“It’s very uncharacteristic, we’re usually very good in understanding transition moments and preparing ourselves and dropping off when we need to. We had issues with body position against Manchester City and keeping the press one way. I think it’s the phase before the defensive phase that we need to work on more than the actual goals themselves.
“That’s what is worrying me a little bit, there have been opportunities to keep the ball away from goal and we’ve not done that and teams have been scoring.” This is what Joe Montemurro told me after Arsenal’s most recent WSL game back in February, a 3-2 victory away at Liverpool. In the final minute of the Conti Cup Final a fortnight later, Arsenal dominated but lost the game in stoppage time when they were again caught in a transition moment.
— FIFA Women's World Cup (@FIFAWWC) March 2, 2020
It’s notable that all of Arsenal’s transfer business this summer has been focused in defensive areas. Left-back Steph Catley and goalkeeper Lydia Williams join from Melbourne City, defensive midfielder Malin Gut from Grasshopper Zurich and full-back Noelle Maritz from Wolfsburg. Forward Caitlin Foord joined in January, otherwise the spine and attacking core of the team is the same.
I ask Joe whether it is a coincidence that all of this summer’s transfers have been in defensive areas and whether better controlling transition moments in big games has underpinned his recruitment, especially with the capture of Noelle Maritz, whose understanding of defending space marks her out. “We got proactive players that can play inside or outside as a fullback, but also can join the attacker and they also have good defensive qualities in recovery and positioning.”
Alex spoke in glowing terms about Steph Catley's creativity and passing and here's a decent illustration https://t.co/jvcWFkgLFR
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) August 19, 2020
Montemurro likes a tight squad full of versatile players and that flexibility has also remained key to his recruitment. “Steph [Catley] can also play as a left-sided centre back in a three, as a left-sided centre back in a back four if need be. We’ve kept going with this fluid squad.” Another key priority was dedicated back-up for defensive midfielder Lia Wälti. Last season, Leah Williamson would often move into midfield when Wälti was unavailable.
“Malin Gut can play as a centre back and can play as a number six. We needed to make sure that Lia Wälti has cover. All of them were very deliberate signings, for the fluidity and the balance of the squad, and to give us as many options as we need for whatever system we go out and play and against whoever we play. I think we’ve got the squad to a point where whatever is happening during the game I can make the relative changes whether they are tactical or personnel perspective where probably in the past years we were a little bit restricted in that.”
24-year old Maritz arrives from Wolfsburg with five Bundesliga titles, a Champions League and six DfB-Pokals in her back pocket. I ask Joe about Maritz, who can play in either full-back roles or on either flank, “Over the past couple of seasons we’ve made very, very good attacking players into fullbacks, so we’re very, very lucky that Lisa Evans can play that role. We’re very lucky Katie McCabe can play that role. But there was always the intention of pushing them further forward.”
Gonna thread all of the UWCL preview articles / podcast here for ease of reference throughout the week, starting with my chat with Kim Little about controlling moments in big games and whether PSG have a physical advantage on Saturday https://t.co/LDzjaorQov
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) August 17, 2020
Maritz’s attacking data last season demonstrates her attacking quality with 0.44 assists per 90 in the Bundesliga and averaging 3.92 dribbles per 90. Arsenal’s most prolific dribbler in the WSL last season was Beth Mead with 3.56 per 90. However, it is Maritz’s ability to defend against counter attacks that really stuck out when Joe scouted the California born Swiss international.
“Defensive positioning when we have the ball is a big thing for us because it doesn’t take much to lose the ball and then you’re in a transition moment. She’s very, very, very, very good, as is Leah Williamson, as is Jen Beattie, as is Steph Catley, at identifying when there is a possible transition. I would have to say that I’m very excited, especially with the front three of PSG, they are a transition team and can hurt you, so we have those elements to neutralise that area.”
With seven years at Wolfsburg, Maritz is also used to playing in a dominant side, “She’s been at a top club for many, many years and the other big tick is that she’s comfortable on the left or the right so it was a player we targeted and a player we were we’re very blessed to get.” Earlier this summer, I wrote a piece suggesting that Arsenal’s largely defensive recruitment still transformed Arsenal’s attack ahead of next season.
I ask Joe whether my theory holds water, “Absolutely,” he chimes. “Now we’ve got out and out wide players, classic wingers, we’ve got wingers that can play inside, we’ve got wide players that can play more centrally. We’ve got wide players that can play in deeper roles. We’ve pretty much got the full composite of every type of attacker that you could ever want.”
Montemurro says that addressing the age profile of the squad was a priority this summer and he feels that a succession plan is beginning to become apparent, “In all honesty, we were getting a little bit older, we were getting into the years where players have to start looking at other situations. We’re succession planning, there’s Marlin Gut , we brought in Jill Roord  who is very young. We’ve brought in Fran Stenson  so we’ve got that succession planning in goal.
“My intention always was in year in year two or three to start putting those faces in place. Because Tim, I won’t be here all my life – well, I hope I am! I need to make sure that whoever comes in has a has good composites of players and a good spread of ages so that you can phase players out when you need to and keep bringing in. We’re nearly there with that, there’s probably another couple of elements to take the succession planning forward for the years to come.”