Arsenal swotted Reading aside 4-0 in the WSL on Sunday with a commanding performance, especially in the first half as the Gunners strolled into a 3-0 lead. What was notable was how many times Arsenal got in behind the Reading full-backs, with Mead, Catley, McCabe and Maritz all finding joy in those spaces.
I asked Jonas Eidevall about this after the game. “Something we saw in their game against Manchester United- their full-backs were very aggressive. We prepared a little bit for that.” Whether by happenstance or design, Arsenal created a chance via this avenue in the opening seconds of the match and the theme continued for the first half.
It actually comes from a transition and Jonas’ answer to my question suggested this wasn’t planned per se, beyond the fact that he expects his forwards to press he hadn’t devised a precise plan for pressing the full-backs any more than the centre-halves. “Sometimes we just won the ball in positions high up the pitch where we could get behind their full-backs.”
That’s exactly what happens in the opening seconds. Eidevall wants Arsenal to get the ball forward more quickly than the team did under Joe Montemurro, whose game was about more patient possession. The idea is that even if a quick forward pass is not accurate, it opens up a counter-pressing opportunity. Beattie receives the ball from kickoff and immediately looks for a long, forward pass and Frida Maanum, at the bottom of the screen, is already running forwards looking to counter-press.
Reading deal with the long pass initially but Arsenal already have numbers around the ball, swarming the home side and Katie McCabe nips in to win the ball high up the pitch.
McCabe cuts the ball back to Miedema, whose shot is saved but the Gunners have forged a shot on target by pressing Reading in wide positions in the opening 20 seconds.
For Miedema’s second good chance in the 4th minute, we see once again how Eidevall’s insistence on getting the ball forwards quickly and then counterpressing is beginning to take hold. Lia Wälti presses Reading into coughing up possession from their own throw-in and the ball finds Mead on the right touchline and she immediately looks for the forward pass.
The pass is cut out but Katie McCabe harries Deanna Cooper in possession and causes a turnover again.
Mead has already read the situation and starts running forward ready to provide an option for McCabe on the overlap. Katie duly finds Beth and Reading’s defence is completely pulled apart because Arsenal have pressed them at a vulnerable moment.
Mead chops her way past Cooper and pulls back for Miedema, whose shot is blocked. You can see Eidevall’s insistence on getting the ball forwards early and quickly and then compressing the space coming to fruition. Mead and McCabe are excellent pressers, which probably explains why they were picked for the wide positions.
After the victory over Slavia Praha on Thursday, Jonas spoke about his desire to see Arsenal switching play quickly to stretch opponents. “The problem with us not switching the ball quickly was that they didn’t need to cover that much ground in defence. When we started doing that in the second half, it’s not a coincidence that we started scoring. We made them cover more ground so they became detatched in their organisation and the game opens up.”
Arsenal opened Reading up with a quick switch of play shortly before their first goal. As Lia Wälti picks up the ball in midfield, look at how Frida Maanum has moved over to the touchline to create a wide overload with Katie McCabe.
Wälti finds Miedema in-field, who has dropped to link the play and she quickly turns and switches the ball to the right. Reading’s players have all shifted over to Arsenal’s left because that is where the ball is and where Arsenal have created an overload.
As Miedema plays the ball to Mead, you can already see a numerical superiority with Maritz joining Mead, which means Woodham has to shift across. Kim Little has drifted into the space she needs to leave behind. Essentially, a three on one situation has been created in Arsenal’s favour due to the quick switch of play.
Eidevall talked about getting more out of setplays during the summer and just look at how aggressive the setup is for the opening goal from Jen Beattie.
This sequence just after the opening goal once again shows you how Arsenal used wide overloads to expose Reading. Lia Wälti finds Maanum, who has once again drifted over to the left and her flick finds McCabe.
Look at how many Reading players have been pulled over to Arsenal’s left but Maanum’s quick action has them rocking back on their heels.
Remember the sequence where Little popped up on the right to create an overload with Maritz and Mead? Here she is doing the same on the left with Maanum and McCabe, continuing her run in behind the Reading right-back and right centre-half.
McCabe finds her with the pass to the by-line but Little’s cutback is cut out. But because Reading are a team that presses, they don’t keep defensive shape which makes them vulnerable to transitions and quick, one-touch sequences like this one.
Arsenal once again use Reading’s off-ball aggression to create a very similar pattern a few minutes later. Beattie finds Catley on the left touchline and, again, Reading right-back Bryson immediately tries to press the ball.
This leaves space in behind her and Katie McCabe runs into that space but Catley’s pass just has a little too much sauce on it and Reading ‘keeper Stewart is off her line to collect.
The third goal comes from the right flank but, in truth, Arsenal don’t have to do anything remarkably sophisticated. As Stewart clears her lines, look at how high Reading left-back Woodham is positioned. When Leah Williamson competes for and wins the long-ball, Woodham is nowhere near Beth Mead.
Mead stayed forward when Reading cleared the ball long and she profited from that decision as Williamson forces a turnover. Again, this is what Jonas was talking about post-match when he said, “Sometimes we just won the ball in positions high up the pitch where we could get behind their full-backs.”
From here, Mead once again chops her way past Cooper who cuts the ball back for Vivianne Miedema and the Dutch forward makes no mistake.
Once again, Arsenal had forced a transition and exploited space behind the Reading full-backs. With a sizeable lead and a game in Czech Republic on Thursday behind them, Arsenal called the dogs off a little in the second half. There was plenty in a devastating first 30 minutes to show that the Gunners’ pressing game is developing and that they targeted the space behind the Reading full-backs to good effect.