performers such as Beth Mead, Kim Little, Katie McCabe and of course Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema, with whom Heath is already building a strong understanding.
“It’s absolutely exciting,” says Heath. “Her and a bunch of the other players here are a big reason why I wanted to come to the club, to play with that type of quality and be around those types of what I call generational talents.
“She’s obviously a special one, with what she has already achieved at such a young age, and I know she will continue that way. It’s been wonderful. She’s obviously a huge part of the success of this team, so any way I can help support her is positive.
“I love teaching, I love giving guidance and little titbits. I’m passionate about the growth of the women’s game and I’m passionate about developing young players. It’s part of football, that growth mindset, and if I can give that to the next generation, it’s only going to make the game better.”
Heath is already making Arsenal better and describes their attacking depth as “incredible”.
Even she, a world-class operator and one of the most decorated players in the women’s game, has had to be patient for starting opportunities this season but she welcomes the competition for places.
“In order for a team to be great, there has to be competition for every single spot, or else you get complacent,” she says. “That’s how I grew up and that’s how it’s always been for me.
“I’ve been fortunate to play in some of the best teams in the world and all of those teams had that competition. I always say, if you’re not growing, you’re dying, and this is a place where you need to be growing every single day in training in order to be chosen for the XI.”
Rotation, she adds, is also a necessary part of the game when you are fighting on multiple fronts.
“We’re playing in a lot of competitions and we want to go really far this season,” says Heath. “Therefore, we understand that we need a team that is not only extremely flexible, but has the quality to be able to put in quality performances in every single game, no matter which players are on the field.”
Arsenal have done succeeded in doing that in every game but one. Amid all the victories with which they have started the season, there was a humbling 4-1 defeat in their opening Champions League group game against European champions Barcelona.
Heath describes the reality check provided by that result as a “blessing” and hopes it will serve the side well.
“It was such a good learning experience for the team and a huge motivation for us to understand that we still need to get to another level in order to really cement our place in that competition and to achieve the things we want,” she says.
“In the WSL, we’ve had some good results, but that can confuse you sometimes about where you’re at and it’s great to have those moments in football where you know you need to get better.
“That was a game that actually really helped the team, which is funny because you would think that a loss like that would hurt. For this team, we need moments like that.”
Arsenal mustered an impressive response in their next Champions League game, winning 4-0 against Hoffenheim, with Heath scoring her first goal for the club, but Sunday’s WSL clash with sixth-placed West Ham is a reminder of the strength of the competition domestically.
“I was aware of the growth of the league,” she says. “I think it was perfect timing for me to come here. You saw a lot of big transfers, players coming back to the WSL, and it’s always a good sign where the best international players are playing.”
Heath hopes her time in the WSL with Arsenal will help her maintain her standing in the United States national team – “there’s no greater honour for me than representing my country,” she says – especially with the 2023 World Cup looming on the horizon.
The tournament, which will be held in Australia and New Zealand, is an opportunity for Heath to win a record third consecutive World Cup. “It’s going to be a very competitive roster to make but I hope there’s still a lot for me to give to the national team and I will always give my best,” she says.
Besides, a little competition for places has never stopped Tobin Heath in the past.