Coach Jonas Eidevall pulled no punches in his post-match assessment of Sunday’s impoverished 2-0 defeat at Birmingham City. “When you say ‘poor’ I think the words you use are too nice,” he said to Arseblog News matter of factly. Defensively Arsenal were porous but the biggest surprise was how poor the attack was given the quality of the players on show.
“You can even see that when we do break through Birmingham’s line of defence, we are so slow in getting numbers in the box or creating numerical superiorities. We had situations in the game where we played through them but the person with the ball is alone because other players haven’t anticipated or made a run into an area where you can score.” Let’s have a look at some of these incidents.
The very first time Arsenal expose Birmingham playing out from a throw in, they create a promising situation having played through the Blues pressure in their own right-back slot. Kim Little is running towards goal, Jordan Nobbs runs to the right, Iwabuchi is coming up on the left.
Nobbs has done well to see the space on the right. Having worked back to help Arsenal play through the pressure in their own half, Miedema is not yet in shot. Iwabuchi is up on the left but can’t match the pace Nobbs shows to go to the right. Ideally, Iwabuchi is the pass here because it shifts Birmingham’s defence over to the left and starts to pull the back three apart, while Mead, Nobbs, Little and the arriving Miedema can get into the area.
Not only does Little not quite have the superior option on the left, she overcooks the pass to Nobbs on the right and when Kim Little is overegging simple passes, you know you are in for a bad day. Nobbs is pushed over to the corner flag rather than the corner of the penalty area, allowing Birmingham to resettle.
The upshot is a cross into the area which Ramsey gathers comfortably but it’s unlikely that Mead, Little or Iwabuchi would have offered sufficient aerial threat to attack it anyway. Miedema is still out of shot.
As Blair Newman points out here, Birmingham disrupted Arsenal’s build-up play from goal kicks with a smart pressing action but one of the reasons it was so effective was because the Arsenal players just didn’t seem to have the structure to play through it. The late starting line-up change that saw Frida Maanum drafted in as a number six instead of Lia Wälti may have played a role here.
Birmingham used restarts as an opportunity to put Arsenal under pressure.
In open play they defended in a 5-4-1/5-3-2 depending on Pennock's position. But from Arsenal goal kicks it was a 4-4-2 diamond ⬇️
Arsenal had 8 goal kicks. Birmingham won possession 4 times. pic.twitter.com/ogKuOvQpCp
— Blair Newman (@thesecondball) January 10, 2022
From this situation, Iwabuchi spins and drops short to provide an option for Beattie. As soon as Iwabuchi makes that movement, you can see Kim Little dropping into the space behind her and McCabe can run on too. This is a situation that has some potential.
Iwabuchi receives the ball and spins, McCabe is on her bike but Little has stopped her run because Miedema has dropped short into the same pocket of space Little wanted to occupy. It takes Little out of the game. Arsenal don’t really need Miedema in this space, Little and McCabe are already there. There is a clear lack of understanding about the pattern of play.
Iwabuchi plays the pass and Little and Miedema are just not in a dangerous area to contribute because they’ve gotten in each other’s way.
As it turns out, the pass is overhit anyway. But even if it isn’t, look at what McCabe has to work with. There isn’t another Arsenal player fully in the shot. If Miedema, Little and McCabe want to form a triangle on the left, then one of Nobbs or Mead needs to be running into the area. Otherwise, Miedema is not needed in that space next to Little and McCabe and she needs to be in the area.
What this shows is a lack of understanding or agreement on attacking patterns of play. Iwabuchi dropping short and Little running in behind makes the angle for the scenario nicely but then there isn’t the same understanding in the second phase, where Miedema either needs to fill the area, or else if she comes short, someone needs to know to run in behind her.
In one of the few good moves Arsenal put together in the half, we see an attacking chemistry in action that wasn’t repeated often enough. As Simone Boye looks ahead of her, Mead and Little swap positions. Mead bursts into the centre, taking Rebecca Holloway with her while Little tiptoes into the right channel.
Boye plays the ball to Mead and she deftly touches the ball around the corner to the onrushing Little (you can see that Iwabuchi and Miedema have swapped positions in this shot too).
This puts Little into a prime position with Miedema arriving on the back post or the pull-back to Iwabuchi available. Jordan Nobbs is also arriving for a cut back.
But the skipper takes too long deliberating and finds her cross closed down by Veatriki Sarri. I’ve said a few times now that, personally, I prefer Kim in a deeper role as a build-up player who can help Arsenal evade the press with her excellent ball retention. With 0.7XA (expected assists) this season, I don’t think she quite has the creative edge of Iwabuchi or Nobbs in the final third (though Nobbs and Iwabuchi didn’t really demonstrate this on Sunday, in fairness). Precision is absolutely necessary in the defensive and middle thirds, in the final third, sometimes you need to throw caution to the wind or play the pass or shot that represents a gamble. I’m not sure Kim does ‘gambling’ with the ball which might explain why her expected assist total is low.
Arsenal’s lack of cohesion is unpicked for Birmingham’s second goal too. Jordan Nobbs runs to press Louise Quinn at centre-half and neither Kim Little nor Mana Iwabuchi drop into the space she has left.
Quinn clears and Maanum chases down Pennock. The fact that Maanum, as the deepest midfielder, is running from behind Pennock to make the challenge is a flag in its own right. Ideally, she should be facing the play given her role.
To her credit, Maanum does wrestle the ball off Pennock and toes it into what turns out to be empty space. One of Little or Iwabuchi should be here to receive the loose ball in the space that Nobbs vacated when she went to press Louise Quinn. Instead, Sarri picks up under no pressure and Birmingham start the attack again. I don’t interpret this as a failure of effort so much as a failure of understanding between teammates.
Sarri too easily picks her way through the Arsenal midfield and shunts the ball out to Finn, whose cross takes a slight ricochet as Beattie does her job of closing off Libby Smith at the front post. Frida Maanum is level with Sarri as the cross comes in.
But Maanum isn’t a natural defender and Sarri’s instincts are keener as the ball bounces and she lashes it into the top corner. It’s another example of how Arsenal’s structure fell apart too easily under duress.
In this sequence, Katie McCabe opts for an “up and under” from an Arsenal throw-in which was a decent idea given Birmingham’s press. She opted to go over the top of the press and into space, where Arsenal could countepress from the second ball if needs be.
Sure enough, Birmingham cannot clear or control the high ball and it is simply diverted but into a big empty space where no Arsenal players are standing ready to counterpress. We can conclude this wasn’t a planned tactic per se but a move borne of frustration and one that Arsenal’s players weren’t ready for and didn’t react to.
In the next sequence, McCabe dribbles brilliantly out of trouble and whips an excellent diagonal pass to Beth Mead on the right in space.
Mead overhits the pass to Maritz on the overlap.
It might be a still screenshot but the sense you get here, as Birmingham win the ball back, is that Arsenal aren’t exactly turning heel and sprinting to get it back again.
It means that, once again, the gaps between the departments of the team are too large. Simone Boye has to sprint forward from defence into midfield to try to intercept Birmingham’s clearance and build the pressure again and she ends up conceding a free-kick in the mad rush to the ball.
Arsenal’s best and really only clearcut chance of the game comes from a Birmingham error as Scott is forced back towards her own goal and tries a back pass to Emily Ramsey, Miedema is switched on- it’s the sort of through ball her teammates couldn’t provide on the day!
Miedema seizes on the pass and rounds Ramsey, before finding Kim Little with the cutback.
But Gemma Lawley sprints back with a brilliant block. A goal back in the 53rd minute, for all of Arsenal’s faults on the day, would really have changed the complexion of the second half.
The confusion in the Arsenal players is summed up in this sequence as Zinsberger plays a short ball to Iwabuchi.
Iwabuchi is pressed hard by Jamie Finn and Iwabuchi doesn’t seem to be prepared for it.
Iwabuchi ends up fouling Finn and getting a yellow card. From their own goal kick, inside the space of three seconds, Arsenal have now conceded a free-kick in a dangerous area and had a player booked. It’s Iwabuchi’s unpreparedness that catches the eye. Again, it suggests that this is not a rehearsed move and players are playing off the cuff, getting themselves into situations where they are too easily uncomfortable.
Something similar happens a few minutes earlier as McCabe has the ball on the touchline and looks in-field for a pass with Jordan Nobbs standing just in front of her.
Nobbs catches McCabe’s eye and she stumbles and the ball trickles out of play. It could just be the sort of technical error that happens in a game but this sort of thing happened so many times and suggested that the players weren’t expecting particular passes or else didn’t expect teammates to be in certain positions.
As the ball dribbles out, look at the positioning of the Arsenal players. Nobbs and McCabe are close together. Iwabuchi and Maanum are close together and then there is a giant chasm ahead of them with Miedema totally isolated. The spacing is not threatening at all and shows you exactly why Arsenal struggled to create.
Ultimately, this level of unfamiliarity suggests that the game plan either wasn’t clear to the players or else it wasn’t followed.