Friday, April 12, 2024

Analysis: Why have Arsenal Women struggled against deep defensive blocks this season?

In their first four WSL matches of this season, Arsenal Women have scored six goals from an XG of 7.8 and have conceded five goals from an XG conceded of 2.6. They have been on the wrong end of the margins, creating four tense, tight matches encompassing a defeat, a draw and a pair of 2-1 wins. Arsenal have yet to click in a creative sense so far this season, a question Arseblog News asked of Jonas Eidevall after Sunday’s 2-1 win at Bristol.

“We have been playing back fives, with really low defensive organisations. The pleasing part for me is that we have handled that better and better each time. Today is our best performance against a compact 541 formation and I think that progression is really important. We started poorly against Liverpool but our reaction as a group has been really good.”

The data shows you that, with the exception of Manchester United, Arsenal’s opponents have sat deep in their penalty area. Liverpool, Aston Villa and Bristol City all played with a 541 and the data (compiled from FBRef) paints a picture of Arsenal dominating territory. They have averaged 62% possession so far this season and that includes the Manchester United game where they chalked up 48% with a counterattacking game plan.

Data per 902022-232023-24 so far
Passes attempted546.8610.0
Key passes13.415.0
Progressive passes46.661.3
Passes into the final third37.949.5
Passes into the area11.915.5
Through balls0.681.0
Shots 2217.5
Shots on target7.184.5
Touches in defensive third275.5155.6
Touches in middle third263.8334.3
Touches in attacking third194293.8
Carries into the final third10.112.8
Progressive carries17.416.8

On the face of it, these numbers look good, Arsenal are making more passes, more progressive passes, more key passes, a lot mor passes into the final third and penalty area and more through balls. But that is to be expected when your opponents are camped within 25 yards of their own goal and not willing to move.

The centre-backs

The two metrics which are down are progressive carries and switches and this gives, in my view, a portion of the issue when it comes to Arsenal trying to build centrally. Not only are opponents clogging up those central areas, Jonas Eidevall’s side have lost their first choice centre-back partnership from the last two seasons with Leah Williamson injured and Rafaelle having departed during the summer.

Leah Williamson averaged 0.99 switches of play per game last season, almost half of the team’s total. Though Lotte Wubben-Moy is still prolific in this aspect. The absence of Williamson explains some of the drop off in switching play and that is an important factor in moving deep defence blocks around from the earliest phase of build-up.

Williamson also averaged 1.87 progressive carries per 90 last season. With the caveat that we are dealing with very small sample sizes with both players, Amanda Ilestedt has averaged 0.50 and Laia Codina 0.71 per 90. Essentially, not only are Arsenal establishing new centre-half partnerships with Codina and Ilestedt only having arrived during the summer transfer window but, in Leah Williamson, they are missing one of, if not the best ball progressing centre-half in the game.

Arsenal have played with three centre-halves twice and two centre-halves twice so far this season. Codina and Ilestedt have both been subbed twice each into the equation too. Personnel has been unstable in a crucial area of the team when it comes to building play centrally. This probably explains why we have yet to see much of Kyra Cooney-Cross (who also didn’t have a pre-season with Arsenal) and Katherine Kuhl. Jonas Eidevall has likely sought stability in the midfield double pivot due to an absence of it at centre-half.

The number 10 position
Arsenal have also had immediately behind Alessia Russo. In the back three formation, Arsenal play with two wide tens. Against Liverpool, these were Frida Maanum- who is not as suited to the wider 10 role and Caitlin Foord, who is more of a traditional winger. Against Manchester United, Eidevall put Kim Little and Alessia Russo in wide positions and this complemented their counter-attacking game plan.

The Gunners moved to a back four for the games against Villa and Bristol, which meant a more defined number 10 but, again, the choices were different in each game. Maanum played there against Villa while Victoria Pelova came into the midfield double pivot against Bristol with Kim Little pushed into the slightly higher position.

Within seconds of entering the game against Bristol City, Miedema showed Arsenal what they had really missed in these games against deep defensive blocks, that ability to pick the lock with a clever disguised pass. The matches against Liverpool, Aston Villa and Bristol City were games that, I think, would have looked a lot different with Williamson at centre-half and / or Miedema in the 10 role. The Miedema pass to Mead in Bristol also exposed the fact that the pair have played together for many years and understand one another’s moments and that sense of chemistry is missing in the spine of the team at the moment.

The technical instability at centre-half and number 10 has made Arsenal less convincing in the exact area opposing defences have clogged up and targeted. This has meant a high number of crosses, with Arsenal averaging 35.3 per game so far this season, compared to 24.4 last season. Arseblog News asked Eidevall about this ahead of the Bristol City game and he admitted too many of those crosses had been speculative (incidentally, none of Arsenal’s six WSL goals this season have come directly from crosses).

“Looking at Liverpool and Aston Villa, Did we have too many opportunistic crosses? Yes, we did. We need to have fewer of them. We had some really good situations when we should cross, that is where the development needs to go. When you have teams that defend so compact in the middle, like Liverpool and Aston Villa, it is not a coincidence that a lot of the chance creation is going to come from the sides. That is just how football goes.

“But if you are better with your chance creation from the sides, they need to start committing players there, which opens up central space and then you go from there.” Eidevall seemed enthused by the team’s increased patience against Bristol City, where just 4% of their overall touches in the game were crosses, compared to 6% of their overall touches being crosses against Aston Villa and Liverpool.

Game state

Defensive instability and a bit of bad luck are also core reasons for Arsenal struggling to break down deep blocks. In a sense, they have been very unlucky to concede almost double the amount of XG they have conceded so far this season. However, as Eidevall acknowledged to Arseblog News after the Bristol City game, Arsenal need to manage defensive situations better, especially when balls come into the Arsenal box from wide.

“The truth is a little in between, the opponents have been effective against us but we haven’t defended well enough in those situations and that has to be a learning point. Especially when we play opponents who will have more of these types of situations.” Arsenal conceded to wide deliveries against Liverpool, Villa and Bristol City (as well as twice against Paris FC) and with Lauren Hemp, Chloe Kelly and Bunny Shaw coming to town next, that will have to improve.

However, it is not just the concession of goals but when they are being conceded. Arsenal went behind to Liverpool and Aston Villa, giving both opponents something tangible to hold onto. An early Katie McCabe goal against Bristol City seemed to be changing that pattern until The Vixens equalised with their first shot and, at 1-1, Arsenal gave another defensive opponent a lifeline and that really makes a difference against these defensive sides.

When we spoke to Katie McCabe she also pointed to Bristol City being determined to tighten up defensively after shipping five first half goals against Manchester City the week before. “They came off the back of a heavy defeat, they were playing at Ashton Gate and their fans were incredible tonight.” This does tend to happen a lot in football, when a team concedes a high number of goals, all of their training ahead of the next game will home in on defensive organisation and that will show in their next performance.

As ever, there is never only one reason for these themes that emerge at the beginning of a season, especially in a sample size this small. I would expect Arsenal to become more effective centrally as the new centre-halves settle and they play opponents like Manchester City, Brighton and Leicester in the next block of games, all of whom are unlikely to be as hyper defensive as Liverpool, Aston Villa and Bristol City have been. Not giving opponents a lifeline to hold onto will also help and, hopefully, centre-halves settling into the structure a little more in the coming weeks can help with that too.

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Michael (1)

Great analysis, I think your point about technical inconsistency in the 10 and at cb applies more broadly and may be why we’ve had problems with finer details of the game. We change system and rotate players so much that the efficiency with which we are able to perform in the final thirdis affected. The malleability of the squad and tactics is generally a positive thing but I think at the level we want to be at, the added fluidity that comes with having players consistently playing in set positions with similar players around them and a consistent system gives… Read more »

Michael (1)

Yeah, long term the variety is something that would probably be beneficial to cultivate. Hopefully the club has enough patience to know that Jonas is probably the person who will bring the club forward even if we don’t see the silverware we would like right now.

Gunner H

Very much liked your profound analysis, Tim – it explains positional intricacies to all of us blog commentators at a level of understanding we can only aspire to. Commentating with my own opinions, I reckon everybody recognises that we are badly missing Leah, whilst Rafa departing was a huge blow – but I agree that Amanda and Laia, who are proven top class players, will significantly improve & blend in better at Arsenal with each game. And Beth & Viv returning is comparable to having Law & Charlton back, if the players from a competing club are allowed to be… Read more »

Fun Gunner

Thanks for the breakdown and analysis, Tim. My overall takeaway is that JE has to find other ways. I’m not too worried about the goals conceded (although McCabe or Maritz should have stopped the cross that Furness put away.) My concern is the lack of goals and how hard we have to work to get them. We should be scoring goals more easily. 3-1, 4-2 etc would be acceptable at this stage given the new defensive personnel. Stina’s goal at Man United and the goals against Aston Villa are the sort of thing I expect from us. That little time… Read more »

Salvador Berzunza

if only Russo is in the box we are putting things very predictable for the rival, on Villa match when Russo scored, Stina was in front of her surrounded by two defenders, three had confronting Mead and Alessia was comfortably free, and finally she shows her magic.

All In

I think the attacking players are often to static when the crosses are hit. Look at Bristol’s goal and it’s a brilliant run and header by Furness. Very difficult to defend against although in this case the cross should have been stopped or at least McCabe should have put more and quicker pressure. There were a similar situation for Arsenal in the second half when Mead sneaked in front of the defender an put the header wide but it was an exception and something I would like to see more of. It’s rare to see an Arsenal player attack the… Read more »


One thing I’ve noticed about corners this season is that, ignoring rare short corners, is that they have all been in-swingers. If the goalkeeper is confident in the air (and in the WSL nowadays they are) and is protected by her defenders, it is very difficult for the attackers to get a clean headed strike on the ball. The convention when I first started watching football was that right-wingers took the corners on the right (and vice versa on the left) leaving the goalkeeper and the defenders trying to chase a ball that was moving away from them and coming… Read more »


Throwing hopeful crosses into a packed 18 yd box is pointless
Man City will be a completely different game and the manager needs to get the selection spot on, that’s something he has not done yet.
Lacasse and Pelova need to start.

Gunner H

Agreed. I would also start KK & Kyra – the team needs refreshing.


I would also like to see KCC get a a start.

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