It’s some time before Arsenal Women kick off their 2023-24 season with UWCL qualifying set to start on 5 September. However, over the course of last season, especially towards the end, injuries dominated the discourse and it was difficult to properly analyse the team without doing so through the prism of a very depleted squad. So here are three questions I am going to be giving the most thought over the summer.
There is no dressing it up, the news that Brazilian defender Rafaelle departs the club this summer is an enormous blow. Not only are Rafa’s qualities going to be incredibly difficult to find on the market; but the Gunners will be missing Leah Williamson for at least the first half of the next campaign as she recovers from an ACL injury.
Arsenal had to look to China to find Rafa in the first place, an exceedingly rare cheat code of a player, an aerially and physically dominant and technically excellent, left-footed centre-half capable of playing out under pressure or else just dribbling out (she had a 92% dribble success rate in the WSL last season). It is so difficult to think of a comparable top-level defender- especially a left-footer.
When asked by The Athletic’s Art de Roche last month about finding a left footer for the role specifically, Eidevall admitted, ‘it’s a big column in our recruitment spreadsheet.’ Most top European teams operate with two right-footers at centre-half. England won the Euros with Bright and Williamson, Chelsea bought Kadeisha Buchanan to partner Millie Bright last season and Emma Hayes had to swap them over to try to get the right blend. Buchanan still hasn’t made that spot entirely her own.
Leah Williamson’s last two regular centre-back partners have been Jen Beattie and Louise Quinn and prior to that it was Casey Stoney- right footers all of them. The back up to Rafa has been right footed Lotte Wubben-Moy. Arsenal might not be able to get a left-footer but they are going to have to get someone of comparable quality to Rafaelle, which is going to be very difficult.
Well-placed reports in Iceland suggest Bayern’s Icelandic centre-back Glódís Perla Viggósdóttir is on the radar, having worked with Eidevall at Rosengard.
Lotte Wubben-Moy is a fine member of the defensive cast but Arsenal need to boost their numbers, particularly with Anna Patten likely to move on permanently and Beattie really needing to play in a back three. This is going to be an absolutely key piece of the club’s summer recruitment and whoever that player is, they will need to hit the ground running much as Rafa herself did.
What happens when Miedema returns?
In Vivianne Miedema’s absence, Frida Maanum has made the number 10 spot her own. In fact, Maanum won her place in the team ahead of Miedema prior to the Dutch forward’s injury. Eidevall decided to field Maanum for the away match at Lyon because, in his words, “Frida is one of our strongest runners and she carries the ball very well. We gave her a role that requires an extreme amount of running because she basically had to defend two players.”
Which is also a way of saying that he didn’t necessarily think that Miedema would perform the same duties in the same way. Now, there is nothing wrong with squad depth of course and there is also nothing wrong with having two very different players for one position (more on that anon). However, there are just some players that are not rotation players. Miedema is not a rotation player and Maanum is fast becoming the same.
It seems unlikely to me that players of that calibre will willingly operate a job share for one position, which begs the question as to what happens when Miedema returns? Do her and Maanum fight it out? Miedema moving back upfront doesn’t seem likely since Eidevall wants a penalty box presence to run the channels and provide an option on the counter-attack- the club continue to target Alessia Russo so keenly for a reason.
This is a position I am keeping a close eye on for next season because I am really intrigued to see whether Maanum and Miedema can play in the same team- maybe that would necessitate a system change? Maanum can play as an 8 but, again, I am not sure how likely it is that she will muscle Kim Little out of the team just yet. I am very interested to see how this one plays out.
Squad rotation and tactical flexibility
During Eidevall’s first season in charge, we saw very little squad rotation. This is likely because a) the coach was trying to instil his principles and craved continuity to embed his style and b) because he had a lot of players that were not ‘his’ players. He didn’t really seem to want Nikita Parris, Jordan Nobbs or Mana Iwabuchi, for example.
This season, injuries have meant that Eidevall has not been able to rotate- not to mention that at the conclusion of both the summer and winter transfer windows, the coach admitted that he felt the group was at least one player short. Eidevall wants the squad to be bigger next season. In adapting to this season’s injury crisis, he has also shown tactical flexibility.
The move to a three box three formation in the spring was necessitated by injuries but Eidevall admitted that he tried the formation in training way back in January with a view to using it at some stage. “We weren’t going to use it in the game after but as a group of players we need to understand the principles and why we might want to play with another formation so we can change between games or in games.”
Arsenal did this to excellent effect in the victory over Manchester City in April. With the scores at 1-1 half way through the second half, Eidevall surprised City by moving to the three box three system and won the game 2-1. It’s clear that building greater tactical flexibility and being able to move between systems is important to the coach and the injury situation during 2022-23 expedited that process of experimentation.
I will be very intrigued to see how this looks during 2023-24 with (hopefully) a bigger, fitter squad. I will also be interested to see how Eidevall handles voluntary rotation of players which presumably he will feel more comfortable with doing with a squad made up entirely of players that he trusts. We started to see it in the right-back position with Wienroither and Maritz duelling for the role.
He even began to rotate in the goalkeeper position following the January signing of Sabrina D’Angelo, who is a very different option to Manu Zinsberger. A bigger squad and greater rotation will almost certainly help ease the injury crisis we saw during this campaign too. How Eidevall manages short turnarounds between games, potentially different setups and a larger pool of players will be very interesting indeed.