Friday, March 1, 2024

Aston Villa Women 0 – 4 Arsenal Analysis: Mana makes the difference

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.

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Love this type of analysis. The squad depth allows players with different qualities to shine if the first approach doesn’t work. Fiecesome bunch. The past few games and have given me hope that we are able to find a way to beat Barca.


Mana is so fucking good. Already racking up quite the highlight reel. Other players seem to really enjoy playing with her as well. Might even convince our dutch demi-god striker to stay…


Mana from heaven


I have been waiting Mana to sign with us since 2019. She’s totally an Arsenal player, she just fit in to our style of play. Thank God for Viv suggested Mana to Arsenal and she finally signing with us this summer.


The way Viv seemed to come alive in the second half after Mana entered, pretty much reflected the bigger picture where she looked worn out last season and now is playing with much more vigour thanks to the arrival of her best friend and the revitalised direction that Arsenal is heading to.


Thank you for the analysis, Tim. In the first half I was aware that Frida wasn’t as effective as usual, but I couldn’t see why.

At the beginning of the game the pitch was very wet which made quick passing along the ground very difficult. Watching the highlights, I noticed that Lotte’s pass for the first goal bounced just once before it reached Kim and yet was never more than two feet above the ground – a very good example of adjusting to the conditions.


I think against most teams, it’s more suitable to go with either one of Lia/Frida and then a pair of free roaming attacking mids in Kim/Mana/Jordan. Frida covers a lot of ground (quickly too, with her huge stride length) and is terrific at ball-winning, but Lia knows how to thread the passes and get the attack flowing. Great to see you point out Mana’s off-the-ball movement and decisions on positioning; often her magic footwork and excellent finishing get all the attention but these qualities are probably what led Jonas to say that she possesses such a “high game intelligence”.


100% plus also Frida is still very young and probably haven’t had lot of experiences to play against that low and compact block as Villa put up yesterday. But I love that we can replace Lia with Frida in low block games. My biggest worry before the season was Lia’s replacement, but Frida had done that seemlessly then needed. We will see it more during the season, but we really have lot of different options for the gamestate. We saw against Spurs how midfield with Jordan and Mana absolutely destroyed Spurs low block, Kim and Frida couldn’t do it, but… Read more »


It just shows the difference having strength in depth makes. It’s like having a full toolbox. If one tool isn’t quite right for the job, you have one in the locker that it is. Mana turned the game on its head. And Frida wasn’t bad, the Villa tactics nullified her strengths.

david Yai

Our women are pretty doing well in women football than men. Keep going please.


Our men never did very well in women’s football, but our women’s team are the most successful team in the country and I thing we have an excellent squad to challenge for titles on all fronts this season. COYG!


I saw a full game video of the BBC broadcast, and I found the analysis by the commentator, Fara Williams, to be very informative. On the Arsenal attack in the first half she was roughly saying things like these (unless I misunderstood): – Instead of always going wide or trying the long balls forward, they need to find more passes to pockets, like to Little. You can look like you’re going for a long ball and disguise a pass to the pocket. – Miedema dropped backed on occasions to the pockets but you need other players running around her. –… Read more »


Excellent analysis Tim! I was aware Iwabuchi made the difference but couldn’t pinpoint why, and now I understand 🙂 don’t think I’ve ever understood the importance of off the ball positioning to creat spaces this well.


Thanks again, Tim, for these consistently excellent analytical pieces. These articles have improved my understanding of the beautiful game tremendously.

Vincent Gallagher

I have been watching Iwabuchi since 2010. She always received high praise from Homare Sawa, the best ever to play for Japan. She had been stifled by the now ex-coach of Nadeshiko, Takakura, on a national team in decline since 2011. She fits well with Arsenal and it is good to see her finally on a winning team. She is intelligent and selfless, atop incredible talent & skill. As with many of the top players in Japan, her technical skills are par exellence. Please take good care of her, she is a national treasure in her homeland.

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