Arsenal struggled in the first half against Aston Villa at Villa Park. Villa have played a 4231 formation in each of their WSL games so far this season but they have played Leicester, West Ham and Brighton. For Arsenal, they moved to a 541 shape and Jonas Eidevall admitted that it took him by surprise.
“Aston Villa played a formation we hadn’t seen them play yet this season, so it was new for me and new for the players,” he told Arseblog News post-match. We weren’t moving the ball as quickly in the first half because we were still trying to work out what positions we were supposed to be and how we could be most efficient.”
Villa’s defensive block sat deep as you might expect but they really kept Arsenal at bay because their mid-block was very aggressive and engaged with Arsenal’s midfielders. On reflection, a midfield three of Wälti, Little and Maanum just didn’t have enough presence between the lines to move Aston Villa around.
The only times that Arsenal looked threatening were when they played longer passes over the top of the Villa mid-block but they are difficult passes to get right. Like here when Lotte Wubben-Moy flights a ball from front to back for Miedema, Little collects the knockdown but her shot is saved by Hampton.
Boye-Hlorkah marked Lia Wälti tightly throughout the half, which disrupted Arsenal’s build-up. There weren’t enough Arsenal players high up the pitch dropping deep and taking Villa defenders with them, so Lotte opts for the long pass.
Miedema wins it but Little and Maanum are a little far away from her. The ball does make its way to Little thanks to excellent hold-up play from Miedema, but Hampton saves. Arsenal’s attacking midfielders didn’t quite know when to drop and collect the ball and when to push on and support Miedema.
There are four Villa players between the width of the posts as Little sizes up the shot, meaning it will take some effort to beat Hampton.
Once again in this sequence, Boye-Hlorkah is standing next to Lia Wälti and there is nobody else dropping deep to meet Lotte to maybe drag a Villa defender away from the defensive line.
Wubben-Moy has little choice but to try a long pass to Parris, which has a little too much on it. Notice how Miedema has dropped beyond Little and Maanum to try to meet Wubben-Moy but Villa know they don’t need to follow her because there is no run beyond her.
With the security of an extra central defender, Villa were aggressive in harrying Miedema when she did come away from the front line. Here N’Dow presses her and forces her backwards so that she cannot spin and distribute.
Villa smuggle the ball away and as Arsenal re-group to attack, Miedema has pulled away from the centre which has opened up a space in the centre of the Villa defence but Maanum hasn’t quite seen it yet and blocks the pass to Miedema.
Wälti passes to Little instead and now we can see Maanum has seen the space, unfortunately she just gets in Kim’s way and Villa are able to pounce again.
It was nobody’s fault, especially. As Eidevall said, Arsenal couldn’t get a sense of their positioning given the unexpected move to a back five from Villa and Maanum’s game is built on driving from deep rather than dragging defenders out of position.
Eidevall brought on Mana Iwabuchi for Maanum at half-time and, in the coach’s own words, “It helped to attract their midfielders to open up more space. You know you can’t give a player like Mana a lot of time and she will constantly drag players onto her and she is so fast at moving the ball that it gives someone else more space. Once we started attracting their players, spaces opened up and it becomes easier to move the ball faster. It’s harder if we don’t get that initial movement.”
Literally five seconds into the second half, Mana shows the exact movement missing in the first half. Here she is being tracked as Catley progresses the ball up the line.
Catley passes the ball to Mead and continues her run and Iwabuchi decides to stop and hold her position. Now Remi Allen has the choice to stop with Iwabuchi and leave a space for Catley to run into or else fill the space and leave Iwabuchi in space.
Mead tucks the ball back to Iwabuchi and Catley continues her run. The Villa midfield has to adjust their positioning and you can see that a space has opened up between their midfield and defence.
The ball is worked to Catley on the left and you can already see that Little is running into the space that Iwabuchi’s initial decision to hold her run has created.
Little latches onto Catley’s cross, her shot is blocked and Arsenal force a corner. The threat has returned. Small movements like that away from the front line are demanding for opponents to cope with because they are constantly being asked to choose between filling space and closing the player down.
Arsenal’s second shot of the half emanates from Iwabuchi’s movement too. Here she drops short for Beattie, coming to meet the ball and dragging a Villa player with here.
Beattie moves the ball to Catley on the left and Iwabuchi’s decision to start high and drop deep once again opens up space. As Catley passes to Iwabuchi, Allen once again has a choice between closing Iwabuchi down and leaving Miedema free, or else marking Miedema and allowing Iwabuchi space on the ball.
She decides to close Iwabuchi down and that gives Miedema space. Now Sargeant has to leave the defensive line to meet Miedema.
Miedema and Little now have the space for a one-two at the edge of the area and Miedema’s low shot travels just wide.
The resulting pressure has pushed Villa right back onto their 18-yard line and now when Wubben-Moy receives the ball, she is not inside her own half looking for a 40-yard pass. She is able to feed the ball into Kim Little’s feet inside the area instead. The Scottish midfielder does the rest.
Straight after the goal, Arsenal move the ball to Catley again and again, Iwabuchi just drops off a little to collect the pass and we can see how space opens up in front of her as a result. Miedema is alive to the space and is now able to move into it rather than into crowd scenes, as she was in the first half.
Miedema again moves into space and though Sargeant doesn’t follow her all the way, you can see she is not in line with N’Dow and Asante and Little can already see a route to run in behind her. As it turns out, Iwabuchi makes the wrong choice with the ball, trying to thread the eye of the needle with a difficult ball to Catley but we can see that Arsenal now have more choices and more favourable angles to try to prize the Villa defence open.
Then, of course, Iwabuchi put the seal on her performance with a finely taken goal.
Arsenal just missed that player who knows when to hold their position and when to drive, committing players and keeping them guessing between closing a player down and keeping space at a premium. Iwabuchi’s presence asked more questions of Villa’s mid-block and detached them from their defensive block.