Friday, September 30, 2022

Arseblog Exclusive Interview with Lia Wälti- ‘The more we play at the Emirates, the more it will feel like home.’

It’s Tuesday afternoon when I talk to Arsenal and Switzerland midfield lynchpin Lia Wälti. The Gunners are undertaking double sessions in training and Lia speaks to Arseblog News from London Colney between sessions. She explains that new coach Jonas Eidevall wants the players to remain at London Colney between the morning and afternoon schedule for team building purposes.

“We had a lot of freedom with Joe and we could choose whether we went home or whether we stay at the training ground together after training,” The 28-year old explains. “I think it’s been really good to bring in a new routine, especially for the new players so we have more time to get to know each other and we have conversations not always about football and it really helps from the perspective of team building.”

Team building was an issue for all elite football teams last season with the coronavirus pandemic limiting interaction between players, both in training and socially. Back in January, Lia gave an interview to Swiss publication SRF describing the difficulty of motivating herself in this isolated environment. I ask whether last season was the most challenging of her career.

“100% and it’s not just about interacting with your teammates but interacting generally,” she affirms. “I think everyone, to some extent, had to deal with that, only being in a bubble with the people they live with. As a footballer, you’re really not used to that, in our job we are always interacting with and meeting other people- we play a team sport.

“There was no chance to have evenings together, or go for brunch or coffee, especially in the winter time when we couldn’t go out and we went from training to our apartments. It was harder for us all to see our family members, particularly those of us from other countries. Hopefully this season things will be different.”

While Jonas is mandating longer contact hours during pre-season, it doesn’t sound like the players need a lot of encouragement. Wälti is about to begin her fourth season with Arsenal after arriving from Turbine Potsdam in 2018. Playing in the holding midfield role, Lia quickly became one of Arsenal’s most important players, she was voted into the WSL Team of the Season in 2018-19 despite missing four months with a knee injury.

One of Lia’s standout attributes is her ambidepality- despite being nominally right-footed, Wälti is just as comfortable on her left. Last season she played 589 passes on her left foot, compared to 615 on her right. Nicknamed “snake hips” by her teammates because of her ability to wriggle away from pressure, Lia grew up ice skating and playing ice hockey in her native Switzerland, which has given her wonderful balance.

However, she attributes her two-footedness to a strict youth coach, “I was literally just talking about this with Noelle (Maritz, Arsenal and Switzerland defender) today, because all of the girls are always saying the Swiss players are good with both feet. Noelle and I went to the same boarding school and there we had a coach who gave us some passing drills to do and if we used our strong foot, he made us do press-ups, so we had to use our weak foot.

“The key is that it was when we were young because when you’re trained that way when you’re young you just start doing it naturally without thinking. It’s harder to learn it when you’re older.” Wälti’s versatility extends positionally too, towards the end of the previous campaign, she played at centre-half, however, she expects to be restored to midfield in 2021-22.

“I have had a chance to speak to Jonas but we haven’t really spoken in depth, he has been in quarantine so I think we will have these conversations when he arrives. I presume I will stay in midfield. We have brought in Simone (Boye) so we have another centre-half, as well as Lotte (Wubben-Moy), Anna Patten, Leah (Williamson), Viki (Schnaderbeck) and Jen (Beattie) are coming back now, so we have a lot of options at centre-back.”

While last season was tough in many respects, Wälti did captain her country to qualification for next summer’s European Championships in England. Switzerland and Czech Republic could not be separated across a two-legged playoff. Switzerland eventually won on penalties and Wälti’s shootout effort went viral on Twitter as she dispatched it right into the top corner. I ask her about her emotions that night and when she took that nerveless spot-kick.

“Do you know what? When I took that penalty, I had no emotions anymore,” Lia laughs. “I was too tired! I always imagined I would be really nervous taking a penalty in a shootout and I thought it would be a real test. But in that moment, I didn’t feel anything, I walked up to the penalty spot and I couldn’t even see anything anymore. I just thought, ‘just put it in the corner’ and I wasn’t really nervous.

“After the shootout finished and we won, the emotions for the first two to three minutes were insane but after that, I was just in another world, I had completely gone! We knew we were favourites going into that playoff but we didn’t beat the Czechs across the two games. I am very self-critical and after the emotions died down I wasn’t happy with the performance and I know we’ll have to be better at the Euros. I think when we qualified for the 2015 World Cup in Canada- that was a bigger moment, it was more emotional, I think that was the best feeling ever.”

Prior to joining Arsenal, Lia spent five years at Turbine Potsdam in the Frauen Bundesliga. She is part of a core in the squad who have played in Germany, including Manuela Zinsberger, Vivianne Miedema, Noelle Maritz, Lisa Evans, Simone Boye and Viki Schnaderbeck. I ask Lia why Arsenal like to recruit players from the Frauen Bundesliga so much and what those players bring to the group.

“We have already been chatting with Simone, who came from Bayern and we have lots of girls here who played for Bayern and lots of us know the league. She is fitting into the group really easily. The mentality in Germany is different to here, training is so different, it’s really, really hard work and I think it is good for many of us to bring that here to Arsenal.

“When I talk to Lisa (Evans) about our time at Potsdam, we just shake our heads and say, ‘how did we survive?!’ because it’s so much about hard work and you have to be mentally strong to do it. It’s stricter in Germany but I think we really bring that mentality.” On Sunday, Arsenal will play their first pre-season friendly against Chelsea at Emirates Stadium, with the women’s teams playing one another shortly before the men, with some of the proceeds from the ticket going to the Mind charity.

“We are all so excited, especially having played a whole season without fans,” Lia explains. “We had a taste of the Emirates when we played Bayern there two years ago and it was so cool. The game is quite early in pre-season so it’s not really going to be about the result, it’s going to be about fitness for us. A lot of us will probably be subbed off after 60 minutes and we will make way for some academy players and it will be a great experience for them too. But we also want to impress the fans for as long as we are on the pitch.”

The prospect of the women’s team playing competitive games at the Emirates has been raised and looks likely to happen next season. Wälti explains that there is an issue about losing a sense of home advantage for the bigger games, with the team so familiar with their usual Boreham Wood environs but she thinks games like Sunday will help to dissolve that issue.

“We definitely talk about it (playing at the Emirates) in the team. There is an argument that you can lose home advantage and it’s maybe something we have to think about when we play against one of the bigger teams like Chelsea or Manchester City- maybe then we have to think a little more. But the more we play at the Emirates, the more it will feel like home and we won’t lose home advantage.”

For now, Lia says her and her teammates are excited to play in front of crowds again after a season of behind closed doors football. “It’s going to be a huge difference for us playing in front of fans and getting used to little things like not being able to hear each other talk on the pitch. These are things we can build though, maybe by playing a Champions League game at the Emirates, or a game against Tottenham or some other games so we can adapt.”

While lockdown and behind closed doors football posed some challenges for Wälti and her teammates, she made the best of the situation with a burgeoning love for puzzles. Lia tells me that the extended downtime afforded by lockdown helped her to forge this new hobby. I half-joke with her that there is a confluence between her considered, tactical approach to football and her love for puzzles.

“Well, first you do the frame around the outside and then it’s about patience and I think generally as a person I am very patient- maybe my dad would disagree!” she jokes. “On the field too I think I have a lot of patience. I am also very competitive and that comes through when I am doing a puzzle- I can’t stop until I am done! Sometimes it is passed my bedtime but I can’t go to bed until I have finished.

“Obviously with the first lockdown we had a lot of time and puzzles keep you busy for a few hours. I like it because it’s a challenge but it’s really rewarding too, when you put that last piece in it’s a great moment. I am listening to myself say this and if I would have explained this to myself two or three years ago, I think I would have laughed!”

Lia might be slightly bemused by her new hobby, but there is no bemusement among Arsenal fans who recognise that Lia Wäti completes the Arsenal midfield puzzle.

Arsenal Women will play Chelsea Women at Emirates Stadium on Sunday at 12.15pm with the men’s teams following at 3pm. Tickets are available to Arsenal members here.

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GoonerLady

Fantastic as always Tim. I really hope the women get more games at the Emirates. As she says then it can feel more like home

Brian Gentles

What a player.

Gunner H

Lovely article – whilst Lia Walti is not a high profile player she is absolutely a high quality & crucial / key contributor to the cause…..and I believe will continue to be so for some time 🙂
There are no puzzles in her consistently steady style of play!

Gunner4life

Great article, can’t wait to see them back in action. With a lot of new teammate and the restrictions from COVID last year its good too that they are spending time together with the new players. Season starts soon and it’ll be a full on few months.

turcofeo

Great interview, Tim. Definitely sounds as composed and analytical as she plays her football. Hope she can keep shining under Jonas.

ewmhop

can’t wait for the season to start 🙂

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