Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Big Trouble for Little-less Arsenal in Manchester United Defeat

Despite the painful late manner of the defeat to Manchester United on Saturday, Arsenal can have few complaints as to whether the visitors deserved the victory. United won the XG 1.17 to 0.53, enjoyed 57% possession and, in my view, the big difference in the game lay in the following statistic- United completed 84% of their passes and Arsenal only 73% of theirs.

The loss of Kim Little, allied to the existing losses of Leah Williamson and Rafaelle made for an unfamiliar spine and it showed against strong opposition. I asked Jonas Eidevall about Arsenal’s struggle for technical control in the game post-match, “We were too disconnected, we didn’t provide enough short passing options around the ball.

“In the second half, our decision making let us down at times. The positioning was better but we ended up taking some strange decisions with the ball. You are completely right, the outcome of that was that we didn’t have a lot of times when we had 45-60 second spell in United’s half and sustain attacks.”

In the first half, Arsenal were passing and overwhelmed by United. In the second, they salvaged the game as a contest but still didn’t exert technical control. It went from Arsenal on the back foot to a slugfest. At 2-1 with around seven minutes to go, they just never had the technical composure to take the sting out of a transitional game. Let’s look at some examples.

As Arsenal build from the back here with Wubben-Moy, Wälti is well looked after by Toone and Russo. Ideally, Nobbs should be dropping in to either provide Wubben-Moy with the short pass or dragging one of Toone or Russo away from Wälti and opening up space elsewhere.

Nobbs opts to run forward in an attempt to push United back and Wubben-Moy has to go long.

In fairness, Blackstenius is only a fraction offside otherwise this would have been a good situation but the game was too transitional and Arsenal were forced long too often. “We didn’t have enough short options for the ball, we positioned high too early and we were not compact enough,” Eidevall would go on to say in his post-match press conference.

We see from this angle that going long is not a bad idea for Wubben-Moy with the United defensive line very high; but the midfield could have done more to drag United players out of position in the middle of the field and created space for themselves that way. Ultimately, Arsenal have the ball under control here but look at how many players United have in midfield compared to Arsenal. Arsenal emptied that space too quickly.

On occasion, Arsenal were hampered by a lack of understanding, which takes time to develop in a new-look midfield. As McCabe intercepts this ball and it breaks loose, Wälti and Nobbs both go for it. One should go for it and the other stand off and look to receive a pass so Arsenal can play their way out of the situation.

But they both go to the ball, get in one another’s way and United are able to keep the pressure on.

Arsenal have a free-kick in the left-back spot here, Wälti shows to receive the short pass with Toone at her back. Nobbs hasn’t had time to jog back into position nearer to Wälti and Maanum isn’t in the shot. The midfield pegs are too far apart.

Catley is left to try a difficult ball to Maanum which is intercepted. Frida has had a lot of success in that left half-space in recent weeks but in doing so, has arrived there later on in moves as the build-up develops. Here she is perhaps in too much of a hurry to exploit that space and becomes too disconnected from the other midfielders. If you look at the shape of Wälti, Nobbs and Maanum here it is far too narrow, there is little chance to spread play and the three players wouldn’t be able to find one another in possession if they had it.

You can always tell when Arsenal are in a bit of trouble, performance wise, when Zinsberger goes down for treatment, giving Eidevall a chance to call an in-game huddle.

During this teamtalk, we see Eidevall speaking to Jordan Nobbs.

The next time Arsenal build, it’s Nobbs who has dropped deepest where we would usually see Lia Wälti. In doing so, she takes Katie Zelem, who has been playing deeper, with her.

And again, a few seconds later. Wälti pushes on in the left central midfield role and Nobbs drops back. Toone follows Wälti and it takes her away from the press, while Zelem is again attracted into following Nobbs.

Sure enough we see the same thing a few seconds later, with Zelem attracted away from her deep position to track Nobbs. Arsenal have manipulated United’s press quite successfully here but they just aren’t able to find the pass or the dribble to exploit the space Zelem is leaving. By pushing Wälti on, Arsenal have taken Toone out of the high press too.

Here we once again see that “wonky triangle” in midfield. Ideally Maanum should already be in that space to Catley’s right to receive the ball. That would give Arsenal’s midfield a better spread with Wälti at the base and Maanum and Nobbs on a parallel line so that they can find one another. Instead, Maanum has pushed on slightly early so she is travelling back into space from an advanced position. Catley tries to clip the ball down the line but United win it back.

From kickoff after United take the lead, Nobbs again drops deep to play a one-two with Wubben-Moy. Instead of holding position and Arsenal gaining some control over the ball, Nobbs is eager to push on, especially as she can see that she has attracted Zelem towards her, leaving space in behind.

But it means that Wubben-Moy is left too much to do with the pass and she can’t reach Blackstenius and United have possession again straight away. There’s no escaping that Arsenal missed Kim Little’s ability to take the ball under control in tight areas and regulate the temperature of the game.

Look at the Statsbomb pass maps from the first half. Arsenal don’t have the pitch coverage that United do, Nobbs and Maanum are on top of one another and none of the midfielders or attacking players are connected at all, only the back four and Walti have connecting lines.

When Maanum does score the equaliser right at the beginning of the second half, the difference this time is that she starts her run from deep and advances rather than being at the tip of the arrowhead as soon as Arsenal build the play.

Technically, Arsenal were still quite scrappy in the second half but they raised the intensity and their spacing got better. Look here as Nikita Parris boxes McCabe in at left-back. Nobbs senses the danger and drops into the space. Catley is looking over to her and can see her in case she is needed.

McCabe finds Nobbs, who is able to lay the ball off to Wubben-Moy and Arsenal can build. Too often in the first half, that midfield space was neglected forcing Arsenal to go long and lose the ball.

As Wubben-Moy drives the ball forwards, look at the shape of the three midfielders now. It’s a triangle and it’s no longer a wonky one. Lotte ends up driving the ball to the edge of the United box. Nobody engages her and a lot of that is because she has better options to pass to that United’s players can’t leave unattended.

That’s just one small example and you could tell that United weren’t happy with how things were going in the second half because Mary Earps got a case of the Zinsbergers and went down for treatment under absolutely no challenge whatsoever so United could call a mid-game conference.

At 2-1 Arsenal still couldn’t control the temperature of a fraught, slugfest of a half. United do well to pressure Wälti in possession but the centre circle is virtually empty, meaning she has to go long.

United clear the ball and it comes back to Catley, who again opts to launch it towards Blackstenius, who commits a foul.

Earps’ subsequent free-kick is headed towards the touchline and McCabe smashes it downfield and straight back to Earps. In this part of the game, Arsenal should have been prioritising control of the ball and taking the temperature of the game down.

Straight after United’s equaliser, Katie McCabe wins the ball back at left-back and has an easy pass in-field to Lia Wälti to build play.

McCabe opts to travel up the line and, in lieu of other options presenting themselves at that point, again kicks long.

Here we see Lia Wälti’s trademark ‘snake hips’ turn to take her away from Hayley Ladd.

But again, Arsenal’s spacing is poor. Miedema, McCabe and Mead are all on top of one another. Wälti goes long and United have the ball back again.

Arsenal’s spacing in the first half allowed Manchester United to dominate the opening 45 minutes. They improved enough to turn the second half into a slugfest but could not assert any sort of technical control. Having got themselves 2-1 up, they also couldn’t drop the temperature of the game by getting on the ball and keeping it.

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Or in short, we played badly. Not unexpectedly tbh, we are flat track bullies

Zoe Waterfield


Tim Stillman

Arsenal didn’t lose against United, City or Chelsea in the WSL last season. I don’t think it’s fair to say Arsenal are flat track bullies. The only defeat last season was against the team that finished bottom.

Zoe Waterfield

What the hell is ‘flat track bullies’ anyway?


Good article Tim. Hopefully some lessons have been learnt and they will help avoid further setbacks this season.

Gunner H

Brilliant analysis once again, Tim. And don’t worry about the critics of your post match interview – you are top class as far as the vast majority of commentators on this blog are concerned! I am not that surprised, but disappointed, by all the negative comments following the MU defeat – we lost only one game by one goal after a long winning streak, and whilst clearly we weren’t at our best, 3 of our top players were absent, the 2 Australian girls were obviously tired from their long journey, and Golden Girl Beth Mead has a serious illness in… Read more »

Salvador Berzunza

Stina was here in Australia too

Zoe Waterfield

I did wonder how long it would be before we would struggle without Leah and Raffa and now its extended to the triangle of Kim missing too MY GOD we missed Kim. It really worries me about when the time comes that we just don’t have Kim anymore ☹️ l a brighter note Laura’s goal was excellent, l was in the perfect position to see it close up 👌

Peter Story Teller

Agreed! What shall we do when Kim’s Little legs are no longer up to the task? We seem to fall apart without her. We desperately need quality back up for Kim, Lia and Leah! Currently if any of those three are missing the games become much more difficult. On another note how is it we didn’t notice that Rachel Daly wanted to return home? She has hit the back of the net 8 times already this season in a team, with due respect to Villa, are not the most creative in the WSL and yet our GOAT superstar legends have… Read more »


Daly’s great but I presume she went to Villa because she knew she’d be a guaranteed starter. Potentially sitting on the bench at one of Arsenal, Man City or Chelsea might’ve jeopardised her world cup chances.

Zoe Waterfield

Yes l think that would be the reason she wouldn’t sign for Arsenal. Love Rach Daley though 😊

Zoe Waterfield

All very good points, it worries me also how we never seem to be able to match up to the other ‘big’ sides in the WSL and those ‘big’ sides are growing in numbers 😕


Agree with the above, lots of critics suddenly out with the knives, but our first loss of the season needs to be taken in context. It was a bad loss but lots of players missing and very unfamiliar defence and midfield. Lotte is a junior CB, she will maybe cost us points but it’s about longer-term investment and dividends. We keep going!
(And top analysis too Tim, really chimes with what I saw from the upper stands – couldn’t understand why they kept going long but that unbalanced and unfamiliar midfield seemed to be the root of it.)

Zoe Waterfield

Yes, Lotte is still young. She did give a goal away but certainly made up for it later

Salvador Berzunza

but is the same story with Lia, we don’t have backup for her, we didn’t reach the worst scenario yet. The rapid solution could be a productive winter transfer window.


Really enjoyed reading this one. That first half was so weird it was like there was a black hole in the middle of the field that everyone had to play over. I thought viv coming on would help us have more consistent possession cause she holds up play really well but it only happened a few times. Also really liked the passing graphic in practice we always did drills about passing lanes and avoiding blocking lines of pass by being at different heights and avoiding being in front of players further forward and be never really been able to see… Read more »


Kim Little is one of those players who is conspicuous in their absence. She’s already retired from international football and we don’t know how long she can continue at club level. I love the way she consistently smuggles the ball between 2-3 opponents in tight areas, which makes it hard for opponents to press. Can Arsenal women sign or develop a player with her unique skills? That’s the question.

Gunner H

Kim is good for quite a while yet, it looks like – but she’s truly irreplaceable, as the Scotland manager already said.


I think Frids may have the potential to play some version of that role she’s fast and strong as well as technically gifted I see her being a box to box midfielder maybe just needs to work on being disciplined defensively as she essentially plays like a second striker right now.


Frida’s been great since she came back into the team in a more advanced role, but I’m not sure she could play the Kim Little role. Of course I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.

Salvador Berzunza

she did already and wasn’t work at all.


I don’t think she’s Kim Little either but what about Mana Iwabuchi? I think she’s better at doing Kim Little things then Nobbs and can play in those tight spaces. Jonas didn’t even sub her in. I would give Mana a chance over Nobbs while Little is out.

Salvador Berzunza

Agree with that but only for a temporary patch, the team need a proper #8 and #6 as a backup and good enough for alternating without demerit quality. Mana is a #10 we have to keep her instead of Jordan to be Frida ‘s back up, Viv and Stina should be alternated in #9 depending on the Rival playing style.


It’s concerning how often disjointed performances cost us immediately following international breaks. Chelsea and City also deal with international football disruptions but don’t seem to suffer the consequent bad performances and results as often as we do.

Salvador Berzunza

Chelsie has 8 players more than us, Man city only 4 more but they don’t play champions league.

Peter Story Teller

We have had for many seasons a mentality that our first choice 11 are an excellent team so we don’t need to bolster the squad with top quality players to sit on the bench. Injuries to the first choice 11 and the necessary rotation given the frequency of games always put a spanner in the works. Perhaps the problem is with the back room staff as commentators say that you cannot attract world class players to sit on the bench but Emma Hayes and her staff appear to manage exactly that situation so it can be done if you know… Read more »


Perhaps it’s easier for Chelsea to attract world class talent even if it means sitting on the bench because the likelihood of winning things is so high. So even if you don’t play as much as you may want ultimately you’re probably still going to pick up medals. I guess it’s a process. Which player wouldn’t want to join a squad that is proven to win big trophies? If Arsenal can win a trophy or two this season top players will come. If they don’t it seems more likely that some players will leave and the squad will have to… Read more »

Peter Story Teller

Here’s the but….. Chelsea were nowhere when Emma Hayes was at Arsenal!
Seems to me that we need to start in the backroom to build success and then the players will come.

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