Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Lia Wälti: Arsenal’s Glue

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.

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.’

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.”

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.

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.

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Thanks for the article it was a great read Tim

Peter Story Teller

Nice one Tim.
Think I prefer the umbilical cord or cement analogy to glue which sounds very messy!
Despite being under the radar Lia has been Joe’s best signing so far IMHO. As Leah says the best players make difficult jobs appear simple and Arsenal are simply a more cohesive unit when Lia plays.

Peter Story Teller

Incidentally Tim, any idea why on the Arsenal website squad page the whole team with the exception of Jordan are resplendent in their Adidas kit while all she gets is a badge instead of a photo?
I thought perhaps because she was in rehab while everyone else had their photo taken but everyone else with a dodgy knee is represented by a recent picture.

Peter Story Teller

Cheers Tim. You would think they would be able to find some kind of photo of her for temporary use.

Chris Humphrey

With you all the way Tim. Despite all the other more obvious candidates Lia got my POTY vote last season. In a perverse sort of way all our injury woes ultimately worked in our title success. Kim went down Katie came up. Jordan went down Dom came up, Mitch down Kat up, Lia down Kim back. Your observation that Lia is Joe’s best signing made me think. Apart from this season’s quartet I believe Joe has only signed six. Lia, Tab, Vikki, Pauline, Kat & Janni (not sure about Jess) so, yes, Lia is a close favourite for his best… Read more »

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