Arsenal Women narrowly finished 3rd in the Women’s Super League last season on a points per game basis having won the title in 2018-19. This season, Joe Montemurro will plot Arsenal’s path back to the top of the league. The Gunners have brought in big players this summer, as have their title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City.
Dan Carter, Emma Mitchell, Louise Quinn, Pauline Peyraud-Magnin and Silvana Flores have left, with Lydia Williams, Steph Catley, Noelle Maritz and Malin Gut arriving. The league will again be decided by small margins between the top three. What do Arsenal need to do to make those margins work in their favour?
Better points return from big games
Arsenal’s super power under Joe Montemurro has been beating all of the teams outside of the top three. They haven’t dropped a single point against any of the teams outside of the current big three since April 2018. Their points return against City and Chelsea needs to improve- they only took three of the 12 available from those sides last season.
Even in their title winning season, they took six from 12 against their rivals. City, Chelsea and Arsenal are more or less equal in terms of quality, so there will always be some variance in the results in these games. Getting 12 points from 12 from these games is not likely for any of them.
The Gunners also lost the Conti Cup Final against Chelsea in a match they absolutely dominated (though they did dispatch City in the semis). Being more clinical forms part of the solution here. In their 2-1 defeat to City in the WSL in February, the XG was 1.51 to 0.63 in Arsenal’s favour and they managed 15 shots to City’s eight.
It was a similar story in the Conti Cup Final- being more clinical in these games will be key to Arsenal’s success this season. They also badly missed Jen Beattie at centre-half in those defeats to Chelsea and City in January and February. Two of Chelsea’s goals in the 4-1 loss to Emma Hayes’ side in January were headers from crosses.
Both of City’s goals in February came from crosses and failure to compete for aerial balls. Jen wins 2.46 aerial duels per 90- by far and away the most in the Arsenal squad. It’s difficult to imagine Guro Reiten, Sam Kerr or Lauren Hemp enjoying free headers in the Gunners penalty area had she been present. Which brings me to….
Joe Montemurro’s two full seasons in charge have been blighted by injuries. Dan Carter (twice), Lia Walti, Viki Schnaderbeck, Jordan Nobbs, Katrine Veje and Kim Little have all sustained injuries that have kept them out for three months or more (most of them a lot more). Montemurro prefers to work with a small, versatile squad.
The squad has been stretched by these injuries, often meaning the remaining players have been subjected to a heavier load. Joe acknowledged the risk factor of this approach when I spoke to him after the victory over Liverpool in February. On the injuries to Kim Little (broken foot) and Lia Walti (hamstring), he pondered, “Are they down to fatigue? We don’t know at the moment. Are they things that were there for a while and developed, I don’t know.”
The size of the squad hasn’t fundamentally changed this summer but, as I wrote last week, there is greater flexibility and ability to rotate now. Last season, squad places were taken by Tabea Kemme and Dan Carter, who were injured for two seasons, while Emma Mitchell wasn’t always available too. The squad is moulded much more in his image now and the 20-strong squad, at the moment (!), doesn’t have injured or unavailable players in its number which should enable greater rotation. It’s also worth remembering that January signing Caitlin Foord has yet to make her WSL bow.
Arsenal are also due some better luck on the injury front. Lia Walti pulled her hamstring last season, while Jen Beattie sustained a calf injury in December. These are the only two soft tissue injuries incurred under Montemurro. Significant knee injuries are less of a loading issue, likewise Katrine Veje’s foot problems. Luck doesn’t explain everything, of course, but Arsenal have a lot of ill-fortune in this area too.
Greater physicality in the final third
Broadly, Arsenal don’t have much issue scoring goals- especially against the teams beneath them. In March, I analysed the chance conversion data in depth, which didn’t reveal a huge issue. However, there is still room for improvement with the team underperforming XG in seven of their 15 WSL games last season.
The data shows that Arsenal take fewer shots than City and Chelsea but take better quality shots than both. Under Montemurro, the approach is very precise and maybe it could stand a little more jeopardy on occasion. Caitlin Foord could be valuable in this respect, she is a player that often scores scrappy, close-range goals.
Joe told me in January that, “She’s dynamic, she’s explosive. She’s a little bit different to some of the players we’ve got, she’s quite powerful in the final third.” New signing Noelle Maritz averaged 3.31 crosses per 90 with a 43% success rate at Wolfsburg last season (data from Wyscout) and 3.92 dribbles per 90 with a 71% success rate. Maritz and Foord potentially add a new, more direct slant to the Arsenal attack when required.