Friday, July 19, 2024

In focus: Katie McCabe puts in captain’s display in Wolfsburg

When Arsenal were defeated 2-1 at Manchester City in February, the 343 formation saw them overrun in midfield by Gareth Taylor’s side. Since its adoption on that day, the Gunners have moved to the system a few times in-game to excellent effect. The difference now is that the wide forwards play far more centrally to bolster the midfield.

That was the case in Lower Saxony on Sunday afternoon too. Jonas Eidevall opted to start the game against Wolfsburg in a 343 formation with Jen Beattie playing in the centre of the defence. It meant extra responsibility for Victoria Pelova and Katie McCabe as the wide forwards to play in-field and support Lia Wälti and Frida Maanum.

I focused on the performance of Victoria Pelova for the recent North London derby victory so this time I will focus on captain Katie McCabe. It was a game to dig in and fight and for players to put in hard yards on and off the ball. Wolfsburg are a physically imposing team but if you need fight and determination, McCabe is the first player you would look to. But she isn’t just a fighter, she is an intelligent footballer too, which is why she has been so versatile during her career.

The above graphic from Yash shows how hard the Arsenal front three worked, with Blackstenius dropping deep to neuter the influence of Lena Oberdorf in midfield, Pelova was deep to help support Maanum and Wälti in possession and McCabe, well, she was just absolutely everywhere, showing for short passes with her back to goal, snarling at Wolfsburg player’s heels and relieving pressure by winning free-kicks for her team.

As Arsenal build on their left with Rafaelle and Wälti, McCabe has drifted in-field to lend a hand and create a passing option away from her nominal left-wing slot.

Wälti accepts the invite and McCabe hits the ball back to Beattie. It’s not a ‘wow’ moment but it’s just an example of how McCabe offered support in that area.

Beattie knocks the ball to Rafaelle on the left touchline and you can see McCabe sprinting over to the wide position because space has opened up. Rafaelle doesn’t take the passing option initially.

However, the ball does work its way back wide a few seconds later and McCabe is right on the touchline in the left-back position where she plays a ball forward towards Blackstenius.

The ball trickles through to Merle Frohms in the Wolfsburg goal and as it does, look who you can see sprinting upfield to form part of the press as Wolfsburg prepare to play out from the back. These repeat sprints are more demanding than they look, having to constantly scan and move to judge when to offer support to colleagues in midfield and when to go and be a winger. In the space of a few seconds, McCabe has popped up in left central-midfield, left-back and left-forward. She did this for 95 minutes.

Playing with two central midfielders against a powerful team like Wolfsburg away from home, the marginal gains are important. McCabe won five free-kicks for Arsenal in this game, the joint most in the team with Lia Wälti. This is just after Arsenal have conceded the second goal and they are rocking a little. Catley cuts out Oberdorf’s diagonal and McCabe is on the move.

Being squeezed by Lyn Wilms and Jill Roord on the touchline with little support is not a favourable situation for McCabe here.

But McCabe takes on the gauntlet, powering her way past Wilms and Roord. Her former Arsenal teammate ends up grabbing her shirt and not only do Arsenal have a free-kick but Roord is booked and cannot commit anymore tactical fouls for the remainder of the match. These small wins all add up when you are playing away from home in Europe. McCabe consistently released the pressure on her team by either showing for the ball or winning free-kicks with her tenacity in possession.

As Jen Beattie takes the ball out from the back here, we can see McCabe again in central midfield- as is Pelova just to create that extra body and ensure Arsenal aren’t outnumbered.

Arsenal don’t use McCabe or Pelova and instead play into the left channel for Blackstenius. That means Stina has vacated the centre-forward role, so McCabe makes a central support run so that Arsenal are not leaving empty space in that area. Again, she doesn’t get the ball here but this typified McCabe’s performance, plugging gaps all over the pitch and supporting her teammates.

Wolfsburg force a dangerous transition moment here, thankfully for Arsenal Pajor takes a heavy touch and Rafaelle picks up the loose ball but with the players Wolfsburg have committed she still needs an exit plan. McCabe is immediately running into space and making herself available.

Rafaelle dribbles the ball out and McCabe has the intelligence not to follow the ball but to hold her central position.

Rafa takes the option with a disguised pass and McCabe sets it back to Catley.

Now Arsenal have far more breathing space to play. The dribble from Rafaelle and the support run from McCabe has given the team respite. Again, this is nothing that would trouble a highlights reel but it’s another example of how the captain was consistently willing to offer herself as a release valve.

This is another good example of McCabe relieving the pressure on her team by dropping back into midfield. Wubben-Moy finds her from the right.

Again, she keeps it nice and simple, controlling the ball and playing it back to Beattie. 25 of McCabe’s 36 touches in the game were in the defensive and middle thirds.

McCabe then puts herself into a good position to receive the ball again, away from Wolfsburg’s pressure.

From there, she turns and whips a good pass out to Noelle Maritz on the right and Arsenal are away. From this move, they win the corner that results in Rafaelle’s lifeline goal. It’s not so much about what McCabe’s plugging and playing does as what it prevents. Without her finding those spaces in central areas away from Wolfsburg’s press Arsenal’s defenders would have found themselves in far more difficult situations in possession.

Few players relish a physical duel quite like McCabe and Wolfsburg are, arguably, the most physically powerful team in Europe. After Rafaelle’s clearance falls to Roord, McCabe sprints across to grapple with the Dutch midfielder and stop her from making progress.

The ball ricochets between her and Wälti but McCabe just won’t give it up.

In the end, she backheels the ball through Roord’s legs. Arsenal don’t come away with it but McCabe is willing to put her body on the line for every second and every inch that she can win for her team.

So when the ball breaks to Oberdorf, McCabe is off again like a dog chasing a tennis ball.

Not for the last time, Oberdorf feels just a bit more than McCabe’s breath on her back. Oberdorf and McCabe jostled throughout the game, both players are valued by their coaches for setting the physical tone for their teams. Again, Arsenal don’t regain possession but they do force Wolfsburg to retreat and the defence is not troubled.

The next time that Wolfsburg do progress to the edge of the Arsenal area look at McCabe again, primed like a greyhound bounding out of the traps.

She is not going to let Jule Brand have the ball without a right old scrap.

In the end, Brand fouls her and McCabe has again taken the pressure off her defenders by winning a free-kick.

Arsenal did not get to attack as often as they would have wanted to but when they did, McCabe found herself high up the pitch. As the Gunners attack on the edge of the Wolfsburg area McCabe is in the left-forward position as you would expect.

Blackstenius comes short to the edge of the area to receive from Pelova and as she does, McCabe realises she will need to attack the box in Stina’s place.

Blackstenius finds Maritz with a clever reverse pass and McCabe sprints into the area. The cross is cut out but, again, McCabe has recognised a teammate vacating a position and has worked hard to fill the gap they have left.

Here again we see the value of McCabe coming inside to make a third central midfielder. Beattie stops a cross and now has the ball under pressure. She cannot pass to Lia Wälti here but McCabe is not being picked up because she has wandered in-field.

Beattie accepts the invitation and McCabe takes the ball and Arsenal can play out of what could have been a tricky situation without that extra body.

In the second half, we often saw McCabe central and Wälti to her left. Arsenal had a secondary plan to release long passes into the left channel for Maanum and Blackstenius and Arsenal pushed Wälti over to the left because of her ability to pass long with her left foot, while McCabe played more like the six in a lot of scenarios.

And like it or not, teams need to have that edge too, especially in tough away games when the odds are stacked against you. Having a player who has their teammates backs and who shows they will not be pushed around is priceless. I still think there is a tendency to infantilise women footballers when it comes to the rough stuff.

I know there is a school of thought that McCabe crosses the line in this respect from time to time. She was suspended for the defeat at United where she was really missed and perhaps she needs to moderate the more needless bookings she picks up (one of her five yellows this season was for timewasting away at Aston Villa when Arsenal were 4-1 up). However, you need players who are willing to bear teeth. Lena Oberdorf shook McCabe’s hand with a wry smile after this incident because she is cut from exactly the same cloth and valued by her coaches for very similar reasons.

All in all, McCabe’s performance embodied Arsenal’s. She played in several different roles, did a lot of unglamorous off the ball work and had to fight tooth and nail for mere inches at times. But she did it, she offered herself as a release valve for her team and put in a real captain’s display.

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Top performance and what’s not to like about sticking that dirty player on her arse! A real asset


Excellent coverage and insight! And yeah, who looks at “that episode” and doesn’t feel that it was exactly the right thing to do? She didn’t go to injure anyone, didn’t commit a dirty foul, didn’t endanger anyone. She just “informed” everyone that we’re not to be messed with. This reminds me of the glory days of the Man United rivalry with the boys. How often in the past years we’ve bemoaned the lack of someone to do exactly this in the men’s team. “Arsenal don’t like it up ’em”. Well, Katie certainly has an opinion! Brilliant. (..and yes, stupid, and… Read more »

Fun Gunner

Thanks, Tim. Your last paragraph about Katie’s performance epitomising the team performance expresses exactly what I was thinking as I read this analysis. The values Jonas talked about post-game were there for all to see. It was fitting that she was captain on Sunday. Katie’s the sort of player you hate when she plays for another team, but love if she is your player. Most of the time she knows what she is doing but the silly yellows for backchat could be her and our undoing one day. I’m not surprised she (and Wälti and Pelova) got so fed up… Read more »

Salvador Berzunza

Exactly you’re right, just like Jill Roord, shes a bit bully and annoying with the rivals and referee, but when she played for Arsenal was funny.


Top analysis as usual Tim, I think McCabe is a huge asset for the team in the same way Jonas mentioned Beattie being a ‘culture setter’. Also agree with your thoughts on the lazy tendency to assume women footballers don’t want to get stuck into a good ruck…


Katie is a gem. Being Irish, what she done at international level in dragging Ireland to our first ever Women’s World Cup is incredible, her performances in qualifying were ridiculously good.

Salvador Berzunza

Thank you, Tim, question for you and all forum, Dou you think we are going to repeat same formation in the second leg? Can we try something different with the actual roster? I reckon they are going to play with Jill Roord in a more offensive instance, Popp instead of Jule Brand, they are going to place a high defensive line, close to midfield.

Fun Gunner

Wolfsburg will definitely change formation and I think we will have to, too. I have no clue what Jonas will do beyond that, except that it will be three at the back again. Caitlin Foord and Lina Hurtig are coming back in and that is great news. They are fast, strong, physical players and Foord has some of Katie’s edge as well and of course carries and protects the ball superbly. Lina’s defensive work and ball recovery is excellent and she has lots of pace going forward. They both dealt with Chelsea players really well in our home match. Caitlin… Read more »


Special shout out to Wienroither for turning Jónsdóttir into a ragdoll at 76:30

Gunner H

Yeh, Laura was brilliant in the short time she was on the pitch.

Bill Hall

Who do we want to face in the final? I would rather face Barcelona to be honest. If they best us I can live with that but if Chelsea beat us the thought of the ensuing media lovefest and Emma Hayes smug face is beyond anything I can cope with. I shall never forgive her for her bitchy comment when we thumped Chelsea in the conti cup final. “Arsenal wanted it more because they haven’t won anything for ages” Of course the idea of beating Chelsea in the final does appeal if it means wiping the smug look off her… Read more »

Gunner H

Better to face Barca for sure.

I can only see one winner anyway, and it ain’t Cheski.

Fun Gunner

I want us to *reach* the final. Please let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We have to get past Wolfsburg first.

Salvador Berzunza

exactly, we are not chelsie or barcelona.

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