Arsenal were 3-2 victors over Chelsea in the WSL at Emirates Stadium on Sunday, their first victory over Chelsea since October 2018 in new coach Jonas Eidevall’s first domestic game in charge. Arsenal have struggled with Chelsea’s high press in recent years and have found themselves strangled in these games too easily. That changed at the Emirates on Sunday.
One very noticeable aspect was how aggressive left-back Katie McCabe’s positioning was in the build-up phase during the first half. She was positioned very high while central midfielder Frida Maanum often tucked in behind her like an auxiliary left-back. I asked Jonas Eidevall about this tactic post-game and this is what he said,
“We wanted to create more space and time for ourselves in the build up to pin some of their players who we knew would want to press. They pressed and we didn’t have much time in build-up but we were able to exploit the space in behind the players that pressed. That worked really well as long as we had the runs in behind, which we had for the first 30 minutes.”
Look here in the opening minutes when Jen Beattie has the ball at centre-half, she passes to the left where Frida Maanum is in the left-back position and the actual left-back, Katie McCabe, isn’t in the picture because she is placed nearer the halfway line.
Maanum dribbles the ball up the line a little and attracts two Chelsea players to the press and that leaves space for Katie McCabe to run into.
When Chelsea play the ball out from their own goal-kick here, look at how aggressive McCabe is to press from left-back.
McCabe’s pressure on Carter forces a turnover to win a throw in. The throw-in goes to Miedema and McCabe is again on the front foot but look at how Frida Maanum is tucked in behind, protecting the space Katie leaves.
This overload on the left flank happened time and again in the first half. Look at the opportunity Arsenal create here shortly before their opening goal by overloading the left.
This time McCabe receives the ball in a more natural left-back position but she dribbles her way past Niamh Charles and, having taken Charles out of the equation, attracts Ji into the press, which leaves a nice big gap to pass the ball to Little, who has dropped to link play, taking Millie Bright with her in the process.
Little passes inside to Iwabuchi and McCabe continues her run, Arsenal have created a numerical superiority and play their way through. Both Ji and Millie Bright have been manipulated out of position by this sequence.
Iwabuchi finds McCabe in space but Katie’s pass just doesn’t quite have the right arc on it to find Beth Mead. But you can see from this move how Arsenal have planned to set traps for Chelsea and it pays off for the first goal too.
In exactly the same way that they did for the chance above, Arsenal first work the ball to the right to Leah Williamson, pulling Chelsea’s press over to Arsenal’s right before quickly switching to the left. Look at the big gap created in Chelsea’s press by Williamson and Maritz playing the ball between themselves.
When Arsenal work the ball to the left, they have taken all of Chelsea’s front four out of the equation. I again refer you to Jonas’ answer to my initial question. “We wanted to create more space and time for ourselves in the build-up.”
When Katie McCabe receives the pass, there is nobody pressing her. She has time to turn and play the pass in behind to Miedema. Arsenal have created a superiority here with Carter not sure whether to close down McCabe or track Miedema.
She doesn’t quite do either and Miedema makes Chelsea pay the ultimate price.
New season, same old @VivianneMiedema 😎
— Barclays FA Women's Super League (@BarclaysFAWSL) September 5, 2021
In the final 30 minutes, with Chelsea reducing the arrears and getting the score back to 2-3, Arsenal had to show another side to their game. They had to hang in there and defend and Jonas Eidevall admitted that his side tailored their approach to deal with the inevitable Chelsea bombardment. In response to a question on his side’s defensive shape from the Athletic’s Art de Roche, Jonas said,
“Chelsea is very good at attacking space between full backs and central defenders, they do that constantly. They don’t want to cross the ball, they want the full-back to commit and play the ball in behind. We covered that space with our midfielders in the first half, but we tired and we conceded some chances in that respect. So we chose to stay narrow and say ‘let them cross.’ We know that’s not their preferred option but we knew we had a lot of players in the middle to stop the cross.”
Chelsea try to “bait” full-backs into pressure to leave space in behind and this is how Chelsea score their second goal. Millie Bright hits a long diagonal and Steph Catley goes to pressure the recipient of the pass Erin Cuthbert, leaving space in behind her for Fran Kirby.
Jen Beattie challenges Kirby well in the area but Chelsea pick up the loose ball and work it back to Cuthbert whose cross finds Pernille Harder to score.
Arsenal changed tack after this. Look at this diagonal from Mille Bright a few minutes later. Noelle Maritz at right-back lets the pass drift out to Guro Reiten without getting suckered into the press. She lets Reiten have it and focuses on keeping her position.
Chelsea work the ball inside to Harder and you can see that Arsenal have made a decision to defend the width of the penalty box and just deal with any crosses. Harder can’t find a pass inside the right-back nor can she really spread the play to the other flank. She puts a hopeful cross in which Jen Beattie clears easily.
The only real chance Chelsea create in the final 20 minutes comes when they do sucker Maritz in to press a diagonal pass from Mille Bright to Guro Reiten.
Harder runs in behind Maritz and her dinked cross just sails over Kerr’s head. This is the angle Chelsea look for all the time, as Jonas says. They want to work the ball to the by-line and take the full-back out of the equation.
Arsenal forced Chelsea into hopeful crosses again and again in the last 25 minutes or so. I will only show one more example from many. This time Magdalena Eriksson switches the ball out wide with time ticking down and Arsenal are happy for Jonna Andersson to receive it by the touchline.
Parris goes out to meet her but Maritz is staying firmly within the width of the penalty area so that Harder cannot run in behind her. That’s what Chelsea want from this situation, for Maritz to press Andersson and leave space for Harder to run in behind. You can even see Harder waving for Andersson to play the ball backwards because she knows she can’t make the run.
It’s a choregraphed move but Arsenal haven’t taken the bait. Andersson works the ball back to Ji, who has little option but to put a cross in. Kerr wins the header but she has too many players around her and is too far out to generate any power and Zinsberger comfortably gathers.