Saturday, May 25, 2024

Injury problems will make Arsenal Women better in the long-run

It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that Arsenal Women have had a pretty hard time with injuries this season. That doesn’t mean they are the only team to endure this fate; nor does it make them objects of pity. It is a fact that Arsenal’s injuries have been especially bothersome because players from the same area of the team have been injured simultaneously.

During the spring of 2022, consistency was the by-word when it came to team selection. From Arsenal’s 0-0 draw at Chelsea on February 11 last year, the eleven of Zinsberger; Maritz, Williamson, Rafaelle / Wubben-Moy, Catley; Walti, Little, Miedema; Mead, Foord, Blackstenius was almost set in stone. Wienroither challenged Maritz, McCabe played plenty of minutes on the wing and once Rafaelle was injured in early March, Wubben-Moy played every minute of every game until the end of the season.

But that was the team was the team was the team. That consistency of selection helped Arsenal to a strong finish, they won their last eight WSL games after that draw at Kingsmeadow. The Gunners opened their WSL season at home to Brighton in September with an eleven of Zinsberger; Wienroither, Williamson, Rafaelle, McCabe; Walti, Little, Miedema; Mead, Foord; Blackstenius.

In the aftermath of that game, I asked Eidevall about how in tune his players were their patterns and style of play. “I feel like we have stability in our performances which comes from stability in the way that we play. Maybe that makes us predictable but I think it also makes it easier for us to execute in a good way and to move the ball in the right way, so we are very happy with that.”

A fortnight later, his first-choice centre-halves, Rafaelle and Leah Williamson were both injured and both had a virtually identical prognosis of ten weeks on the sidelines. Williamson and Rafaelle both missed nine games and Wubben-Moy and left-back Steph Catley started every single one of those games together in the centre of defence. It was makeshift but it also enjoyed a good run of results, including the 5-1 win at Lyon in October. The only blot on their copy book was the 3-2 home defeat to Manchester United in November.

Arsenal were leading 2-1 with five minutes to play before conceding two headed Alessia Russo goals to setpieces and I am sure that not subbing Jen Beattie into that game once the Gunners took a 2-1 lead is a regret of sorts for Jonas Eidevall. Of course, Kim Little was also missing for that game due to injury and Arsenal struggled to control the midfield in that game.

HIGHLIGHTS | Arsenal vs Manchester United (2-3) | Women’s Super League – YouTube

Eidevall struck a rueful tone when I asked him about his plan for adjusting without Little for that United defeat, “When I reflect on the United game one of the things I learned is that, sometimes, when you change players, you don’t just change a player, you are putting out a new team. That means that everything you now do, you have to start from the basics. You can’t take for granted that just because you did something three weeks ago that that will automatically happen again.”

It was a painful defeat but also an important lesson and one Eidevall hinted at earlier in the season when discussing readjusting to new centre-backs, “If I learned something from that period last season (when Arsenal had defensive injuries) is that when we are playing with different players, we might need to tweak some of our priorities in order to be smart to play into player’s strengths and not their weaknesses.”

Once Williamson and Rafaelle returned from injury, Eidevall told Arseblog News that he felt his team had increased its comprehension of defensive organisation during their absences, “What it forced us to do, during this period, was to focus on how the back four was working as a unit.

“Maybe there are times we have gotten away without working on things from a unit perspective optimally but we have had some individual skills on our defenders to solve situations that were not tactically perfect but they have solved them with their game intelligence or their physical abilities…It’s really important that we keep on that foundation as a unit together and I think we will be stronger as a team.”

Of course, no sooner did Eidevall get his centre-halves and Kim Little back than Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema ruptured their ACLs within three weeks of one another. The pair have been mainstays of the Gunners attack for over five years and directly contributed to over 60% of Arsenal’s WSL goals last season. This led to Eidevall openly stating he “would be disappointed” if the club could not land a prolific goal scorer in the January transfer window.

After chasing Debinha, Cloe Lacasse, Alessia Russo and Signe Bruun, Arsenal did indeed end up empty handed in their January striker search. Profligacy cost them in mid-January when they dominated at home to Chelsea, did not take their chances and were undone by a late Sam Kerr equaliser. Then they went to West Ham a few weeks later and drew 0-0. Clearly, learning to attack without Mead and Miedema took its toll on the team for the month or so after the Christmas break and cost them points.

HIGHLIGHTS | West Ham vs Arsenal (0-0) | Women’s Super League – YouTube

Eidevall remained bullish and solution oriented throughout that sticky spell. “It’s a challenge but let’s go for the challenge,” he proclaimed in early February. In the build-up to the Conti Cup Final, the coach was once again asked about the absences of Mead and Miedema and once again, he was bullish and solution focused.

“It’s about not focusing on problems but focusing on possibilities. You can’t change certain things and one thing we can’t change is the squad when the transfer window closes. But what you can change is the way we attack together and see these possibilities. There are really good things but we also see ways in which we can work together better and get better use of our strengths on the pitch.”

Since that charged Conti Cup Final over Chelsea, Arsenal have gone from strength to strength and their attacking woes seem to be behind them. Adjusting to the absences of Mead and Miedema probably cost them four WSL points following the draws with Chelsea and West Ham. Long term, however, Arsenal’s attacking palate is probably more sophisticated as a result as they have found new ways to score goals.

The Gunners faced Manchester City twice in three days in February and with Lia Wälti injured, they reverted to a 343 formation for the first time since Eidevall took the reins in North London. On the first occasion, a home Conti Cup semi-final against Manchester City, it largely worked and Arsenal won 1-0. Three days later in Manchester, City easily pulled the structure apart during a lacklustre first half and eventual 2-1 defeat.

However, when the teams met again last week, Arsenal started in their usual 4231 formation but played the final 20 minutes with a back three, with the scores at 1-1 at the time of the change. Though the experiment had mixed results when applied against the same opposition in February, that spell gave Eidevall and Arsenal the confidence and the basis to utilise it in-game and they eventually won 2-1.

Losing Williamson and Rafaelle almost certainly cost Arsenal at least one and probably three points at home to Manchester United. Losing Mead and Miedema almost certainly cost Arsenal four points against Chelsea and West Ham. The back three experiment went some way to costing the Gunners any points at the Academy Stadium. The fact is that those lost points could cost Arsenal the title. It is certainly in the realm of possibilities.

However, in the long-term, I think Eidevall’s team are more resilient and tactically flexible for having gone through these experiences. They ought to be less dependent on some of those key individuals going forward. It’s likely that Leah Williamson will now finish the season in midfield with Kim Little again injured and though the absence of the captain is a little scary, it should be seen as another chance for Arsenal to become a more rounded, flexible team in the long-run.

“I am a believer in not just putting players into a system but trying to find roles for them that suits them,” Eidevall said after the recent victory over City. “When Kim plays we need to play to her strengths and when Leah plays we need to play to hers, that means tiny adjustments with players. When Leah plays in midfield, you wouldn’t think she has come from central defence she has so much energy and intensity that she is more like an eight. We need to balance around her, maybe we need to do that less with Kim.”

Something to look for in the coming weeks.

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C.B.

Given the injuries to Beth and Viv, impressive how good they are. Hope they keep improving!!

Peter Story Teller

Unfortunate as these injuries are, we now see a more rounded squad that can take on top teams without our “star” players being available. For far too many seasons we were totally dependent on Viv up front, Kim in the middle and Leah at the back and suffered when any of them were missing.
Finally the penny has dropped and the management have realised that there are other talented players in the squad but the game plan needs tweaking given the players available to be on the pitch. Adapt the play to their strengths and the results speak for themselves!

Stonks

Do we know how long will Kim and Foord’s be sidelined?

Fun Gunner

Excellent article, Tim. It was quite striking how much better the team coped in the Bayern match compared to the previous times Kim or Lia was absent. We are lucky enough to have a very versatile squad and JE, while admittedly forced into it by adversity, is making the most of it. This benefits individuals as well. Lotte Wubben-Moy’s distribution has improved a lot through playing so much – just as an example. It also makes us a more attractive club to join. When players can step up because the system is adaptable to them, you have a machine for… Read more »

Chrishgooner

Agree with the comments about Jen.
But oh the irony! 18 months ago she was being castigated on most “fan” sites and the Club was widely criticised when she had her contract extended last year.
What an asset she has proved to be as a leader and a mentor to the younger players both off and on the pitch.

Little Cubby

Yes, a truly great servant to the club after all she’s been through

Fun Gunner

I wonder if lessons have been learned from the January window? Even though Stina has come up trumps in the end, we were still numerically short one striker – not a forward, a striker – for several weeks. So in hindsight, when the Debinha and Lacasse deals did not materialise, perhaps we should have gone straight for a short-term deal with Jodie Taylor rather than mess around trying to bring in Signe Bruun and Alessia Russo. Neither of those transfers, again speaking with the benefit of hindsight, were going to happen because both players were essential to their respective club’s… Read more »

TTIreland

It’s a good question. I would submit that perhaps the other question to ponder is if the squad is big enough? It seems to me that the squad in August should be 3 or 4 players deeper than what it started with this year so that January transfers can be more opportunistic than necessary.

Fun Gunner

My opinion on this has softened recently by seeing how versatile most of the squad is. As of now we have 24 players, which I think is enough. It’s just that some are injured! But until January we had 20 players, of whom two or three were injured at any one time, if I recall correctly. So I agree, that was too few. 22 is the absolute minimum for me provided 20 of those are outfield players and most of them are adept at playing several positions. I prefer 24, though!

Fun Gunner

Just rewatching one of our games, and I realise I’d totally forgotten to count Iwabuchi in the squad (as did JE, ha!) so it was 21 at the start of the season, not 20. But still…

Salvador Berzunza

Anyway 4 of those 24 are goalkeepers, lucky Pelova is playing OK the right wing, we still have only one #6 and his contract is finishing this summer, Im not asking for a bigger squad but a very good balanced one.

Gunner H

With Lia’s recent announcement of a short break – which is understandable – for the Wolfsburg 1st Leg our “remaining” players will need to step up big time.

Fun Gunner

Bad news for us, but if she needs a break, she needs a break. All the best to her. Taking time out worked for Miedema and Foord, so let’s hope it works for Wälti. Pelova to the fore? Lina Hurtig to step in on the flanks? We will miss her but I’m confident we will find a way to cope.

Salvador Berzunza

my Ausie Kyra Cooney-Cross could be a good Lia back up.

Goonersince55

I’ve just watched the video of all England’s goals at the Euros. To have got where we are with Meado absent for most of the season is a fantastic achievement.

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