Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Jen Beattie: Culture setter

When Jen Beattie extended her Arsenal contract last summer, I will admit to being slightly caught off-guard. Beattie’s second spell at the club had been ravaged by a series of soft tissue injuries which eventually led to her having back surgery to fix a long-standing (if you will forgive the phraseology) disc bulge.

Then, of course, Beattie was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2020. She scored in a 5-0 win over Brighton a few days after her diagnosis, which was not yet public knowledge and, in retrospect, the emotion her teammates showed in the celebration really strikes a chord.

Beattie’s role as a starting centre-back was reduced almost by physical necessity, as Arsenal signed Rafaelle last January. I, and many other Arsenal fans, expected her to leave to pursue first-team football. Beattie extended her contract and took on some pastoral roles as a mentor to Arsenal’s academy players and she spends time with the marketing department.

She told the Arsenal Women Arsecast a couple of weeks ago that she had studied business and marketing at university and was curious about that side of the game. It is clear she is thinking of her post playing career. Yet in that same interview, she stressed, “First and foremost, I am a player, I want to compete.”

Retaining Beattie made a lot of sense for Arsenal. They tied Leah Williamson and Lotte Wubben-Moy to new contracts and signed Rafaelle, they had made their bets on their three first-choice centre-halves. There was no point in losing an experienced player like Jen Beattie and then scouring the market for another fourth-choice centre-back. It would have been a waste of time and resource in a summer when Arsenal didn’t conclude all the business they wanted to do any way.

Arsenal’s current injury situation has led to Beattie’s role expanding in recent weeks. She was brought on in crunch WSL games against Manchester City and Manchester United in the middle of a back three. When explaining his decision to bring Beattie on with the score at 1-1 v Manchester City, Jonas Eidevall told Arseblog News,

“I was to try to manage the crosses that City put into the box, we wanted to put a player against Bunny Shaw and there is probably no better player than Jen Beattie in the league in a central defensive position all the time. In a back three and she is central you know she is always going to be in front of goal when there is a cross. Whenever they try to clip a ball into Shaw she is going to be there duelling for that. That was one part. The other part was Jen’s quality to play out from the back in order to give us a bit more composure on the ball.”

He brought Beattie on at half-time away at Manchester United later in April. On that occasion, Eidevall explained that the decision was not purely tactical. “(I wanted) to put on Jen Beattie because I thought leadership was really important. We wanted to maximise leadership as much as possible in the second half to keep the spirit and calmness and belief.”

Arsenal were staring at a second half without all three of their captains (Kim Little, Leah Williamson and Katie McCabe). With an injury to Caitllin Foord to add to the pile, Eidevall turned to Jen Beattie from the start in a back three in both legs of their Champions League semi-final against Wolfsburg. After the first leg, the Arsenal boss was effusive about Beattie’s contribution.

If I take an example like Jen Beattie, who has been phenomenal this season. She has been coming on the from the bench and the way she applies herself day in and day out in training is phenomenal. For me she has been a culture setter in what this group is about. If she does that when she is not selected to start games, who can turn around and say ‘I don’t try harder because I am not playing’? To see her play a game like today makes me so happy, she so much deserved the performance that she did here today. That made me really happy. Hopefully that continues to be a culture setter and an inspiration for all of us.”

Eidevall has been smart about how he has used Beattie. Her lower back injuries have robbed her of some of her athleticism but none of her aerial ability or her ability to win duels or her calmness in possession. The tactic has been clear, sit Beattie in the middle of a back three with Rafaelle and Wubben-Moy and let her defend the penalty area and pass the ball out from the back.

There are few better penalty area presences than Beattie, who is in the 98th percentile for aerial duels won among all centre-halves in the WSL. On Monday, in a real hour of need, Eidevall decided to harness Beattie’s aerial ability in the Wolfsburg penalty area. Beattie played as a striker regularly during her first spell at the club in her late teens and early 20s. The roll of the dice worked almost immediately when she rose to head Lotte Wubben-Moy’s cross home.

During that passage of play, Beattie leaves four Wolfsburg bodies strewn across the penalty area, including Alexandra Popp’s in the celebration. Beattie immediately retreated back to centre-half and spent much of the remaining 40 minutes or so gamely fighting off cramp.

I might be wrong, I don’t think Wubben-Moy crossing with her left foot to Jen Beattie at centre-forward is a move that Jonas Eidevall has spent a lot of time coaching his team on at London Colney. But it was necessary in the moment for an injury hit side to claw themselves back into the game by their fingernails.

And I don’t honestly think Arsenal entirely planned for Jen Beattie to be starting in Champions League semi-finals this season. But Arsenal are in a position where they need bodies but not just any body, they have required leadership, calmness and fight in a tumultuous period and nobody has epitomised that more than Jen Beattie, Arsenal’s culture setter.

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Re: the Popp incident – seems clear to me that Popp turned her shoulder into Jen with the intention of body-checking her, something she no doubt regretted immediately…

A Different George

Really excellent story, Tim.

Fun Gunner

Jen Beattie has been absolutely magnificent and not just in this game. I hope she is OK for Friday! I have so much admiration for her character. I remember a couple of seasons ago when she was playing as one half of a centre-back pairing and her lack of pace was horribly exposed. She was getting stick but she remained brave and focused on defending, she didn’t hide or go into her shell or lose her cool. I’m so glad that instead of being sidelined or replaced, she is being used in a way which makes the most of her… Read more »

Peter Story Teller

That was as much a coach learning what Jen’s strengths are and playing to them rather than insisting on playing a certain way which left her exposed to a simple ball over the top. I think he has got the idea now!
Unless we sign a couple more centre backs at the end of the season I am sure there is room in the squad for Jen for a year or two yet, even as an emergency striker!

Little Cubby

So well put. My sentiments entirely

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