Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Arsenal Women’s injury situation has allowed Jonas Eidevall to show a more human, vulnerable side

When Jonas Eidevall was appointed as Arsenal manager in the summer of 2021, we ran a podcast with Anita Asante, who played under Eidevall in Sweden and Swedish journalist Mia Eriksson. Mia went into detail about Eidevall’s “un Swedish” touchline manner and his proclivity towards testing the patience of the fourth official.

Asante described Eidevall as a hard task master who pushed players to achieve their potential but who had a way with words, distilling sometimes complex concepts into neat phrases that resonated with elite athletes. Asante described a coach who was demanding but approachable. Clearly, as fans and media, we do not see a coach in the day-to-day environment of the training ground and can only speculate or else listen to people who have worked with a coach closely.

Last season, Eidevall certainly didn’t disappoint when it came to his irascibility in the dugout, mainly with referees (he was booked twice during the Champions League group stage) or with his own players (Tobin Heath was heard telling Eidevall to “chill” after he urged his players to press harder during a victory over Everton in October 2021).

Asante’s assertion that Eidevall has a way of distilling concepts into snappy, cue card style quotes has resonated in his press conferences. Arsenal defeated Chelsea in his opening WSL fixture in charge and sank to his knees at the final whistle, pumping his fists and screaming until the veins protruded from his neck. Asked about his show of touchline emotion, Eidevall told reporters, “If you want your players to bring the heat, sometimes the coach has to bring the fire,” in reference to the move to more of a front-footed, counterpressing style.

Eidevall also unapologetically locked horns with Chelsea counterpart Emma Hayes during his opening season. “I didn’t worry about Chelsea when they were getting games cancelled in January because Sam Kerr was at the Asia Cup and I don’t worry about them now,” he answered last April when asked whether he had watched Chelsea’s most recent WSL victory.

Needless to say, his firebrand persona marked a stark contrast with the more laid-back, affable stylings of his predecessor Joe Montemurro. Frankly, some Arsenal fans really liked it, some were less sure. The image of him squaring up to West Ham’s Martha Thomas last season after the Scot fouled an Arsenal player in front of the dugout did him few favours. In the wake of that flashpoint, he became reflective about his touchline shows of emotion, even if he didn’t reference that incident directly.

Prior to Arsenal’s final UWCL group game against FC Zurich this season, he said, “We are better with our discipline this season with yellow cards. Me too, I was booked in a lot of Champions League games last season and I haven’t been this season so I have improved my discipline too!”

All of which is to say that the jury was out with a lot of fans still unsure of how the team were translating into his playing style and of Eidevall’s unapologetic persona. Two things have come together during the spring, which have greatly boosted the manager’s popularity with supporters. Firstly, results. That will always be the bottom line in how a manager is perceived.

Beating Manchester City and Chelsea en route to the Conti Cup, an injury hit side overturning a first leg deficit to defeat Bayern Munich and qualify for the Champions League semi-finals only for an even more injury depleted side to push Wolfsburg to the 119th minute of the second leg when they really had no right to. But really, when it comes to the fan base and their connection with the manager, it’s the context in which those results have happened that has fostered a recent fondness.

Arsenal have endured a traumatic season with injuries, losing four key players to ACL injuries, three of whom will now miss the World Cup as a result. In women’s football, the players somehow feel closer to fans and many supporters come to fandom via a connection with individual players. So when players are badly injured, or are not selected, the emotional response is more acute than it is in men’s football where the players are considered more like sporting assets.

The sense of sentiment is stronger in a fan base and Eidevall has resonated with supporters with his public displays of empathy for his players. After a 1-0 defeat at Manchester United last month, a game which saw Arsenal lose Leah Williamson to her ACL injury, I said to Jonas Eidevall in the post-match press conference that the game and the circumstances around it felt more emotional than tactical.

“I felt emotional after the game because the players didn’t get what they deserved,” he replied. “They kept fighting, they stuck together, they kept looking for solutions. I am very proud of my players,” he responded. When I tweeted the quote out the tweet was beset with quote tweets from Arsenal fans who appreciated the empathy and vulnerability of the sentiment and bonded with it.

Eidevall has also sought to foster a connection between the team and the supporters in the stadium. At every game, he is insistent he and his players acknowledge a support that has grown in number and noise this season. Recently, he admitted that he had been inspired by the work Mikel Arteta and his staff had done on the men’s side to re-energise the Emirates Stadium.

He has made a point in post-match press conferences of singling out the supporters. Following the FA Cup defeat at Kingsmeadow in February, Eidevall said, “If I think we were dominant on the pitch, it was the same story off the pitch. Because I could only hear one side and that was ours. Our fans have been phenomenal. They are loud, passionate, they give everything for the team. I feel that, the team feels that.”

However, beneath that, Eidevall has encouraged his players to embrace a no excuses culture in response to their lengthy injury list. Again, demonstrating his flair for Instagrammable self-help quotes, in early March he said, “It’s about not focusing on problems but focusing on possibilities.” Three times during the spring, I heard him utter the phrase, “you can have results, or you can have excuses- but you can’t have both,” in various press conferences.

Clearly, empathy is key for any leader of a group of athletes but so is pushing them. Again, we can only speculate about what this looks like on the training ground but Eidevall’s public utterances have centred around refusing to submit to self-pity as he has sought to rally a shrinking group of athletes over the line in a long, tough season where squad rotation has become close to impossible.

Following last week’s victory at Everton in which Lia Wälti was stretchered off, Eidevall told Arseblog News, “We have to be resilient and keep focus. If you are not mentally there that is when you can get an injury too, you need to be fully present. That is the hard part, you see a teammate going off that you care a lot about but the right thing to do is to block out those feelings and emotions and stay 100% focused on the pitch. After the final whistle, you can be as caring as needed.”

The marriage of being empathetic but also ruthlessly positive and cajoling is clearly a difficult and demanding one for a coach in this scenario. You are absorbing everyone’s feelings without really being able to show your own. In November 2018, I recall interviewing Joe Montemurro shortly after an away victory at Everton in which Jordan Nobbs ruptured her ACL. I expected to find a solemn presence but Montemurro was even more jocular than usual on his emergence from the dressing room.

It struck me that he had probably had to put on a brave face in order to help console and lift the spirits of his own team, regardless of how he might have been affected by seeing one of his best players suffer a bad injury that took away her World Cup. I recall asking Montemurro about exactly that, about how he deals with the emotion of those situations, “As a coach, you have to stay solution oriented, you have to think about solutions and that protects you a little bit.”

Without insight into day-to-day life at London Colney, fans can only really judge a coach’s personality on what they see and hear in public. Arsenal’s traumatic period with injuries has brought out a sympathetic side in Eidevall that has boosted his cache with supporters, undoubtedly aided by his ability to capture complex concepts concisely and, during this season, he has had to use those skills to express empathy and humanity on more than one occasion.

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As a fairly new supporter of the women’s team, I’ve always been impressed with how well spoken Jonas is, he seems to know exactly what to say in response to difficult questions about the growth of the women’s game and players. He also has a lot of quotable lines he drops every other press conference. It helps that he seems to be a genuine arsenal fan talking about Bergkamp and Wenger . I’m glad everyone’s got behind him I just hope next season his team sheets wont cause too much dissent among fans.

Fun Gunner

Yes! Genuinely appreciating our history has been a big plus point.

Fun Gunner

Interesting thoughts. The injury crisis and the team’s response to it has changed him, that’s for sure. The word “trust” always pops into my head in connection with the tribulations of this season and I think it’s appropriate here as well. JE letting his guard down a bit at times is evidence of trust in us the fans and the players. It’s also a sign of greater confidence in himself perhaps, due to knowing *he* has come through a test – not just the squad. The concepts of trust and confidence are related and this is a good example of… Read more »

Little Cubby

What excellent observations.
Totally agree with you 👍

Little Cubby

Absolutely right, there is a more emotional, almost personal bond with the players/club in the women’s game. I feel it more strongly following the girls than l ever have following the men. I am as proud of my team as l would have been had they won CL or WSL….. even more than ‘The Invincibles’ and thats saying something !! I’ll be there for them on Saturday for that final push. Im sure it will be a very emotional afternoon. Incidentally… I love Jonas !
Great article Tim 👌

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