Following a rare WSL defeat to Chelsea in January, Swiss midfielder Lia Wälti joined up with the Swiss national team for a winter training camp, which included a behind closed doors friendly against Canada. In this game, Wälti felt a sharp pain in her knee. Originally, the prognosis was for a 4-week absence. It took nearly 3 months to fully diagnose the extent of the issue as the freedom refused to return to the knee joint.
In April, the 26-year old underwent surgery on her lateral collateral ligament (LCL). The LCL is a ligament located on the outside of the knee and contributes to lateral knee stability. The injury proved to be a blow for the Gunners, not least because Wälti’s replacement, Dominique Bloodworth, had already agreed to join Wolfsburg for the 2019-20 season.
😎 Staying calm under pressure…
— Barclays FA Women's Super League (@BarclaysFAWSL) December 12, 2018
Despite missing half the season, Wälti was still voted into the PFA Team of the Season, recognition for her outstanding performances at the base of the Arsenal midfield. Wälti has a sixth sense for both reading and setting the tempo of a game from the defensive midfield position. She is very precise in her passing with her left or right foot, meaning she can twist and turn away from pressure. Her days of ice skating as a child in Switzerland have given her a nimbleness that enables her to change direction quickly. It’s no wonder that some of her teammates call her ‘snake hips.’
— Katie McCabe (@Katie_McCabe11) September 12, 2019
Gunners boss Joe Montemurro took charge of his first Arsenal game in December 2017, by February 2018 he had agreed a deal to take the Swiss international to Arsenal. So what did he see in Wälti that convinced him that her attributes would be so suited to Arsenal? “Her positional play is second to none, she is always in a position for us to build play, but to build it in a proactive way. It’s not just about keeping the ball in the defensive third, we want to move it into attacking areas.
“Lia knows that when we build, we always want to break a line, so her repetitive positioning was the first thing I saw. Then it’s her choice of pass and her choice of pass is always fantastic. Those are the two things that struck me first.” Notoriously, Joe has a ‘different strokes for different folks’ approach to tactics, tweaking formations according to the weaknesses of the opposition.
Arsenal’s style is very reliant on enterprising full-backs and Montemurro explains that Wälti’s defensive instincts are well suited to plugging gaps, “If we play a back 3, she can protect, but if we have a defender bringing the ball forward, she can drop back into the line of 4 comfortably. Her positioning is very strong in the attacking and the defensive sense.”
As a player, Montemurro himself was a deep lying midfielder, but he refutes any comparisons, “Lia is a lot more mobile and a lot smarter than I was!” Joe retorts. “Maybe I identify with her in passing, I had good choices of pass on my day. But she’s a special player and an amazing girl to have in the group. She’s so selfless and wants the team to do well, she’s very popular here.”
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) September 15, 2019
Her mix of defensive and technical qualities make her ideal for the position. A few weeks ago I described Jordan Nobbs as Arsenal’s beating heart, Lia Wälti is Arsenal’s umbilical cord, its most obvious link between defence and attack. Her ability to master transitions and manipulate the tempo of the game are obvious for all to see. Lia lists knitting as one of her hobbies and she certainly knits Arsenal’s game together.
Defensive midfield is usually an underappreciated, subtle position. That Lia was voted into the PFA Team of the Season despite missing half of the campaign through injury shows that her fellow professionals were quick to recognise her qualities. “These players are the glue of any team,” Joe concludes, “You know that when you defend, she provides balance and cover and she’s always in a position to take the ball when you have it. When we need to break the play and start again, she’s always there to receive and recycle.”
She’s heavily appreciated by her teammates too. Leah Williamson has stepped into her defensive midfield berth on occasion so far this season and Leah says that her (almost) namesake makes a difficult job look easy. “She looks effortless and the way she makes it look so easy can fool you a little bit- I think it fooled me having played that position again recently! It’s quite daunting stepping into her shoes, that’s how good she is.
🗣 “It’s so nice to be back on the pitch after a nine-month injury… I just want to thank everyone who’s supported me during this time!” ♥️@LiaWaelti and @LeahcWilliamson combining once again 😎 pic.twitter.com/iQqAiM4NP8
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) September 22, 2019
“She has great athleticism but she almost doesn’t need it because she just knows how to move around the pitch and where to be. Lia is a really forward-thinking player, in this team we don’t want players playing the ball sideways and backwards all the time. She has that ability to turn in tight spaces and make the team go forwards.
“As a centre-half I love playing with her because I know that if I step forward, she will automatically fill in. Her biggest strengths are the way that she reads the game- she makes lots of interceptions. But once she does, she is always looking to play the ball forward, that’s why she fits in so well at Arsenal.”
Lia has quickly established herself as the finest player in her position in the WSL after a successful five-year stint with Turbine Potsdam in Germany, where she was club captain. Wälti has recently stepped up her recovery from a knee injury with 45 minutes against London City Lionesses on Sunday and her return to full fitness will represent a big boon for the Gunners’ title defence. Arsenal’s glue is about to cement her place in the Arsenal midfield again.