On Sunday, Joe Montemurro will take his final game as coach of the Arsenal Women. In an exclusive interview with Arseblog News, we sat down with Joe to look back at five pivotal games under his guidance since his appointment in November 2017. This is the definitive story of Joe Montemurro’s three and a half-year reign at Arsenal.
Arsenal endured a meandering start to the 2017-18 season and found themselves toiling in mid-table by late October. Coach Pedro Losa left the role and Montemurro, who had managed the Melbourne City women’s team and coached the men’s team too, took the role. Arsenal experienced an instant uptick upon Montemurro’s arrival.
March 14th, 2018. Adam’s Park. Manchester City 0 – 1 Arsenal (Miedema 33)
That March, Arsenal reached the Conti Cup Final where they played Manchester City. A half-fit Vivianne Miedema scored the winning goal in the first half and the Gunners claimed their first silverware since the 2016 FA Cup. It set the tone for Montemurro’s early months, where Arsenal played a brand of possession football that immediately re-engaged the team.
An exhausted Miedema would limp off during the second half but even half-fit, she was already becoming the defining player of Montemurro’s reign. “From the day I arrived Viv was pretty fatigued, she had won the Euros with the Netherlands (in 2017) and she had a brutal schedule with Bayern before that and she just needed time off. We got what we could out of her for this game and afterwards we started to rotate her a bit more.
“It was about trying to get one last bit out of her for the final and, lo and behold, she scores the winner because that’s what Viv does.” As the celebrations start on the pitch, Montemurro gathers his players in the centre circle and he says, “This is Arsenal, we are back!” I ask Joe how important that victory was in giving the players the belief to win the league the following season.
Montemurro stops short of saying that Arsenal would not have won the WSL in 2019 without that Conti Cup victory. “I think we would have still done it, there was a belief in what we were doing and we wanted to bring the level back up. That meant always being in finals, always challenging for the title, we wanted to bring that benchmark back up.
“Once you get to a final or a big game there can be an element of lottery to it, those games can come down to moments and situations. But our first objective was to bring that level up, bring that training stimulus and reconnect the players with that belief, it was a really good squad of players, there was just something missing. I wanted to bring greater clarity and get the players belief back and they started to believe in themselves and the project and we got the rewards.”
During the early months of his reign, Montemurro continuously selected Sari van Veenendaal in goal, behind a back four of Lisa Evans, Louise Quinn, Leah Williamson and Emma Mitchell with Dominique Janssen ahead of them. Joe says he wanted to keep that solid base during his first season and that defence was crucial in shutting City out on the night but Montemurro knew he wanted his defence to become more ambitious.
“We were a little bit conservative back there and I knew I wanted them to be more proactive to play the style we wanted. So we wanted Louise Quinn driving into midfield, we started to play Lisa Evans and Katie McCabe at full-back. We instilled that and playing out from the back and overloading in certain areas and that’s when we really started to kick into gear. We had a great base at the back it was just a case of changing the mentality to be a bit more proactive.”
Great take and finish from Vivienne Miedema, here. Arsenal have an unlikely lead against City in the Conti Cup final! pic.twitter.com/LgRBfhNfCC
— James (@JCraggPR) March 14, 2018
21st April, 2018. Huish Park. Yeovil Town 0 – 0 Arsenal
It wasn’t all plain sailing in Joe’s maiden season. Arsenal were held to a shock 0-0 draw at Yeovil in April, one of only two points the Lady Glovers amassed that season. The Gunners had 36 shots and forced 22 corners but could not score. They ended up finishing one point short of Champions League qualification.
Thereafter, it would take until January 2021, in a 1-1 draw with Reading, for Arsenal to drop a point against any team outside of the top four positions. “I still have nightmares about this one, thanks for reminding me, Tim!” Joe chirps as I question him over this game. Beating the teams below Arsenal in the table was always a central tenet of Montemurro’s philosophy.
“We wanted to compete at the top of the table and not be a cup team anymore. All of the top teams, and I include the men’s game in this, you look at Man City in the Premier League, they nearly always beat the teams you expect them to beat. They might lose one or two of the big games; but they take the points they are expected to take season in and season out.
“The Yeovil game was just one of those days, I think, it really was. But I have to give the credit to the players because even though we didn’t make the top two and qualify for the Champions League that season, they felt the foundations were there to go to the next level. We would love to have won it and gone into Europe but in hindsight, it probably gave us that reality check.”
Arsenal did win the league the following season but did so despite a host of serious injuries to the likes of Jordan Nobbs, Dan Carter, Viki Schnaderbeck, Lia Wälti and Tabea Kemme. I offer to Joe that maybe it was a blessing in disguise not to qualify for the Champions League given how stretched the squad became en route to the title.
“It could have been,” Joe ponders, “But really I think the blessing in disguise was going out of the FA Cup quite early (Arsenal lost to Chelsea in Round Five). Had we kept going in the cup, it’s another four games or so at the end of the season. What not qualifying probably did was to give us a good pre-season with some of the new players.
“I started the recruiting process pretty early when I arrived and we got a good summer with players like Lia Wälti, who was really important in terms of how we wanted to balance the team and the squad moving forward. It probably gave me more time with the players in pre-season so we could instill the methodology.”
14th October, 2018. Kingsmeadow. Chelsea 0 Arsenal 5 (Little 21 [pen], Miedema 38, 57, Nobbs 52,67)
Arsenal began the 2018-19 season in irrepressible form, winning every game and topping the table. Until they travelled to defending champions Chelsea in October, their first test against a potential competitor that season. A buoyant Gunners side thrashed Chelsea 5-0 at Kingsmeadow with Vivianne Miedema and Jordan Nobbs propelling an unstoppable attack.
I ask Joe whether he had to balance the belief the result gave the team with not allowing them to become carried away- especially as it was still so early in the season. “We never had any discussions about winning the league. We kept the players very grounded and focused on the next challenge. We had a lot of new staff that year so we’d done a lot of work on stabilising the environment and getting everyone adjusted to the new processes.
“We also had to manage a lot of injuries so we were pretty busy! There was a lot of focus on those things and it helped us not to think too much about the results and instead focus on each game. We wanted to prepare for each game and that meant not looking back too much.” At this point, Joe breaks his train of thought to make a wider point.
“I actually really remember this because I felt that, because of what Arsenal have done in the women’s game and it’s amazing history, sometimes we referred back too much to the past and what we had done. I wanted to make sure we were always looking to the future. All of this focus on things off the pitch helped us not to obsess too much about what results meant.”
— miedemastuff (@miedemastuff) October 13, 2019
A month later, Jordan Nobbs, playing the football of her career, was cruelly cut down by an ACL tear in a 4-0 away win at Everton in which she had scored her ninth goal of the season. The gravity of the injury was immediately obvious. I recall hearing Jordan shouting, “No! Oh fuck no!” She knew her season was gone and her World Cup too.
At the final whistle, the majority of the players raced straight down the tunnel to check on Jordan. I recall the mood being very low as I spoke to Joe pitchside after the match. To my surprise, I found him to be in a light, upbeat mood. I always wondered whether this was a bit of a front and that as the leader of the group, he felt responsible for picking everyone up. The picture below was taken by Kunjan Malde just after the match.
“It was very difficult, the injuries were mounting up and they were all serious. As the leader of the group I have to look at things from a positive perspective, I always have to think of how we can learn from things and get better. In those moments, I have to think, ‘ok, it’s happened, we can’t change it, let’s start the process.
“Let’s get Jordan the best care possible and let’s start the rehab process now.’ As a coach you always have to think about the future, even in the low moments, we have to go into problem solving mode very quickly. We have to think about how we get on with things and not dwell on them. In that scenario, I had to think about Jordan getting the best care and how to go forward without her.”
Sunday, 31st March, 2019. Damson Park. Birmingham City 0 – 1 Arsenal (McCabe 79)
With four games remaining, Arsenal travel to Birmingham City knowing that three wins from their final four matches is enough to win the WSL title. With Manchester City at home on the final day, the Gunners need to beat Birmingham to avoid the scenario of a nerve shredding last day shootout. Birmingham are traditionally tough opponents, especially on their own turf.
Arsenal fight and toil and create chances but just can’t put the ball into the net. Then, on 79 minutes, Katie McCabe collects Danielle van de Donk’s pass on the right wing. Katie moves inside onto her left foot and fires a low shot into the bottom corner. The win guarantees Champions League qualification and Arsenal take a giant stride towards the WSL title.
I ask Joe how lonely it feels for a coach in those moments, when the team are playing well and creating chances but the goal just won’t come. “There are moments in the job when it’s not about you, you’ve done all that you can do and it just needs execution and you have to trust your players to do it.
“As a coach, in that scenario your job is to focus on the collective, not to obsess about the chances going in and just make sure the structure is right and that you’re not going to get caught on a counter attack or looking at where we’re not as solid as we should be. I have to be practical in those situations and think ‘we’re in control, we’re getting into good positions.’
“I can’t obsess over whether the chances are going to go in. My job in that scenario is to make sure we don’t go 1-0 down because we’ve over committed or left a space somewhere. I have great attackers here and if we keep getting the positions we will usually score. So my job is to make sure the structure is still there.” Joe admits he allowed himself to absorb his emotions once the final whistle had gone, “It was a relief, yes, because the margins were fine but to do it the way we did was great.”
19th March, 2021. Meadow Park. Arsenal 2 (Roord 2, Wubben-Moy 51) Manchester United 0
On a Friday evening in March, Arsenal took on Casey Stoney’s Manchester United at Meadow Park. It was very much a winner takes it all match in terms of the final Champions League qualification spot. Arsenal won the game and finished the season one point ahead of United- the magnitude of the result was obvious.
On the night, Arsenal had 39% possession- the lowest total in Joe’s reign- they also had a player sent off for the only time in his tenure. All six of Arsenal’s corners were delivered under the crossbar. I ask the Arsenal boss whether this was the most “un-Montemurro” win of his reign. “Totally,” he offers immediately.
Joe admits there was player initiative on the night. It’s difficult to talk about defining games in Montemurro’s reign without mentioning the defeats in big games to the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City. Montemurro admits that had a bearing on the tactics Arsenal deployed in this game and the desire not to lose another big game to a team with a high press.
“I’m really proud of the amount of player initiative there was on the night. We had lost a last-minute winner to City, a last-minute equaliser to Chelsea, a late winner in the away game against United. The players had the maturity to say, ‘not again, not this time.’ They kept their vertical and horizontal distances close and said ‘we’re going to make sure they can’t get through us.”
I ask Joe whether Arsenal planned to have less of the ball against United’s transitional style, or whether the early Jill Roord goal and second half Beth Mead red card played into it. “A lot of it was planned,” he explains. “They were breaking our press and finding space in front of our defence in the first half so we had to back our midfield off a little to compress that space.
“We had the early goal and we knew the season was really on the line, so there was an element of protecting what we had. Let’s be mature and make sure they don’t get in behind us.” Joe admits that he ought to have adopted a similar approach earlier in some of the big games. “We’re kicking ourselves now because there were moments where we just needed to kick the ball clear or see a game out and that would’ve made a big difference this season.”
The players celebrated feverishly after the game as Champions League qualification was back in their hands. At this point, Joe Montemurro knew that he was planning to step down at the end of the season but the players did not.
I ask him whether seeing his players celebrate in that manner gave him pause for reconsideration. “I’ve questioned many times whether I am making the right decision; but I know in my gut that my cycle is done and the team needs someone else to take them to the next step. It’s hard to explain but I knew then and I know now that the time has come.”
With thanks to @miedemastuff for the banners and the article header.