Saturday, March 25, 2023

A deep dive on Arsenal Women’s nine-game clean sheet run in the WSL

Arsenal’s 1-0 win away at Reading on Sunday evening saw the club break a WSL record for consecutive clean sheets. Manu Zinsberger’s goal has not been breached since Birmingham’s Lucy Quinn scored at Meadow Park on March 6th. It is a remarkable record and one that deserves a deeper dive, so get your snorkel at the ready and let’s tuck in.

Why has this happened?
Well, the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that Arsenal haven’t played Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United in this period, the quality of the opponent has a lot to do with it. Tottenham finished 5th last season and the Gunners have beaten them twice in this run. However, as much as Spurs are “the best of the rest” currently outside of the big four, they are based on their defence, not their attack.

It should also be acknowledged that, during this run, in other competitions Arsenal have conceded three times across two legs against Wolfsburg, twice in the FA Cup against Chelsea and twice at home to Ajax in the first leg of their Champions League qualifier. Nevertheless, a nine-game run of clean sheets has never been done before for a reason. Over a long period, it is an unusual and impressive achievement.

OpponentCentre-half partnership
Brighton & Hove AlbionWilliamson + Wubben-Moy
Leicester CityWilliamson + Wubben-Moy
EvertonWilliamson + Wubben-Moy
Aston VillaWilliamson + Wubben-Moy
Tottenham HotspurWilliamson + Wubben-Moy
West Ham UnitedWilliamson + Wubben-Moy
Brighton & Hove AlbionWilliamson + Rafaelle
Tottenham HotspurWilliamson + Rafaelle
ReadingWubben-Moy + Catley

The first thing to note in this table is the relatively stable centre-half pairing. Lotte Wubben-Moy and Leah Williamson finished the 2021-22 season joined at the hip. They were parted for only six of the final 810 minutes of last season, when Williamson was subbed with a 3-0 lead against Spurs in May. The return to fitness of Rafaelle saw her regain her place in the line-up next to Williamson.

How has this happened?

OpponentsShots concededShots on target concededXGAOpponent's average XG in 2021-22
Brighton & Hove Albion510.30.9
Leicester City100.10.6
Everton210.10.9
Aston Villa400.10.8
Tottenham Hotspur501.8 (1.0 non-penalty XG)1.4
West Ham United600.51.1
Brighton & Hove Albion310.40.9
Tottenham Hotspur100.11.4
Reading730.50.8

Generally speaking, if you concede less than 0.5XG you deserve your clean sheet. There have only been three times when Arsenal have breached that watermark during this run, twice hitting that figure exactly. The Reading game from Sunday is the only match without Williamson present and with Rafaelle injured, Wubben-Moy and Catley was a first-time centre-half pairing. It probably stands to reason that it was one of Arsenal’s highest XG conceded across these nine games.

Arsenal’s failure to score a second goal also meant the game was in the balance in the closing stages. You will notice that, in May, Spurs put up an XG of 1.8 at Emirates Stadium. They missed a penalty (0.8XG) in the dying minutes of that game when 3-0 down. 0.7 of their XG from that game came from shots in the same sequence too, as Vivianne Miedema blocked a close range shot off the line and then Zinsberger blocked the rebound.

Shot suppression
Arsenal have generally kept their opponents well below their XG average. While Manu Zinsberger deserves her flowers for this run, generally it has been built on shot suppression. It’s not a feat of last-ditch penalty box defending (bar Miedema’s goal-line clearance against Spurs!) it’s about keeping the opponents away from the goal. In five of the nine matches, the opponent hasn’t had a shot on target.

Now, a lot of Arsenal’s opponents during this run have come with game plans based on sitting back and defending. However, as well as having a good amount of stability at centre-half, the midfield has been totally untouched. Wälti, Little and Miedema have started every one of these nine games and the stability of structure ahead of the defence has undoubtedly had a part to play.

Meanwhile, Arsenal have scored 32 goals during this period and, needless to say, when you are putting your opponents under lots of pressure in attack, they don’t have the chance to attack you. Broadly speaking, the goalkeeper, defence and midfield work on recycling the ball, the attack put up the shots that keep opponents pinned back.

Eidevall’s principles of play
Jonas Eidevall has been very keen to talk up the value of a solid base too. After the second leg shutout and win at Ajax in the Champions League, Eidevall told me, “Ajax is a good team who play very aggressively. But we weren’t up to our standards defensively last week, this week we were much better. We were much better keeping hold of the ball. It was a hard game but we didn’t make it transitional. We kept the ball moving.”

For him, as with most big teams, retaining possession and “keeping the ball moving” is a mode of defence. Jonas’ disappointment with the defensive performance in the 2-2 home draw with Ajax was also a theme he alluded to, without prompting post-Spurs.

“When you look at the game we didn’t concede a single goal scoring chance in the whole game. It’s so impressive, Spurs are a very good team. That is very stable. After the Ajax game I told the players we were poor defensively in that game and you can’t expect to win a team sport when you play poor defensively.

“Today we were great defensively, good teams learn from their mistakes. We have eight clean sheets in a row in the WSL and that’s very impressive. We talk about the good things we do with the ball, which we should, but the players in defence work so hard.” Opta produce a nice graphic called ‘Zones of Control’ which you can find here that shows you Arsenal dominate territory in all of the areas within 70 yards of their own goal.

The future
Wubben-Moy and Catley passed their first test against Reading and Jen Beattie came on in the 83rd minute to help close out the game. Beattie is absolutely unbeatable in aerial duels and Reading were loading crosses into the Gunners box. The Scot probably can’t back up games like she used to, Catley is left-footed and, as a wing-back, has great athleticism.

Beattie was needed to deal with the aerial bombardment in the final minutes with Catley switching back to left-back. The Australian is not a specialist in the air and teams might well target that as a potential weak point. Having Wubben-Moy and Catley will also change the way that Arsenal build play from the back, as Eidevall pointed out on Sunday.

“Of course, you change some of the passes, it would be crazy to say everyone makes the same passes as Leah Williamson, for example. You can’t say “that’s exactly what you have to do to play centre-back at Arsenal. If you compare Leah to Lotte, Leah Williamson is better at playing through the lines but Lotte has a longer kick for example.

“Those obvious things mean you play to your player’s strengths rather than being stuck and saying ‘this is always exactly the same patterns.’ The patterns we play always have to acknowledge the player’s strengths. We had Steph on the left today and she will be very comfortable driving the ball forward on her left foot, she is a full-back so she does that a lot.”

Lyon will provide an incredibly stiff test for the whole team on Wednesday, let alone the centre-back pairing but it could accelerate their learning together- there is no education quite like pressure and Lyon will put Arsenal under plenty this week. I am assuming they will get a run together too and that Eidevall won’t be tempted to rotate Beattie and even Wälti alongside Wubben-Moy.

Whatever happens next, what has happened over the last nine games have been the product of hard work from the whole team.

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MAMA

Nice play with statistics. But the jury is still out on the true quality of this team – including coaching – as we are only 3 league games (all must-wins) into the competition. CL: During the first game against Ajax It looked like the team was completely taken by surprise by the quality of this solid opponent – at least for the first half. It speaks for our team how they corrected the false start. Easy to state by the coach that he was not happy with the defense. Maybe also the result of lack of preparation for this massiv… Read more »

Fun Gunner

Thanks, Tim.

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