A dejected Emma Hayes put her side’s defeat to Arsenal in Sunday’s Conti Cup Final down to the Gunners wanting it more and her own side’s complacency. While it is true that the Gunners had a strong intensity this was a tactical triumph, Arsenal’s game plan identified weaknesses and gaps in Chelsea’s structure.
They did something similar in January’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea and last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at Kingsmeadow in the FA Cup. The difference this time was that Arsenal executed more clinically but it was one of their strongest performances of the season. In his post-match assessment, I asked Jonas Eidevall about exploiting Chelsea’s right side, where many of Arsenal’s attacks originated.
“How do we find a free player and who is that free player?’ The recognition of that was really, really strong and we had much, much better intent with our off the ball runs. We played into a lot of good situations last Sunday but we ended up standing still, this time we had the initiative of players making the first action off the ball and that creates a lot of things.”
Just look at the passing networks of both teams 40 minutes into the game, when Emma Hayes felt pushed into a substitution on the right side of the defence. You can see the size of the gap on their right side. Here’s how Arsenal exploited it.
— Marc P. Lamberts (@lambertsmarc) March 5, 2023
If you want a good idea of a team’s game plan, watch what they do from their first goal kick. By the time Arsenal get theirs, they are already a goal down. But as Zinsberger and Rafaelle line up for the goal kick here, we can see Lia Wälti has pulled over to the left side and two Chelsea players have followed her.
Arsenal often took the Wälti option over to the left in build-up and we’ll see some examples later. This time, Zinsberger rolls the ball to Rafaelle and Arsenal wait to see which Chelsea players leave their positions to press. Two Chelsea players have followed Wälti so that has freed space to pass to Kim Little more centrally.
Cuthbert leaves her position to press Little. But pressing Kim Little in possession is one of the most futile pursuits in football. Cuthbert even tries to trip Kim Little as she motors away from her compatriot but can’t get close enough to commit the foul. You will notice here too that Wälti understands the trigger and moves into the centre, taking Cankovic with her and creating space for Little to dribble into on the left. You will also notice that Lauren James is stood still and that’s one of the big reasons Arsenal attacked this side so much. James is a world class dribbler but she is still not alert defensively.
Now look at the space that has opened up for Little to attack and Catley and Maanum are now both in good positions to receive the ball on the left. Lauren James is not in the shot and it means that Little can travel a long way up the field.
Little finds Catley, who exhanges pass with Maanum and Foord takes up a good inside left position, her cross is eventually cut out just before it can reach Blackstenius but Arsenal have built a good situation from a goal kick by attacking Chelsea’s right.
Again, we see Lia Wälti drifting into that left-back area. This is because she passes the ball very well from deep positions and finds angles due to her ambipedality. Williamson finds her here.
I asked Walti about her positioning post-game and she said, “We adapted a little from last week. We wanted to stretch their front line and then find space between the lines. That was the idea behind putting either Rafa or me a little bit wider. I think it made them come to us and if we won the one v one we found the spare player.”
There isn’t necessarily an absolutely killer pass on here but she still finds Foord on the left. Wälti pulling into this position allows Steph Catley to push up and form a triangle with Maanum and Foord.
Foord carries the ball forward and finds Maanum over on the flank. Catley, Foord and Maanum are all strong ball carriers and they stayed very close together during this game.
Maanum drives to the by-line and Bright has to hyper extend to cut out the cross. Arsenal adopting this slight left-sided bias also allowed McCabe to drift into more central positions and we will see, in the build-up to the second goal, how that often enabled her to be the “free player” Eidevall talked about.
From the resulting corner, Berger catches the ball and tries a quick clearance, but Little intercepts it. Maanum, who took the corner, is over on that left hand side again.
Once again, James is slow to track back and Little and Maanum have Perisset outnumbered in a two v one situation.
For the second time in forty seconds, Millie Bright is forced to hyper extend to intercept a dangerous Maanum cross from the left and nearly scores an own goal in the process.
Here again, just over a minute later Arsenal find this space. Little turns and while Lauren James is back this time, she is looking in the wrong direction.
It means that Little more easily finds a ball in behind to Caitlin Foord. For the third time in 130 seconds, Millie Bright has to stretch to intercept a dangerous ball from Arsenal’s left. Time and again, the Gunners are able to access this area.
Look at the angle from behind the goal when Little plays the pass. James is facing in the wrong direction because she is already thinking of attacking the space ahead of her.
Overloading the left had the additional advantage of better controlling Lauren James when she received the ball because when James gets on the ball, there are few in the world better at driving at opponents. James set up Chelsea’s opener last weekend because she was able to dribble in this area. As she receives the ball from Perisset here, Arsenal have three players around her. This was the additional advantage of pulling Wälti right over to the left side.
Arsenal were able to marshal James well on the ball. On this occasion, Chelsea get a throw-in and Arsenal make sure that’s all they can get.
From the resulting throw-in, Wälti makes a snap interception and Arsenal are again in a really promising situation. Perisset can see it and just pulls Wälti over.
It is utterly astounding that the referee did not deem this worthy of a yellow card. A deliberate shirt pull when a team is in this situation is as textbook as yellow cards come. The match official consistently failed to properly officiate these situations. The fact they happened so often was a sure sign of Chelsea’s discomfort.
This is the build-up to Arsenal’s equaliser. Once again, Wälti has pulled over into that left-back position so she can try to find a pass on the left side.
This time, Chelsea have that side well covered so Wälti finds Stina Blackstenius instead, who has shown for the ball.
Blackstenius wins a free-kick, which Little takes quickly because Maanum is in so much space, this time on the right. It’s from here the equaliser emerges. Kerr has to sprint back to Maanum because so much space has opened up and Arsenal’s constant pressure tells.
STINA on the scoresheet! 🔥
— Barclays Women's Super League (@BarclaysWSL) March 5, 2023
Here we see another example of Wälti pulling over towards the touchline helping to control Lauren James better in possession. Foord is tackled in the first image and Chelsea have the chance to break. But Wälti is close by and able to dispossess her before she can dribble into a more dangerous area.
Not only that but then she is able to find a dangerous pass. (Observe also in this image how McCabe has now drifted to the left and Maanum is in the centre. The interchange and fluidity of Arsenal’s forward line was much improved).
Wälti doesn’t quite find Foord’s run here but Bright smashes this out for a throw-in and Arsenal keep the ball well inside Chelsea territory. Bright does not usually kick for touch in those situations, she does here because she is stressed by Arsenal’s consistent pressure in that area of the pitch. From that throw-in, Chelsea commit three fouls in a matter of seconds, again, this is because they are stressed.
Chelsea clear the subsequent free-kick but Arsenal are again looking to create superiority on the left. This time it’s McCabe who drifts across as Catley has the ball with Maanum on the touchline.
McCabe puts in a dangerous cross which Berger stretches to punch away from Blackstenius. Once more, Arsenal have created a dangerous situation on that side.
By now, Chelsea are aware that Arsenal are exploiting their right side and it causes them to overcompensate. In the previous example, you can see it’s Reiten, Chelsea’s left-winger closing down McCabe and travelling from the other side of the field to do so. Look at her position here as Arsenal have a throw-in on the left. She is again drawn right over to that side.
Catley throws the ball to Foord, who lets it run inside a little and as she plays the ball to McCabe, Reiten is in central midfield trying to challenge her. Which means…
She’s not on the left wing. McCabe, who has drifted centrally again, plays a beautiful first time pass to Maritz and you can see the space she is in.
Maritz pulls the ball back to McCabe and Ingle makes the foul. Again, this is a sign of the stress that Chelsea are under.
Little converts the penalty and Ann Katrin Berger goes down for treatment to force a Chelsea timeout. At this point, Hayes makes changes. She moves to a 352 with Niamh Charles moving from left-back to right wing-back, Eve Perisset moves to right centre-half and Lauren James goes upfront. This is all about Chelsea fixing the leaks on their right side with a brief to drift into wide areas.
And here is another example of Wälti’s positioning helping Arsenal to deal with Lauren James on the counter-attack. James dispossesses Foord but finds Wälti in her way preventing her from progressing into Arsenal’s half.
Arsenal’s pass network, which I showed earlier in the piece, shows McCabe in a very central position. We know that, when played on the right, McCabe is likely to want to drift in-field onto her left foot and play almost as a right sided ten. But she took up a lot of centre-forward positions too, as we saw for the penalty. Look where she is here as Chelsea try to build from the back in this example.
Perisset tries to find Kerr here but Wälti is onto it. One of Wälti’s great attributes is that she is often able to make an interception a pass and that’s what she does here, she not only stops Kerr getting the ball, she plays it first time to a teammate.
Foord gets the ball on the left and plays a dangerous cross and it’s McCabe competing with Eriksson for the header. While Arsenal preferred to attack down their left, it allowed McCabe to drift in-field and pick up these positions. That is probably related to the selection of Noelle Maritz at right-back to facilitate this.
Just look at how central she is in this move where she eventually collides with Berger. That is very much where you would expect your centre-forward to be.
Still unsatisfied with how Chelsea are defending on their right, Hayes makes a substitution before half-time, bringing Buchanan on for Cankovic. Buchanan played as the right centre-half in a back three until half-time and, for the second half, she played as a right-back in a back four. Right-back is not Buchanan’s usual position but Hayes wanted a strong one-on-one defender there.
Arsenal grabbed the defining third goal from a set-piece on half-time and that really set the situation for the second half, which was a question of game management for Arsenal while Chelsea had to push on. Bringing Buchanan on stemmed a little bit of the bleeding on their right side but game state also didn’t demand that Arsenal commit numbers forward to the same degree. It was in this period, between Chelsea’s goal and Buchanan coming on, that Arsenal won the game and were clinical enough in front of goal to press home their advantage.