In Arsenal’s most recent WSL game at Chelsea, Jonas Eidevall opted to start Vivianne Miedema as a number 10 with new striker Stina Blackstenius at centre-forward. On the day the signing of Blackstenius was announced, I asked Eidevall whether he could foresee the pair playing together.
“That’s definitely one of the scenarios that I am seeing but against some opposition, maybe even a game like Birmingham last week when space gets limited in the initial phases of possession, it could be a good idea to have a player like Viv deeper maybe playing as a 10 to help us to create. But when we created against Birmingham on Sunday, we had nobody in the box to finish the attack so that’s definitely something I am seeing as a possibility but also they can play as 9s.”
It’s one thing to pair them, hypothetically, in a game like Birmingham away when Arsenal trailed the team at the bottom of the table by two goals. The pair combined beautifully for a late equaliser at home to Manchester United too when Arsenal were trailing. “The goal was a perfect example of both players showing some of their best abilities,” Jonas told Arseblog News post-match. “Viv’s pass and Stina’s ability to make off the ball runs.”
To start a game like Chelsea away with Miedema as a 10 and Blackstenius as a 9 is something else altogether. As our analysis piece post-game points out, it worked well on the night. The more I think about it, the more I think we might see this combination more often. Not in every game, of course but here’s why I think it appeals to Jonas.
First, one must consider what Eidevall wants from his midfield, especially his advanced midfielders. Joe Montemurro usually played with a single pivot and two attacking eights while one of his wide players moved in-field to play like another 10. All of these players had freedom to run into the area to support Miedema, or even supplant her presence in the box when the forward dropped deep to link play.
I don’t think Eidevall is as keen on attacking midfielders making support runs into the penalty area. Arsenal’s central midfielders have two WSL assists between them so far this season, which suggests the creativity comes from elsewhere. Let’s look at that data for all of the players who have played either as an eight or as a 10 this season (with the caveat that Iwabuchi has played wide left, Little has played as a six and Maanum has played as a six too).
|Non-penalty goals per 90||Assists per 90||Non-penalty XG per 90||Expected assists per 90|
Between them, those players have two assists (one each for Nobbs and Iwabuchi) and eight non-penalty goals (another apiece for Iwabuchi and Nobbs and five for Kim Little. Though Kim hasn’t scored since a first half brace against West Ham on 7th November now). In short, what we see is less final third involvement for the midfielders under Eidevall compared to Joe Montemurro. Jordan Nobbs plays most frequently in the advanced midfield role and there is a distinct theme in where her touches are happening compared to previous seasons.
|Touches per 90||Defensive penalty area||Defensive Third||Middle third||Attacking third||Attacking penalty area|
We see that, broadly, the amount of touches she is having this season hasn’t moved an awful lot but she’s having more touches in deeper areas and fewer in attacking areas. We can see from her 2018-19 season, probably her best in an Arsenal shirt until her injury, she had fewer touches but she also had far more goal involvements (an amazing 1.53 per 90 that year). That’s because she was on the end of moves during that period. This season Jordan has 1.1 expected assist and 0.9 expected goals.
Miedema would drop deep and Nobbs would run into the penalty area and finish chances. She’s not being asked to do that this season. One of the words Eidevall uses most in his post-match press conferences is ‘structure.’ He wants a fairly solid midfield three with far less fluidity than we saw under Joe Montemurro when Danielle van de Donk, Jordan Nobbs, Vivanne Miedema, Kim Little and Jill Roord would have license to interchange positions.
I think this is why we also saw a drop-off in Miedema’s end-product in the autumn, there was an adjustment for her to make too. When she came deep to receive the ball, Arsenal’s midfielders were not being asked to explode in behind her into the space she vacated. I pointed out how often this happened in the miserable defeat at Birmingham City, when Viv would drop and end up almost colliding with midfielders she had been used to seeing in the rearview mirror.
Miedema was often substituted early during Eidevall’s opening games and he even started her on the bench for the Champions League home match against Barcelona. That has happened far less frequently recently, with Miedema playing the full 90 minutes in four of the last six matches, in the other two, she played 89 minutes against Chelsea before going off with cramp and 59 against London City Lionesses which she played with a migraine.
I think the reason that Eidevall will like the idea of Miedema as a 10 and Blackstenius as a 9 is quite simple. He has talked up Blackstenius’ threat in behind on many occasions. When he signed her, Eidevall told Arseblog News, “I also think a standout for Stina is, especially when you see her in the national team, is her ability to score goals in the really, really big games.
“That is down to a lot of factors but I think the main factor is that she’s an excellent player running in behind when there is space. If you look, for example, at the Barcelona games, I think we missed that quality in the squad to punish teams who play with a high defending line.” The last detail is probably instructive in his decision to start the pair against Chelsea. Eidevall doesn’t want his central midfielders leaving their posts to invade the penalty area so when Miedema drops into space, there has rarely been a supplementary run as a matter of instruction.
Miedema is not only very creative with her passing and ability to find a through ball but she doesn’t really look to explode into the area once she plays the pass from between the lines. In short, she holds the structure but with Blackstenius ahead of her, Arsenal still have the threat in behind, the centre-forward role is no longer empty space.
In the Chelsea analysis piece, I picked out this example, of Miedema spinning a ball out to the right- a pass she likes a lot- to Mead and when Mead has the ball out wide, Blackstenius is already providing her a centre-forward target. The structure stays the same throughout the move.
I have to admit that at the beginning of the season, I foresaw Nikita Parris being asked to fill that space when Miedema withdrew, with arcing runs in from the right flank. Keets has not really been asked to do that, however. I think Eidevall wants his wingers to stay wide more or less. In essence, there is less interchanging of positions this season compared to Joe Montemurro’s Arsenal team and I think Miedema as a 10 and Blackstenius as a 9 offers some of that structural certainty.
Like I said, I don’t think this will be the case for every game, Eidevall’s squad is diverse in terms of the qualities available to him in attacking positions. He has different tools for different problems but I wouldn’t be surprised if Miedema and Blackstenius played together fairly frequently before the season’s end.
All data from FBRef