After Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United on Saturday, Jonas Eidevall pointed to the players having a lack of time to train together over the last fortnight. In defence, especially, Arsenal were hit by the absence of their three first choice centre halves. Leah Williamson and Lotte Wubben-Moy were unavailable for fitness reasons, Rafaelle was only able to train from Friday due to illness.
Jen Beattie had missed the two previous fixtures through illness and only rejoined training during the week, she started alongside Steph Catley at centre-half who arrived back from India and the Asia Cup on Wednesday. None of Arsenal’s centre-halves had a full week’s training and Rafaelle and Steph Catley had to share the game since neither was quite at the level to play for 90 minutes.
Katie McCabe’s red card complicated things further in the back line, meaning that Lia Wälti had to play in central midfield, centre-half and left-back during the 90 minutes. Tobin Heath, who also didn’t train for most of the week due to illness, struggled fitness wise during the first half and had to be replaced at the break. “I am optimistic about the future but we need to get the players together to practice together,” Eidevall said after the game. “Today we had 19 players in the squad, which is great but we haven’t had 19 players practicing with each other.
“There have been a lot of players managed so they can be in the match squad. It has sometimes shown in the relationships when we play and that’s a massive part for us to spend time together and get that collective understanding.” United, unsurprisingly, pressed Arsenal high and in the early part of the game, the Gunners struggled to deal with it but they created good scenarios on the occasions that they were able to play through United’s high pressure. Let’s look at some examples.
The first time Arsenal have possession at the back, Catley moves the ball right to Beattie and you can see United has a straight line of four in their press, with Russo, Toone, Bruun and Galton forming a physical barrier into midfield and the wide areas.
Beattie moves the ball back to Zinsberger and then it goes to Catley, that’s the trigger for Toone to press Catley and force her into a decision. Russo is cutting off a good passing lane for Catley with her position, forcing Heath to go right out to the touchline.
The pass is a little slow to reach Heath due to the very dry pitch. This means Tobin is turned side on rather than forwards when she collects. The ball skips up off the dry surface too, meaning Heath has to take a touch and can’t pass it first time. By the time she gets turned, Ona Batlle is on her, the ball is turned over and United are on the attack. A mixture of sluggishness and a slow playing surface mean Arsenal don’t play out and end up defending instead.
The second time Arsenal try to play out, it’s the surface that foils them. Zinsberger goes short to Catley and, again, that is Toone’s trigger to press. Once again, Russo is cutting off some good angles for Catley with her position.
Heath wanders in-field and under pressure, makes a smart lay off to Wälti.
However, the ball gets stuck on the boggy surface again, meaning Wälti has to run towards it. It’s bouncing awkwardly too so she can’t get it under control. She elects to go safety first and volley it clear and Arsenal lose possession.
Here’s the next occasion when Arsenal’s defence try to play out. Little’s pass to Catley is slightly over hit and, as usual, that’s the trigger for Toone to press.
Catley stays calm, invites the pressure before passing up the line to Heath. Russo’s press is such that McCabe is squeezed off the pitch altogether.
Once again, Batlle is all over Heath like a rash and the American is forced back towards her own goal and Zinsberger then kicks the ball out of play near the halfway line. United know that Arsenal like to overload the left flank, look at how many bodies are in the frame in the second image. They have four to match Arsenal’s four.
When Zinsberger goes short to Catley again, sure enough, Toone runs over to harry her.
Russo is cutting off the avenue to the left wing again.
Catley goes long and the ball goes straight to Mary Earps. Arsenal undoubtedly missed Leah Williamson and Rafaelle and their ability to switch play with long diagonals, both can also dribble away from pressure.
Unfortunately, the camera does not really capture it from this move (the camera hovers on Leah Williamson in the stands as Arsenal play out from Beattie to Maritz to Little). But having played out successfully, Arsenal have the ball on the halfway line but with a lot of space. United’s entire midfield is pushed up, leading to a promising situation.
Miedema spreads the play to Heath on the left but, once again, the move is slightly hampered by the dry surface and the pass takes an age to reach Heath. A zippier surface would have seen Heath in far more space without allowing the United defence to shuffle over.
Heath does get the shot off in the end but it goes over. The pitch put a lag on the pass from Miedema which made the chance more difficult from an otherwise good move playing out from the back.
A high pressing style leaves gaps in behind and we see it here again when Katie McCabe wins the ball back from Alessia Russo. Toone, Ladd and Zelem, United’s midfield three are in the frame here which means the defence behind them is unprotected.
The referee gets in McCabe’s way as she tries to pass the ball forwards and her pass is blocked, but Wälti acts quickly to play the ball to Nobbs first time. First time passes are crucial in playing around a press and Wally’s two-footedness means she can do it more than most.
Nobbs now has acres of space to run into and finds Mead on the left with Zelem and Ladd sprinting to get back.
Mead chops past Batlle and goes down in the area but her penalty appeal is waved away. But it’s another example of a sharp first time pass away from pressure exposing the gaps United’s press leaves further upfield. It left Battle in a two v one situation that she only just survived.
By now Arsenal have grown into the game a little and United don’t quite have the energy they showed in the first few minutes. The Gunners play out a few times well enough, they don’t create anything but neither do they turn the ball over in dangerous positions. This means the press is less threatening. Now Russo is not nearly as high, she is holding her shape on the left wing rather than pressing like a third striker. Galton is also not in the picture here. The straight line of four from the first image is now more of a two.
As the ball is worked to Beattie, we can see that Russo and Galton are positioned like wide players in a 442 rather than wide forwards in a 4231.
We see it again here as the ball is worked back to Catley. Russo is still looking to cut off passing angles but she is much further back and the centre-halves have more space to play.
That doesn’t mean Arsenal’s issue is entirely fixed. From this goal kick, Catley (who is no longer being subjected to such close attention from Toone, rolls the ball to Beattie).
There is a slight miscommunication between Maritz and Beattie, Maritz just shifts her weight backwards as Beattie tries to pass the ball in front of Maritz and the ball is rolled out of play. It is the sort of miscommunication that can happen in any game but it’s far more likely when your training patterns have been disrupted by absence.
We see that lack of understanding again a few minutes later. Maritz is penned in and motions for Beattie, who usually plays as the left centre-half, to come towards her.
Galton closes Maritz down and Beattie protects the ball for the goal kick but, again, a lack of training time and the fact that Beattie and Maritz don’t usually play alongside one another might explain the misunderstanding here.
United are wary of Arsenal’s left-sided overload and in the second half, we see Arsenal try to use the right side more often. Watch here as Miedema has the ball and United have lots of numbers on the left side.
Three backwards passes later and the ball is with Zinsberger but it’s not as reluctant a move as it might seem, Zinsberger farms the ball to Beattie on the right.
Beattie finds Mead who plays a first-time pass to Maritz. Her cut back finds Nobbs who fires over. Arsenal didn’t have Leah Williamson’s big switches of play so they had to improvise, in this scenario, they moved the ball back from the left and quickly to the right to switch the point of attack away from United pressure. Once again, it is significant that Mead plays the pass first time instead of taking a touch.
This angle shows you nicely how you can create spaces in a solid defensive structure by moving from one side of the pitch to the other quickly and with one-touch passes.
Arsenal create another good situation by playing the ball out in a much more spritely fashion (this angle might look familiar too). They win the ball back and again; United’s high press style means there will be space behind if you can escape the pressure.
Foord emerges with the ball and finds Nobbs on the touchline, her first-time pass releases Miedema into space. On this occasion, Thorisdottir makes a good last-ditch tackle. But the speed of the move exposes the spaces United leave.
Eidevall made a double substitution before the hour mark, replacing Nobbs and Beattie with Blackstenius and Maanum, Nobbs usually forms part of the left-sided overload but Maanum popped up again and again in the right half-space after she came on.
Here we see her combine with Mead on the right.
When Mead collects the ball again a minute later, look at where Maanum runs to. The ball doesn’t come to her but she has been told to stay close to Mead on the right to create an overload.
Arsenal had two more reasons to curse the Meadow Park surface. In the build-up to Ella Toone’s one-on-one miss, we see Kim Little here race across to the touchline to stop a United counter, covering well for Maritz.
She takes a touch but the ball bobbles away from her violently and she loses control, leaving Galton to feed Toone for a one-on-one with the goalkeeper which, thankfully, she misses. When Kim Little loses control of the ball you know something is amiss.
RED CARD! A second yellow for McCabe for following through late on Battle and she is off 🟥 pic.twitter.com/IJ7Gl8qdtV
— Sky Sports WSL (@SkySportsWSL) February 5, 2022
The McCabe red card is not solely on the surface but you can see that, again, McCabe takes a pretty standard touch on the flank and the ball runs away from her much as it did Little on the opposite touchline, which creates the 50-50 situation that draws the second yellow.
The equaliser emanates from a world class pass from Miedema. United were leaving gaps as they committed to the high press but it really took an absolutely top drawer pass to properly exploit it. Again, the key here is that the ball is played quickly and she doesn’t fuss with lots of extra touches. One touch out of her feet and the ball is released. This is an area where, generally, Arsenal need to improve I think, releasing passes more quickly. Even so, this pass is a 10/10 effort.
From this angle, you can see how exposed United’s defensive line is if you can break that initial press. Miedema’s pass, however, is still like a trick shot. United did leave those gaps for most of the game but a mixture of a lack of understanding between players and a poor playing surface made them difficult to exploit. In the end, it took a world class pass from Miedema to really open United up.
A pass of the 𝗵𝗶𝗴𝗵𝗲𝘀𝘁 quality 💯
— Barclays FA Women's Super League (@BarclaysFAWSL) February 6, 2022