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.
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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.”
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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.”
Modern-day keepers have got to be good with their feet…
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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.”
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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.