Arsenal Women finished with seven more WSL points in 2021-22 compared to 2020-21. In 2020-21, they finished 3rd in the final Champions League spot one point ahead of Manchester United in 4th and finished nine points behind champions Chelsea. This season they took the title race to the final day and finished one point behind Chelsea.
They made the Champions League quarter-final. While the exit to Wolfsburg was disappointing, their WSL counterparts Manchester City were eliminated in the playoff round, while Chelsea exited in the group stage. They reached the 2021 FA Cup Final and the 2022 FA Cup semi-final but put in disappointing performances against Chelsea on both occasions. So let’s review the 2021-22 season, what changed, what improved and where next for this team?
Five new players in the summer of 2021, three new players in January 2022 and a new coach appointed in June 2021 in the shape of Jonas Eidevall. Let’s summarise the playing squad turnover, which was significant.
In: Frida Maanum, Nikita Parris, Simone Boye, Mana Iwabuchi, Tobin Heath
Out: Danielle van de Donk, Jill Roord, Lisa Evans (loan), Leonie Maier, Ruby Mace
In: Rafaelle Souza, Stina Blackstenius, Laura Wienroither
Out: Anna Patten (loan), Malin Gut, Viki Schnaderbeck (loan)
I think it’s clear that some of the summer signings were made before the appointment of Jonas Eidevall. He has struggled to integrate Nikita Parris and Mana Iwabuchi into his style. Simone Boye, I think, was signed with the short-term in mind because Eidevall wanted Rafaelle initially but could not get her until her contract in China expired in December. Boye is likely to leave this summer.
Jonas did not have input into the signing of Frida Maanum but told me an anecdote in December that when he was interviewed for the Arsenal position last summer, he was asked for his three ideal midfield signings and he listed Maanum without realising that the club already had a deal in place for her. Heath was very much Eidevall’s signing and the signing that made the biggest splash.
However, Tobin did not manage to complete 90 minutes in a game during the season and cancelled her contract early after another muscle injury. I think, in hindsight, she probably spent a lot of last summer holding out for a move to another NWSL team after her rights were bought by Racing Louisville, where she did not want to play.
In effect, I think she had a choice between Arsenal or Louisville and waited until the last minute before settling on North London. The signing just never quite worked in the way we had hoped and I don’t think Tobin was fully sold on the Arsenal experience (not that that was a factor in how things turned out, that was purely down to injury).
Of the January signings, Rafaelle looked very impressive in defence as a very good complement to Leah Williamson but injury cut her season short. Laura Wienroither was brought as a back-up option to Noelle Maritz while Stina Blackstenius came in and scored seven goals.
This period will have been useful in her acclimatisation to the WSL for next season, I think we will see an even better Stina next season. All in all, Arsenal had a bigger squad this season and, in the first half of the season when the schedule was heavier, the team was rotated more heavily. I think Blackstenius and Rafaelle will be significant players for Arsenal next season and they have some acclimatisation time behind them, which should stand them in good stead.
The playing style
Jonas Eidevall came in with a new style of play after three and a half seasons of Joe Montemurro’s possession-based total football style. Eidevall wanted to maintain the principles of having the ball, “there is only one ball and I want my team to have it” he said in his opening press conference last summer.
However, he was clear that he wanted to score every type of goal and to introduce a more aggressive counterpressing style to complement the team’s existing attributes. After a Champions League qualifying win against PSV Eindhoven last August, he bristled slightly after the game. “We scored the sort of goals I expect Arsenal to score. But I want us to score from crosses, counter-attacks and corners as well. I want us to be dangerous in every situation.”
A quick glance at the data shows you an Arsenal more intent on pressuring opponents and generally play in a slightly more direct manner with fewer passes, more crosses and a lot more pressures. There is less of an emphasis on accuracy in passing because even a mislaid pass in the final third can lead to a counterpressing situation.
I think the ‘players with more than 15 WSL appearances’ stat might be even further ahead of 2020-21 were it not for the fact that Jonas settled on a core of 12-13 players from February onwards, which was driven by the form of individuals like Catley, Foord, Wälti and Mead, which meant the likes of Parris, Maanum, Nobbs and Iwabuchi struggled for minutes even when they were available.
|Attempted passes per 90
|Attempted short passes per 90
|Short passes completed per 90
|Pressures per 90
|Successful pressures per 90
|Final third pressures per 90
|Fouls per 90
|Players with more than 15 WSL appearances
|Crosses per 90
Where did Arsenal improve?
The record in the big games improved drastically in the WSL and that is why their points total improved, it’s that simple. Arsenal were unbeaten against the other members of the top four, taking four points a piece from Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. Last season, Arsenal took a total of four points from the same fixtures.
This season they finished with seven more points than last season and took eight more points from those games. That is the short answer. (More on the big-game performances in the cups henceforth). Arsenal have a clutch of players who developed very well during this season- the injury record was better in general with Gary Lewin appointed as head of medicine and sports science, as well as a bigger squad to absorb the load.
When you consider that Arsenal played five Champions League qualifiers in August and September and six Champions League group games before Christmas, with nine players away at the summer Olympics in Japan and no summer break, that is quite an achievement. I think, though, having those qualifiers contributed to beating Chelsea on the opening day and the 5-0 thrashing of Manchester City in September as the Gunners were running nice and warm when they played those games.
Steph Catley and Noelle Maritz could not contribute as strongly in 2020-21 due to injury, this season we saw something much closer to the best form of both. Manu Zinsberger won the Golden Gloves award in the WSL and that was deserved recognition for her improvement this year. Beth Mead has gone to yet another level with her best goal scoring season in an Arsenal shirt to add to her creative game.
What can we tell about the direction of the team?
The signing of Stina Blackstenius and deployment of Vivianne Miedema as a number 10 pointed, I think, to the future direction of the team. Before Miedema moved to number 10 against Manchester United in February, she was substituted in 13 of her 18 starts. After she moved to the 10 role, she was substituted in eight of her 15 appearances- twice after the 88th minute as a time-wasting sub. Eidevall clearly valued Miedema more as a 10 than a 9.
Blackstenius’ signing was completed shortly after the defeat to Birmingham and Eidevall told Arseblog News, “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.” Once Miedema moved to 10 she never reverted to 9, with Foord and Blackstenius sharing that role. Maanum and Mead even had brief cameos in the role while Viv played behind them.
It’s clear that he wants a number 9 that attacks the penalty area and runs the channels, rather than a striker like Miedema who likes to move towards the build-up. If Miedema were to stay I think it would be exclusively as a 10. Interestingly, Eidevall doesn’t seem to have been able to yield the best from Jordan Nobbs or Mana Iwabuchi as a 10. Little and Maanum were not as effective there either. Only Miedema truly thrived in that role this season.
I would expect Arsenal to get bigger in height and stature this summer too. The signings of Blackstenius and Rafaelle were instructive in this respect, I think (I know the diminutive Laura Wienroither dampens that theory but she plays at the extremity of the team). I think Arsenal will sign an imposing defensive midfielder to compete with Lia Wälti and probably a more physically imposing 10. I think he wants more power in the spine of the team.
Clearly, the contract situations of Caitlin Foord, Vivianne Miedema and Noelle Maritz will determine how much business needs to be done this summer. Each will require a replacement if they leave. There are links to Brazilian forward Geyse which make a lot of sense, she is a strong dribbler capable of sprinting in behind and that seems to be the type of forward Eidevall likes. Heath was set to be the dribbler Eidevall wanted but couldn’t quite contribute to the level he would have wanted for fitness reasons.
What could be improved next season?
While the big game record improved in the WSL, Arsenal lost the 2021 FA Cup Final and 2022 FA Cup semi-final to Chelsea in meek circumstances. Eidevall bemoaned the 3-0 defeat to Chelsea in the 2021 Final as “pointless” due to the paucity of the performance. In the Champions League, comprehensive defeats to Barcelona were maybe to be expected.
In the quarter-finals against Wolfsburg, the German side dominated three of the four halves over the two legs. Arsenal concluded the group stage in limp fashion, losing 4-1 to Hoffenheim. It is understandable that Eidevall pointed to improvement required against teams that man-mark in Europe in his post-season assessment on Sunday. He says he will look to stage some training sessions against Arsenal’s U-16 boys’ team to help them adjust to the sort of hard pressing approach that most WSL teams cannot offer.
Eidevall also insisted his team needs to be more assertive in the big games and impose their personality more fearlessly. “I was so disappointed with the Chelsea FA Cup semi-final because I don’t think we tried to impose our game on Chelsea. We need to get to that mindset, there are no reasons why we cannot play like that against Chelsea and Wolfsburg and Barcelona. If we want to be the team we want to be we need to get there.”
Let’s dig down a little more
Arsenal dropped 11 points in total in the WSL. In the 1-1 draw away at Spurs in November, the shock 2-0 defeat away at relegated Birmingham City- their only defeat of the season, a 1-1 draw away at Manchester City, a 1-1 draw at home to Manchester United and a 0-0 draw away at Chelsea. Dropped points at Spurs and Birmingham look particularly egregious.
Having lost Leah Williamson to injury, Lia Walti pulled out of the Birmingham game in the warm-up. Birmingham capitalised on that defensive instability by scoring early and Arsenal panicked and performed terribly. Even a draw in that game would have seen Arsenal win the title. The Gunners wracked up 2.0 XG in the fixture at Spurs and hit the woodwork three times. It was one of those games and, on that occasion, Arsenal were 1-0 down in the 91st minute. It’s difficult to totally regret a point there.
Draws at Chelsea and City are not bad results at all and both games could have gone either way. The game I think I rue the most is United at home in February. Arsenal were without their three first-choice centre-halves and lost them all for that one game in total- Leah Williamson and Lotte Wubben-Moy missed the game and Rafaelle was only fit enough for the bench.
The unfamiliar pairing of Beattie and Catley started the game and, even then, I think Arsenal really just needed 15 minutes to settle down but United scored on 10 minutes and had something to hold onto. These were the only points Arsenal dropped at home all season in the WSL. What the Birmingham and United results have in common is the total loss of Arsenal’s defensive base.
The Leah factor
The most punishing aspect of the draw at Tottenham was the injury to Leah Williamson, who tore her hamstring and missed eight games. Arsenal’s record in those games? Won three, drawn one and lost four, scoring 11 and conceding 14. That included the FA Cup Final thrashing by Chelsea, the 4-1 loss at Hoffenheim and the shock defeat to Birmingham City.
As part of her comeback, there were three games in which Leah played a half or less and in those games, Arsenal drew once and lost twice. In the WSL, she missed five games and Arsenal only won two. Her absence occurred before the signing of Rafaelle, whose presence probably would have softened the blow given her stylistic similarity to Williamson’s.
Of the players to make five appearances or more for the Gunners this season, Leah Williamson has the best points per appearance at 2.67. Honestly? That absence cost Arsenal the title and probably cost them the opportunity to compete much more meaningfully in the FA Cup Final. She is Arsenal’s MVP.
I think there has been demonstrative improvement in Arsenal under Jonas Eidevall, even if there are still some wheels that need to be greased. I have enjoyed his media presence immensely this season (even if I know he is not everyone’s cup of tea). His pithiness about aspects of the WSL like postponements and the single ball system have been mirthful.
I know his irascible touchline presence grates with some and I do think that after the square off with United forward Martha Thomas in January he has toned it down a touch- much to the relief of fourth officials everywhere. I have especially enjoyed his sly digs and broadsides at Chelsea. Enmity and rivalry have not always developed in the WSL but the tete-a-tete between Eidevall and Hayes is good for the ‘product’ in my opinion.
Hayes’ “meow” after the Cup Final when Eidevall had confessed that he was superstitious about black cats grated with me and I hated it and that is great! I am an Arsenal fan; it was supposed to grate with me. Likewise, just check the ratio on this tweet when I reported Eidevall’s recent dig at Chelsea’s winter postponements.
Jonas asked about Chelsea winning on Thursday. ‘I didn’t focus on Chelsea when they were rearranging their fixtures in January so that Sam Kerr didn’t have to miss games due to the Asia Cup and I don’t focus on them now.’
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) April 29, 2022
The football only lasts around 180 minutes a week, you need the soap opera in between and I think that is something that Jonas has brought to the league. In short, the man just doesn’t give a fuck and I happen to find that very entertaining. It’s not something he should put on his CV or a KPI for his job at Arsenal but football is entertainment too and I think he has brought a sprinkle of stardust.