Arseblog Exclusive: Joe Montemurro Explains His Squad Building Philosophy

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Joe Montemurro is about to start his third year as Arsenal boss and many of his principles are familiar to Gunners fans by now. It is common for Arsenal to name fewer than their seven allotted substitutes for WSL matches. With a first team squad of 20 players, plus a couple of academy graduates, the Australian prefers to operate with a tight squad, staffed with players that can play multiple positions. It’s a philosophy that has been questioned in some quarters.

I ask the Gunners boss why he prefers to operate with a small squad, but before getting into that, the 50-year old coach underlines his core principles. “The most important thing is that the group understands the way you want to play and we want to play a proactive game. We want to have the ball more than the other team and even when we’re defending, we want to defend on the front foot and win the ball quickly and before it gets into dangerous areas for us,” he explains.

The other important thing is that the players understand space and rotations, so that when we pass the ball, there is always an option for the player receiving straight away so that we have second phase and third phase of play mapped out. We work a lot in phases, so when the first pass is played, there is a player underneath coming in and there’s a forward run so we have the ability to combine or start again if we need to. We don’t want possession for possession’s sake, we want to move teams around.”

The Arsenal manager’s decision to rely on a small group has come under scrutiny. He insists that it is a very intentional part of his philosophy. “I like working with smaller squads because you can give greater care to players and really develop them into your style and into your plan for the team,” he explains. “My utopia is having 16 or 17 players who you can put into the team at any one time and not detect any real change in the way you play.”

Joe explains that big squads often give a coach the issue of having idle players who can become disengaged from the group and he works on a quality not quantity basis. “If you’ve got 26 players, the reality is that someone becomes player 26 and they know player 25 has to get injured before they even have a chance of seeing the matchday squad.

“Having a smaller squad means everyone feels closer to the starting XI- if they’re not playing, they’re only one starting spot away and the guys that are playing feel that competition more in a smaller group, I think. As a manager you can give more detail to each player and though you have a smaller squad, all of the players are engaged and can play different roles.

Montemurro even rotates his goalkeepers, at time of writing Arsenal have played 15 games in all competitions, Manuela Zinsberger has started 8 of them and Pauline Peyraud-Magnin 7. Joe explains that this is partially driven by this desire not to have disengaged players in the group. He also views his goalkeepers as an integral part of the way that the team builds play.

They both have different qualities. Pauline’s long distribution is very, very good, whereas Manu excels in smaller spaces with shorter passing. We’ve done that by design so that we have both options. They have to understand phases of play too, when we’re in the build-up phase or when we’re mid-block defending- they both play a big part in that.”

Montemurro has needed to finesse the formula a little this season, with Champions League football added to the schedule. He added the likes of Jill Roord, Leonie Maier and Jen Beattie to the roster this summer. The Gunners averaged 1.3 changes to the starting line-up per game last season as they cantered to the league title. This season, that has moved up to nearly 2.5 changes per game. Short rotation is much more a part of this season’s agenda.

We were restricted with options last year because we had lots of injuries.” Joe acknowledges that his approach is not without risk, “We took a risk last season, I know that. I know the risks and I tell my superiors that at Arsenal that I don’t want to work with a big squad for the reasons I’ve said. But I know it’s risky and I take full responsibility for that.”

Joe says he was not tempted to go into the market when Tabea Kemme and Danielle Carter suffered recurrences of serious knee injuries during pre-season. “We have good young players who I think can do a good job for us in Ruby Grant and Melissa Filis. We could probably utilise them more and I will look closely into that. But I also think when you start signing players because players get injured, you can make rehab more difficult for the injured player. I want them to still feel close to the squad, in the end, it’s the strength of the group that gets you through.”

With new additions and the likes of Jordan Nobbs and Lia Wälti back from injury, Montemurro has more options at his disposal this season, but the squad is still compact. “We’ve had more opportunities to change things this season, but usually they’re small detail changes. Sometimes I’ll want wingers that play inside, for example. Whereas sometimes we’ll want them to really hit the wide areas.

When you have a small squad, the design is very important and a lot of thought goes into coverage and how many players we have that can play in different roles so we can make those small tweaks game by game.” Data is a consideration that informs the manager’s selection with fatigue just as significant a risk as injury in a tight roster.

We look at their loads, not just in games but in training,” he points out. “We have GPS data that tells us what their loads have been. The biggest thing we have to keep an eye on is their national teams, we have a squad full of internationals and they’re not subs for their countries either, they’re starters. We have to keep an eye on that too.

It’s tactics that really get Joe’s juices flowing, however. He always becomes animated when talking about his team’s approach. “We usually play with a 4-3-3 but in reality it’s fluid and we make small tweaks for every game, so sometimes we might invert the full-backs and ask them to move into central areas, for example. Or we might overload in certain areas or identify spaces where we know we can hurt the opposition.”

Being champions has brought extra technical scrutiny from opposing teams. Recently they have found sides man-marking their centre-halves to try and disrupt Arsenal’s build-up. In the recent North London derby, Spurs left two upfront to block passing lanes into the midfield. However, Montemurro relishes solving this kind of tactical puzzle in-game. I ask him about Tottenham’s blocking tactic and once again, his eyes light up.

Tottenham kept their front two quite narrow and that meant we couldn’t play centrally through Lia Wälti,” he reflects, “Which caused us a problem. In the second half, we made an adjustment and we asked Lia to just move into a slightly wider space and all of a sudden their strikers had to split and that created space for us to play through the centre.

It caused confusion because Spurs’ wide players and their strikers couldn’t decide who should go to Lia Wälti now she wasn’t standing in the centre of the pitch. Either the strikers had to split and we got space in the centre, or the winger had to come in-field and that made space for our full-backs and that allowed us to trouble them more in the second half.”

Joe insists that the squad construction allows him to make these in-game modifications more easily. “The quality of the squad allows us to do that and that’s what I mean when I talk about the care we can give players. We can give them the tools to play different roles or to react to things that happen in-game so that we can make these adjustments when we need to.” For Joe the message is clear, buy less, choose well.

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SB Still
SB Still

Maybe he could our caretaker manager, with Emery on gardening leave, while the board drags its feet?

Yes, basically anyone other than Emery, that’s how dire the situation is 🙁

Pakgooner
Pakgooner

Montemurro is not anyone and is more than an ample choice

C.B.
C.B.

Tactics, squad management, motivation, success, in-game improvements, can be understood.

It sounds like he is putting in a good bid for moving over to the men’s team.

OdalGooner
OdalGooner

It’d be a step down, really, wouldn’t it 🙂 Our girls are that good, they seem to be a team, a unit, and really motivated. Joe’s doing excellent work, and yes, the mouth waters when you hear an Arsenal manager say things that make sense.. What gives me the most hope is that he says he stands behind his strategy and the club believes in him.

Pakgooner
Pakgooner

Why would it be a step down?

Pakgooner
Pakgooner

Oh

Cultured determination
Cultured determination

Is he winning games? He can swap places with emery then.

He can implement 5 captains, shared responsibility, play out from the backside etc…

Oh, he can even make a new signing for the team in granny xhaka

Pakgooner
Pakgooner

Been on Arseblog since 2011 and lately a lot of my comments have been getting moderated. What’s happening blogs?

arseblog
Admin

I dunno!

Tapps

Wow! A clear plan that obviously works and is easy to explain to players, coaching staff, fans and the media. Wouldn’t it be lovely if…………..(stares wistfully into the distance).

Dave M
Dave M

If…the Arsenal boys team played with the spirit of this Arsenal team, if the Arsenal boys team acted with the professionalism of this Arsenal Team, if the Arsenal boys manager spoke and had his team playing with the style of the manager of this Arsenal team. If there was some parity in what the Arsenal boys earned for there fairly insipid effort compared to what this Arsenal team earns…

A real Arsenal team right here, one to be proud of!!

Steve
Steve

When we won the double in 70-71 we had a squad of about 16: Wilson, Carey (?), Rice, McNab, Simpson, Storey, McLintock, England, Sammels (?), Kelly, George, Graham, Radford, Kennedy, The great Geordie Armstrong. Am I missing anybody? Perhaps Joe’s onto something. The wisdom of the ancients…

Peter Story Teller
Peter Story Teller

As far as I remember Geoff Barnet was no.2 to Bob Wilson, John Roberts was a little used defender and of course the flying Scot with the flowing locks to rival those of Charlie George, Peter Marinello.
In those days, of course, you could only name one substitute for a league game anyway and I don’t know why but players did not seem to suffer long term injuries like they do now. They just had a pain-killing injection and carried on although I doubt if it did them any favours for later life after football!

Steve
Steve

Yeah, it was Geoff Barnet. Geoff Carey is some bloke I know. He’s got a dodgy barnet though. And of course by England I meant that other Welshman, Roberts. The Scot Marinello was indeed the other player in that squad.

Christopher Humphrey
Christopher Humphrey

No Carey or England in that squad.

Graham T
Graham T

Always great to get an insight into Joe’s tactics and his footballing philosophy. Even just reading his words, he exudes an energy and excitement about the game. Another great piece Tim.

Phil
Phil

Possibly the best article I’ve read on here, he sounds so enthusiastic and honest in his approach. It’s fascinating to read his philosophy.

Eeleen
Eeleen

Fascinating piece. It is so rare to have access like that to a manager and same time to have manager, who is so willing to discuss tactics and his principles so thoroughly. Fan media usually aren’t given enough access and mainstream journos aren’t engaged as much as fans. So cheers Tim for bringig us the best of both worlds.

Crash Fistfight
Crash Fistfight

That all sounds great until it doesn’t.

What happens if the players are knackered at the end of the season due to playing in Europe and end up not winning anything?

Tim Stillman
Tim Stillman

Absolutely a risk, Nick Cushing fell foul of this a few seasons ago at City.

Peter Story Teller
Peter Story Teller

Joe had a smaller squad ravaged by injuries last season and still won the league and made the Conti cup final which was only lost on penalties.
Let’s have some positive vibes! Sure we’re on a Champions League run but the next game is not until March 2020 and the Conti Cup will be over by then and there are only a handful of WSL and hopefully FA Cup games to play after that.

Fun Gunner
Fun Gunner

Every philosophy has advantages and drawbacks.

I bet the players really enjoy playing for Joe – clarity, attractive attacking style and he challenges them to accommodate tactical changes every game. For intelligent footballers, using that intelligence must be very satisfying.
I would love to see him use our kids more, though.

Peter Story Teller
Peter Story Teller

It has been mentioned before that very often the young players have their own games right on top of WSL fixtures so it is not always possible to include them in the first team. Maybe they could play more in the cup games when we are against non-WSL opposition but I do not believe the Academy squad is that numerous either that there can be two or three “transitional” players consistently hovering around the first team bench.

Christopher Humphrey
Christopher Humphrey

The Club’s Academy has year after year produced a steady stream of talented girls. The reality is that only Leah Williamson has in the last decade progressed all the way through to first team regular. The number of ex-academy girls playing for other WSL/Championship clubs is staggering (there are 5 in the Spud’s squad!). Also another frustrating aspect is that some of the very best are lost to the English game entirely when they are spirited away to the US college system of developing talent for their game.

Peter Story Teller
Peter Story Teller

Yes, when you look through the players at the other WSL teams it is astonishing how many have been Gunners in the past. The same is true of the England team even if there are relatively few current Arsenal players involved.
Hopefully, as professionalism grows in the women’s game the lure of the USA system shall diminish and more of the home developed talent shall stay at home.

Christopher Humphrey
Christopher Humphrey

The draw to the States must be so tempting. Ava Kuyken to Florida end of last season and recently heard that Ruby Grant gets a scholarship to Carolina next year.

Christopher Humphrey
Christopher Humphrey

Humility is a commodity that is often misunderstood and rarely appears in football circles. Joe displays this as an asset in the way he conducts himself and the way his team play and behave. His small squad philosophy has worked up to now and as the CL can now be put on the backburner until March we can now concentrate on retaining the WSL title without too much to claw back from Chelski and the Manks.