Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Wolfsburg on Wednesday evening represented a fair result for two teams who spent a lot of the game bypassing the respective midfield press of their opponents. Arsenal upped the intensity in the second half and dominated territory, stopping Wolfsburg from hitting those quick back to front passes they had used to expose Arsenal a few times in the first half. Let’s see how this one panned out.
Wolfsburg make their intention to press clear in the first three seconds, as Wassmuth closes down Lia Wälti from kickoff and it sets the tone for the first twenty minutes or so, when Wolfsburg are the better side.
Likewise, Arsenal show a big part of their attacking hand inside thirty seconds. They placed Mead and McCabe in aggressive inside positions away from the flanks. Here we see Mead making a striker’s run into the central attacking lane.
Blackstenius feeds her and Mead, playing nominally on the right, shoots just wide from the inside left channel. Look at McCabe’s position here as well, she is nowhere near the flank and that is also intentional.
Look again here a minute later, as Mead meanders away from the flank to show for Williamson in the half-space. Mead and McCabe would do this a lot during the game but far more so during the second half, as I will demonstrate later. The aim was to drag the full-back away to create space in the channel for Blackstenius to run into.
However, it is here where the real pattern of the first half an hour begins to establish itself. Hendrich picks up the ball from centre half and has far too much time and space.
She duly pings a ball into the channel for Wassmuth to run onto. Huth heads her cross just wide in the end from a dangerous position. Wolfsburg would expose Arsenal a few times with quick passes into the channels from defence in the opening 30 minutes.
A minute later, Janssen receives the ball from her goalkeeper and her first thought is to launch it into the left channel again.
Maritz intercepts Janssen’s long pass but from the throw-in, Wolfsburg again immediately aim for the left channel through Lattwein and Popp is able to put another dangerous ball into the Arsenal area.
When this Arsenal move breaks down on the right and the ball ricochets to Oberdorf in that right defensive half space for Wolfsburg, once again her first thought is to go forward straight away.
Her long pass for Wassmuth briefly has Arsenal stressed but fortunately, the ball hits Wassmuth’s back and she cannot collect it smoothly.
For Wolfsburg’s goal, the source is once again a quick back to front pass from Hendrich. Note the fluidity of Wolfsburg’s front line too. In the first Wolfsburg chance I showed you, Wassmuth was running from the left with Roord upfront. In the second, it’s Popp on the left who puts a cross in with Wassmuth in the centre. Now Wassmuth is running into the right channel and Roord has dropped back into midfield.
Wubben-Moy beats Wassmuth to this pass but as she does, Wolfsburg are quick to counterpress Lia Wälti on the edge of her own area, they win the ball back and eventually force the goal. Wolfsburg’s aggression in the first half was another big feature of their play and I will show some examples in a moment.
But we see the long diagonal again from Lattwein that finds Huth in space on the right. Popp heads the resulting cross narrowly over the bar.
Wolfsburg’s intention to press also prevented Arsenal from making in-roads in the opening stages. Williamson tries that pass to Mead in-field again but is quickly closed down.
Look at how aggressive their shape is here with all of Wolfsburg’s forwards and midfielders in the Arsenal half and pressure on the ball.
Here Wolfsburg have five players in the final third as Williamson collects the pass from Zinsberger.
The result of that pressure sees Little turn the ball over because she has been forced to collect the ball with her back to goal and she can’t quite spin a pass around the corner. This was one of Wolfsburg’s big successes in the first half, forcing Arsenal’s good attackers to receive the ball with their back to goal and under intense pressure.
Exactly the same thing seconds later. Williamson tries to find Mead in that half space and…
She is forced to try a difficult pass around the corner and the ball is turned over.
And again, Williamson finds McCabe in the half space and…
She is forced to take her touch away from goal and away from danger.
It wasn’t just Wolfsburg’s midfielders that harried either. Maritz looks for Blackstenius here.
And Dominique Janssen is almost in Blackstenius’ shorts by the time she receives the ball. Arsenal needed to get her into positions where she was running into space rather than running towards the ball, which they were eventually able to do so.
Arsenal intercept a Wolfsburg clearance and Walti is able to find Miedema in space. Look at Hendrich at centre-half, she has no compunction about leaving her station, not least because she can see there is good coverage is in the back line with Popp back in the left-back spot and Rauch tucked in.
Even in this brief glimpse of space, Hendrich is so quick to press Miedema that she forces her backwards.
However, when you press aggressively and your centre-backs do likewise, it means they will leave space and Arsenal begin to work out that they can get some joy through the channels. Look here as Blackstenius signals for the ball to be played into the channel. It doesn’t arrive on this occasion. But let’s look at what happens in the next few minutes.
This time Wubben-Moy obliges with a ball into the channel for Blackstenius as the Wolfsburg defenders press up to engage the ball.
It’s the first time that Wolfsburg look properly exposed defensively. So what do Arsenal do?
Do it again, of course. This time Catley looks for Mead in that channel. This move ends with a shot on target for Mead.
When Arsenal win a throw-in on the left, look at Blackstenius again, making that run and frantically signalling.
McCabe gets the memo and Stina has the ball in a dangerous situation again.
Stina has the taste for this run now and not just in the left channel. Look at Mead in the foreground, showing for the ball again, her run has taken left-back Rauch out of the equation.
And Williamson finds Blackstenius in space in the channel again.
Once again, Williamson has the ball. Once again, Mead comes into the half space and takes players with her. Where do you reckon this pass is going?
Wolfsburg are beginning to back off because they know they are being exposed in the channels. It means their press is less intense now, look at where Williamson is here when Mead makes that run into the half space. Look at Wolfsburg coach Tommy Stroot prowling the extremity of his technical area, his eyes following the possible trajectory of that pass from Williamson. The pass isn’t quite right from Williamson this time but you can see why Stroot is concerned enough to follow play like this.
This bended run into the channel continues at the beginning of the second half. When Blackstenius has a goal ruled out for offside, Wälti finds her with a quick first-time pass and the Swede has again made a snaking run in the channel only this time she travels from outside to in. McCabe is also pushed right inside and we will see a few more examples of this in a moment.
Arsenal did a lot of the same things in the second half. They kept looking for the channels, they put their wingers in the half-spaces. But they just played with a touch more intensity. They clearly talked about stopping Wolfsburg from playing those back to front passes too, look at how quickly Miedema is in Hendrich’s face from kick off as she collects the ball.
We see it again here when Hendrich gets the ball, Miedema is straight onto her and not allowing her to pick out that long pass.
When Oberdorf collects this loose ball as Catley is tackled, Miedema is once again right in her face, cutting off the long pass she would like to make. Not only that but she wins the ball back. Wolfsburg are then pressed out of possession twice in around 12 seconds inside their own half by Arsenal. The Gunners increased intensity had the double benefit of pressuring the visitors in an attacking sense; but it also stopped them finding those back to front passes they found too many times in the first half.
The wingers tucking inside was again a theme of the second half and with Wolfsburg pinned back, they were able to make more of a difference. When Arsenal create a gilt edged chance for Blackstenius in the opening minutes of the half, Mead is tucked so far in that she is basically in the centre-forward position. She takes Rauch with her and that creates space for Maritz to run into, who Miedema finds with a sensational angled pass. Blackstenius gets on the end of Maritz’s cross but can’t angle it towards goal. Look at where Blackstenius is at this point of the move, in the channel again.
Just look at some of the positions Katie McCabe takes up in the second half, not where you would expect a winger to be.
Here McCabe is making a centre-forward’s run and Blackstenius is wide of her. Eventually Catley plays the ball to McCabe, who touches the ball to Miedema with her back to goal and Miedema shoots over.
In the challenge that leads to her harsh yellow card, look at where Mead is, tucked very far inside again.
Mead and McCabe are replaced in the final stages but their replacements maintain the theme. Look at Tobin Heath here wandering into the centre-forward role with Catley pushed up as a left-winger.
And when Parris comes on for Mead, we see her perform the same actions Mead had during the game. She spins into the half space, takes the ball from Williamson, taking Rauch with her and she feeds Maritz on the right flank.
A draw was a fair result in the end and the patterns of the game were really clear. Wolfsburg started with an intense press and looked to play quick passes from back to front. However, as Arsenal began to find joy in Wolfsburg’s channels, with the wide players tucking in and Blackstenius making those runs into the channels, they backed off a little. Arsenal didn’t change their tactics in the second half, they just executed them with greater conviction and intensity and deserved their equaliser.