Arsenal thoroughly dominated Reading in Wednesday evening’s 4-0 WSL win at Meadow Park. The Gunners produced 19 shots to Reading’s four and had 63% of the ball. The XG score was 2.6 to 0.2 in Arsenal’s favour. There were many facets of the performance that were dominant, the extent to which Eidevall’s team were able to play in behind the full-backs and create superiorities.
The aspect I want to focus on though, is Arsenal’s pressing and counterpressing. They attempted 20 tackles last night (they only won nine, but winning the tackle is only part of the point, creating the pressure on the opposition is the main intention). Reading attempted 25. They committed 10 fouls to Reading’s nine, despite having double the visitors’ possession. Here are some examples of Arsenal’s intensity off the ball that gave Reading plenty of issues.
The tone is set by Miedema in the first minute as Gemma Evans collects the ball at centre-half. For Evans, this looks like a relatively serene situation at this point.
Or not. Miedema absolutely races to close Evans down just as she has relaxed and blocks her pass. Miedema made five tackles (the most in the team) and two blocks (the most on the team) against Reading. Her pressing was on point all evening, as you will see throughout this article.
Less than a minute later, once again Cooper makes what she thinks is a routine pass to Evans and Miedema is already sniffing another pressing opportunity.
Having already been rabidly closed down by Miedema just 45 seconds earlier, Evans panics and miscontrols the ball, which piques Katie McCabe’s interest.
Left-back Lilly Woodham collects the ball at this point but she is not spared Miedema’s attention. McCabe has moved forward to cut off the pass down the line. Miedema blocks Woodham’s pass and Reading already know they are in for a tough evening.
Inside three minutes, Eikeland has the ball in a tricky situation and Miedema is right onto it.
Under that pressure, Eikeland can only hook the ball straight to Blackstenius.
Blackstenius takes the ball down and finds Miedema, who is now running at the Reading defence. She is tackled here by Faye Bryson, but…
…Miedema is not prepared to accept the tackle. She is straight back in to take the ball off Bryson again.
She wins the ball back and gets her shot off, which is eventually blocked. Miedema’s pressure created the initial opening and when she was tackled, she simply tackled back and got her shot off anyway.
Miedema was far from the only player leading the press. Stina Blackstenius finished the match with 31 pressures, the most on the team. Here we see her charging down Deanne Cooper as she collects the ball from a short goal-kick. Cooper is unable to play out, so Cooper just tries to get the ball clear and Blackstenius blocks the clearance and forces Reading into a throw-in deep in their own half.
Here it is McCabe who starts the press as Evans passes to Woodham and that pressure forces Woodham to go back to her goalkeeper, who tries to build again through Evans.
As soon as Stewart finds Evans, that is Miedema’s trigger to sprint and close her down.
Miedema closes Evans down again. On this occasion, Evans just about resists but is pushed right to the extremity of the pitch. She hits a pass and it finds a teammate. It’s more by luck than anything else though and it stops Evans picking a more favourable pass. Crucially, by now Evans will already be mentally tired at being stressed in this way every time she collects the ball.
Another small curiosity from this season has been the role of Lia Wälti. Under Joe Montemurro, we were very used to seeing Lia as the deepest midfielder and she still often is. But she has a more proactive role this season. Just look at her position here as Rafaelle collects the ball, she’s well ahead of Kim Little. Blackstenius made 31 pressures on Wednesday, Miedema made 27. Snuggled between them in that table was Lia Wälti with 29. She has a much more aggressive and front footed role this season.
On this occasion, a wonderful pass from Wälti and flick from Foord puts Miedema into a good situation but for a good tackle from Cooper. Let’s look at what happens in the seconds that follow Reading regaining the ball in their own area.
McCabe, Wälti and Catley are all closing down straight away. None of them manages to win the ball but eventually the pressure tells.
Kim Little is able to make an interception after one too many pressured passes from Reading and Arsenal have the ball back and Reading’s defence cannot rest.
Now you have the general idea about Arsenal’s press, let’s look at some occasions where it created chances or dangerous situations.
Miedema tries an outside of the foot pass to Blackstenius here after Caitlin Foord’s pressure wins the ball back for Arsenal high up the pitch. The pass is cut out, but…
Miedema again doesn’t settle, she goes back and wins the tackle, poking the ball back into the path of Foord.
Foord couldn’t quite bring the ball under her spell and tackles Evans so that the ball falls to Blackstenius, who puts Miedema through on goal but the referee pulls play back for a foul by Foord.
Miedema tries a cross field pass to Foord here, which is cut out by Woodham. Woodham is on the stretch, so doesn’t have the ball under control. But look where Blackstenius is when the interception happens.
By the time Woodham brings the ball down, Blackstenius is in her face and takes the ball away from her.
It leads to this opening. Foord gets her shot away from this move but Stewart saves.
It doesn’t create a chance but look at Katie McCabe’s commitment here. It’s 3-0 in the 67th minute as this Reading free-kick is cleared. You can just see her sprinting away from the edge of the Arsenal area.
She makes a lung busting run to chase the ball down and force Reading back to their goalkeeper.
But she doesn’t stop there and, by now, Blackstenius has joined her in the press.
The pressure from McCabe forces Stewart to rush and overhit her pass to Woodham and Mead is onto it. Arsenal only end up getting a throw-in but the commitment to harry Reading in that situation is remarkable given the game state.
The ball comes back to Stewart here as Arsenal press Reading back towards their own goal. Blackstenius is closing Stewart down and McCabe is closing off the avenue to two Reading players.
It means that Stewart has to pass into a more central area and Miedema pounces, intercepting the clearance and sending it back into a dangerous area.
Cooper intercepts Miedema’s header but can’t bring the ball under control so Miedema is straight back onto the scene to close her down. In winning it back, the ball accidentally ricochets off her hand and Reading are let off with a free-kick. Otherwise, look at the situation she is in as a result of intercepting a clearance and then counterpressing seconds later.
The fourth goal comes from a pressing situation. Reading play out from a goal kick and Beth Mead runs to close down Woodham and wins the ball high up the pitch.
The biggest advantage of the pressing approach is that it allows you to win the ball in situations when your opponents aren’t set. So it proves here, Mead wins the ball and quickly finds Miedema in space.
Less then ten seconds after a Reading goal kick, Arsenal find themselves in this situation with Reading not defensively set. We all know what happens next….
Pressing wasn’t Arsenal’s only strategy on the night. Only one of the four goals directly emanates from a press or counterpress but it did wear Reading down and make sure they just couldn’t get out of their own half and it created plenty of good opportunities.