“We knew that they play with a block of three in front of their back five and we had to pull out that middle three,” Joe Montemurro told Arseblog News after the 4-0 victory over Aston Villa on Sunday. Villa’s set up was simple, they played with a solid back five of Ale, N’Dow, Asante, Haigh and Hutton with a midfield three of Arthur, Ewers and Hanssen ahead of them. They left Mana Iwabuchi and Stine Larsen upfront.
Iwabuchi’s role was to try to dribble the ball away from pressure and into the final third with Larsen asked to run the channels and chase long clearances, while Iwabuchi would often go and sit on the right flank to create a midfield four. Villa didn’t commit their midfield three at any point. The idea was to funnel Arsenal’s play into wide areas and force them into hopeful crosses, with Villa coach Marcus Bignot comfortable that N’Dow, Asante and Haigh could deal with any aerial threat.
The ploy worked well in the first half, look here as Lia Wälti picks up the ball in the Villa half and sees Villa’s midfield three ahead of her, clogging up the centre of the pitch. Iwabuchi has moved in-field to mark van de Donk and Ewers is marshalling Jill Roord. You can just see Beth Mead’s boots way over on the right touchline, she has been left alone because Villa are less worried about the ball going to the touchline. You’ll also notice that Beth looks a little lonely out there.
The passing lane to Mead is blocked even if she isn’t tightly marked. Wälti tries to find Nobbs on the left but Iwabuchi closes off that passing lane too and blocks the pass. This was the essence of Villa’s game plan, force Arsenal to go wide early and if they can block that wide pass, great. If they can’t, they back their centre halves to defend a cross.
Arsenal regain possession from the ricochet but, as they do, Leah Williamson has few options and tries to spray a pass to Nobbs on the left flank, but it’s a difficult pass and the ball sails out of play. In these two frames, look at how isolated Mead and Nobbs look on the opposite flanks.
“We could have gone around them vertically more often because there was room,” Montemurro said post-match. Arsenal did manage this once or twice in the first half through quick combinations in the half-spaces. Here Leah Williamson plays a diagonal ball from centre-half to Jordan Nobbs and Vivianne Miedema has already seen space open up, with N’Dow attracted away from the right centre-half space to deal with Jordan.
Nobbs goes back to McCabe and she runs forward and combines with Miedema, whose initial run doesn’t amount to anything but Viv has stayed wide, creating an overload and she plays a one-two with Katie putting the left-back into a dangerous position.
McCabe flashes a low ball across the box, which Villa deal with but not comfortably. This is the sort of situation they create far more often in the second half.
Arsenal attack down their right side three times in the first sixty seconds of the half, clearly stating their intention. But this time Noelle Maritz is making underlapping runs into the half space while Mead has the ball, creating better angles to either pass in behind Villa and get to the touchline, or else get better quality crosses in.
Look at Maritz’s run here as Williamson passes the ball to Mead. She is giving Villa defender Haigh a choice to either stay in her position in the box and allow Maritz a free run, or else abandon her position follow Maritz and allow Mead a much clearer crossing opportunity.
Mead uses Maritz’s run as a decoy and tries a pass inside to van de Donk, who is making a run into the space. It doesn’t quite come off as Villa scramble it away but immediately they look less comfortable with the movement of the Arsenal players in the channels- creating greater stress. If Beth’s pass makes it to DvD, you can see the sort of space the Dutch attacker would have to play with.
This is the key to the opening goal. Again, Arsenal play out from the back and their first thought is to try to feed Beth Mead, which they do. Look at the run Jill Roord makes when Mead receives the ball. She doesn’t get the pass, with Beth looking in-field but Roord is looking for that space in the channel and taking Villa defenders out of the penalty area.
The move breaks down but Arsenal win the ball back over on the left flank and re-circulate it to Roord, who has taken up a position in the right half space. In the first half, Roord was very central and playing in more congested areas. Now she has begun to pull slightly wider to the right and that movement has created doubt in the Villa defence, who haven’t detailed anyone to pick her up. Villa have crowded up that central space nicely still, Roord moved away from that traffic far better after the break and was able to combine with Mead.
By finding that space, Roord is now able to pass to Mead much higher up the pitch and in a much better crossing position. Villa also now have fewer defenders in the area to defend the cross when it comes in.
Mead receiving the ball this high up creates panic. Villa backed themselves to defend hopeful crosses from the touchline but didn’t want their full-backs isolated in one-on-one situations like this. Look at Haigh moving away from the six-yard box because she is concerned about her teammate being isolated.
At the point Mead makes the cross, Villa’s flat back five has been pulled over to one side and that gives Miedema space to attack the back post before it can be cut out and when Miedema has space to attack there is only ever one outcome.
When attacking down the right, Arsenal used Mead as a natural wide player, holding the width of the pitch and in the second half, Roord shifted slightly to the right to help create overloads. On the left, the runs of McCabe from left-back- who has now recorded eight assists in the WSL this season- provide the width with Miedema drifting to the left to combine with Nobbs and create a triangle.
The second goal involves both flanks and comes from a transition forced by Beth Mead, who nicks the ball from Freya Gregory and sprints into the space, quickly switching the ball in-field to Jill Roord.
Villa are not set and have left space now they are a goal down. Jill has an obvious pass to the left where Nobbs and Miedema are waiting. From here Nobbs and Miedema have a classic overload situation which neither player wastes. Jordan carries the ball until she commits N’Dow and takes her out of the game, sliding the ball to Miedema just as N’Dow challenges.
Miedema works a shot which is saved and bounces into the net off Nobbs, maybe fortuitously but Arsenal make their own luck in this scenario. With Mead, Roord, Nobbs and van de Donk all in the area at different angles, pretty much any direction Weiss pushes the ball into, there is a good chance it will fall to a blue shirt.
Katie McCabe’s goal warrants little further analysis than to say, STROIKAAAAAAAAAHHHHH
Arsenal’s fourth also comes from a wide overload against an admittedly tired and despondent Villa defence. Caitlin Foord holds the ball up on the edge of the area and nudges back to Mead, who has moved to a more central position. Beth finds McCabe out wide who has Leonie Maier making an overlapping run.
Maier’s run gives McCabe the half a second she needs to make the cross, Foord’s front post run takes N’Dow away from the danger area while Lisa Evans peels away from the back of a tired Anita Asante to head home the fourth.