Arsenal ground out a 1-0 win away at Manchester United on Monday evening, thanks to an 89th minute goal from substitute Danielle van de Donk. Tim Stillman was at the game and mulls over the main talking points.
Without Lia Walti, it’s Leah Williamson that makes the play…
One of Arsenal’s biggest tactical issues this season has been Lia Walti’s absence, coupled with the departure of Dominique Bloodworth. It leaves the team without a recognised defensive midfielder and in the opening two games, Joe Montemurro played Leah Williamson in that role. Leah’s combination of physical superiority in duels and her line breaking passes make her the most logical candidate.
For this game, Leah moved back to centre half, with Jill Roord played at the base of the midfield and Jordan Nobbs in the number 10 position, her first start since November. In truth, it was pretty disjointed in the first half, with Leah seeing the majority of the ball and probing for passes between the lines.
Roord is not a natural deep lying playmaker, she prefers to make runs off the ball from an attacking 8 or 10 position. That, allied with a hard pressing, well organised Casey Stoney outfit, meant that the passing lanes were not as clean for the Gunners in the first half. Leah told me after the game that this was partially deliberate.
“I can take some responsibility for that, it’s down to me to set up attacks from my position, I thought it was just better to get into the rhythm of the game and not force it. We’ve played three very, very different games this week, so I wanted us to find our feet. I think we realised once we started to play through that there were gaps there we could exploit.”
Arsenal were made to feel uncomfortable…
On the eve of the West Ham game, Joe Montemurro explained that he deliberately arranged an awkward pre-season for his team, playing the likes of Bayern, Wolfsburg and Barcelona, all of whom were ahead of the Gunners in terms of preparation. Montemurro explained that he wanted his team to play outside of their comfort zone and that paid off against United.
Stoney’s side were well aware that Arsenal were playing their third game in a week and they made the Gunners claw and fight for every single inch with a pressing, harrying approach. They were the fresher team and played like it. But in the last ten minutes, the game became ragged and United tired and that’s when Arsenal found some joy. Miedema hit the post a minute before van de Donk’s last gasp winner. United were creaking and the away side managed to grind it out- a quality they didn’t have to demonstrate too often last season.
Quality from the bench told in the end….
Arsenal have a lot of depth in attacking midfield now and the reality is that a top attacker is going to have to sit out each game when they are all fit- even if Joe shoehorns Jill Roord or someone else into an unfamiliar position. Jordan Nobbs started for the first time in November and spent the first half playing off Vivianne Miedema in the number 10 role.
Montemurro explained that he felt this was the ideal game for Jordan’s first start, “We felt the way they play basically two banks of four and quite defensive, that she would get on the ball quite a lot so it was an opportunity to get confidence on the ball and get the rhythm in terms of the physical aspect and we felt it was a safe game for her to play.”
Jordan struggled to get into the game in the 10 position given the banks of United midfielders clogging the play up between the lines. In the second half, Kim Little moved closer to Miedema and Arsenal looked more dangerous due to Kim’s close control and dribbling ability. Little really ought to have scored after picking her way through the packed United defence, before blasting the ball straight at Mary Earps from close range.
But on this occasion, it was Danielle van de Donk who started from the bench and it was her goal that sealed the three points. As the Dutch midfielder explained to Suzy Wrack post match, “They did all the work and I took all the glory.” Quality on the bench told for Arsenal in the end and that might be the story on a few more occasions yet this season.
— Guardian sport (@guardian_sport) September 16, 2019
This game had the feel of a proper rivalry…
As an Arsenal fan, I obviously found the goading of the United fans quite annoying, as well as their howls of protestation every time the referee gave a straightforward decision against their team. But that’s ok, it was designed to irritate and provoke Arsenal fans. The women’s game needs a bit of needle and for rivalries to develop to really grow.
The howling of the United fans gave this game a sense of extra meaning and that’s something women’s football has lacked as a ‘product.’ Games have often been in watched in front of either convivial or passive crowds, there is a sense of tribalism growing within the women’s game and the additions of United and Spurs to the top flight can only help that along- especially if it engenders the TV audience with a sense that these games matter and aren’t just a one off, semi-curious family day out for those inside the stadium.
Full highlights of the match are available here.
Or else you can rewatch the match in full on the FA Player app.