Going into Sunday’s game, Arsenal had lost their last six matches against Chelsea, chiefly because they have struggled to deal with the way Chelsea press them in their own defensive third. This time, Arsenal had a much better plan for playing through the Chelsea press and this is how they managed it.
The first time the ball comes back to Zinsberger we can already see that Ji is pushed right up as part of the press, even beyond Beth England. Chelsea don’t want England winning the ball back herself, they want her to be the pass when they do. Lia Walti is already well tracked by Melanie Leupolz. Teams have learned to crowd Walti because so much of the play goes through her.
Instead Zinsberger immediately shovels the ball out to McCabe at left back and Walti attracts Leupolz over, leaving a much bigger space in the middle of the field where Chelsea are used to strangling Arsenal. On this occasion, McCabe looks for the pass up the line to Foord which is too long but already, we can see that Arsenal have made a conscious decision not to get hounded in central areas as they often do against Chelsea and as they did against Manchester United last week.
The next time Zinsberger gets the ball, we can see England and Ji are again primed, like coiled springs, to press. They know Arsenal like to play out and they are prepared. Cuthbert and Leupolz are also pushed up to cut off passing lanes Arsenal might use if they evade Ji and England’s press. England sprints to Leah Williamson as soon as she sees where the ball is going and Lia Walti is again followed by Leupolz.
Ordinarily, Arsenal’s next move is to look for Walti but Leah instead goes straight to full-back Leonie Maier, again avoiding the congested central area.
Maier kicks long into the centre and Arsenal don’t win the second ball with Little still off the pitch but, at least, Chelsea are regaining possession on the halfway line and not on the edge of the Gunners area.
However, while Arsenal cleared their lines, they couldn’t completely play out without Kim Little in midfield. So for the next goal-kick, while Little is still off receiving treatment, Montemurro instructs Zinsberger to kick long. It’s not an instruction you will hear from Joe very often but he understood a measure of pragmatism was required for this match.
Initially Arsenal are lined up to play out and you can see the aggressive positioning of the Chelsea players. Left-winger Erin Cuthbert is tucked right in ready to help Leupolz crowd Walti. But instead, Zinsberger hears Joe’s instruction and the centre-halves trot out so a route one escape can be hatched.
With Kim back on the pitch, Arsenal revert to their natural plan for evading the press. Zinsberger goes short to Wubben-Moy who quickly shuffles the ball out to McCabe. Again, we can see this forces Leupolz to move away from Lia Walti, who she has naturally tracked in preparation to press her. McCabe has some space to charge up the line for a few yards and as the Chelsea press shuffles over towards her, Jill Roord has some space inside and McCabe feeds her the ball. Roord, in turn, funnels the ball to the right immediately with McCabe having attracted the Chelsea press to Arsenal’s left.
Arsenal repeat the trick again around 30 seconds later. When Zinsberger has the ball, England and Ji are pushed right up and Leupolz instantly shuffles up field to crowd Walti. Zinsberger goes to Wubben-Moy, who quickly moves the ball to McCabe again. Chelsea’s press is box shaped again, with Ji and England taking care of the first line of press, with Cuthbert and Leupolz right behind them ready for the second line of press.
So once more Arsenal’s answer is to avoid traffic by moving the ball quickly to McCabe. Many Arsenal fans have commented on McCabe’s performance, rightly, and it’s because she was heavily involved in the game. She was Arsenal’s most used escape plan. Again, using the full-back forces Chelsea’s press to shift and their carefully constructed square of England, Ji, Cuthbert and Leupolz is collapsed.
Again, in this example McCabe tries an unsuccessful pass to Foord up the line but it meant Arsenal lost possession in Chelsea’s defensive third rather than their own. Arsenal made distorting the Chelsea press their priority.
Chelsea’s high press was rendered ineffective to the point that Melanie Leupolz, detailed to mark Lia Walti, was substituted at half-time and Chelsea reverted to a 433. Chelsea press in the middle third too but, frankly, Kim Little’s presence made that effort futile. Look at the situation she picks the ball up in here near the halfway line with Ji practically hanging off her coat tails.
Chelsea smell blood and Magdalena Eriksson joins the pile-on and Little is halfway into a crumpled heap at this point.
Pernille Harder can see Ji and Eriksson are having no luck and she piles into the equation too but trying to prize a football from Kim Little is a fool’s errand. Here she finds Jill Roord for a one-two but the referee has blown for a foul with three players trying and failing to wrestle the ball from her. Kim’s presence for the whole match at Manchester United was greatly missed where the Gunners wilted under the United press. Her low centre of gravity and ability to keep the ball under pressure is scarcely matched in world football.
Chelsea changed formation at half-time bringing Sam Kerr on for Melanie Leupolz and changing to a 433. Initially Kerr played wide on the left with England central and Harder wide right. Later in the half, Reiten replaced England moving to the left-wing with Kerr playing through the middle. The idea was the same, however, Chelsea abandoned their 442 for a 433.
They recognised that Arsenal were using McCabe to escape the press. In the first goal kick of the second half, look at how Cuthbert, now playing on the right of a midfield three, is pushed up much higher on Wubben-Moy, cutting off the angle to McCabe in doing so and forcing Wubben-Moy to clear the ball into the middle of the pitch.
Ingle hoovers up the clearance and Chelsea are straight back on the attack which, thankfully, comes to nothing.
Arsenal adjust quickly to the challenge. In this example, Zinsberger plays the ball to Williamson but with a front three, Chelsea are able to cut off the angle to the full-backs. This forces Leah to play centrally to Walti who then has to go back to Leah, which was not really what Arsenal wanted.
However, the upshot of playing three upfront is that Chelsea now only have three in midfield, which means the area is less congested. Williamson finds Roord and she is able to play away from the press and get the ball to McCabe on the left. Roord is pressed by two Chelsea players but, like Kim, she is comfortable enough playing in tight areas and, like Kim, wasn’t fit enough to start last weekend’s defeat at United.
Arsenal’s plan to avoid central areas, where Chelsea like to press most, forced Emma Hayes into a half-time change of focus. In trying to cut off the out ball to Arsenal’s full-backs with a front three in the second half, it just left more of the central spaces open to Walti, Roord and Little to play through.
I asked Joe about this after the game and he explained, “We’ve localised two areas that they press, it’s either a diamond and a two, or a flat four, with the two up top. We felt that if we could pull one of the players away centrally then their wide players would have to narrow up and then we’d have the opportunity to play out in wide areas.”
All three are technically accomplished players and in a three on three situation, Chelsea weren’t able to crowd them as they would have been able to in a 442 setup. The teams shared the points in the end, but this was a tactical battle that Arsenal won, an admission Emma Hayes made after the game.