Monday, June 17, 2024

Analysis: Eidevall’s Arsenal look to hurt United in Little spaces

When the team line-up was announced on Friday evening, I fully expected to see Arsenal operating in a 352 formation with Little, Pelova and Wälti in midfield flanked by Maritz and Catley, with Blackstenius and Russo upfront. That isn’t what happened. Arsenal retained the box shaped midfield with Wälti and Pelova at the base and Little and Russo, somewhat surprisingly, cast as wide tens with Little on the left and Russo the right.

I asked Jonas Eidevall about the thinking behind this post-match. “Our thinking was that they would be a little bit vulnerable on the counter attack, we thought about how we wanted to set up our pressing and the zones we wanted to win the ball in. We thought we could use some key qualities with Stina’s running in behind and Kim’s ability to drive the ball forward and operate in the pocket.”

I asked Manchester United manager Marc Skinner whether the selection surprised him and whether he had to make adjustments for it. “It was about the quality of the players and utilising their skillsets in different areas rather than the shape. It pulls you out a little, Kim’s running power is top from that position and she can get behind your back line.

“We could have gone to a back five to deal with it but we’re Man United and we have to attack. Sometimes you have to leave that overload, take the risk and use it going the other way because we thought they were vulnerable when we won the ball in that area.” Let’s look at how this key tactical battle shook out in the game.

Arsenal’s game plan centred around exposing United in the channels and we see it straight from kick-off as Ilestedt collects the ball. We see Russo over to the right at the bottom of the screen.

Russo takes a big step forwards as Ilestedt winds up the pass hoping to take a United defender with her. On this occasion, Blackstenius is just offside but you can see the idea immediately.

You can also see early on that Little, playing as the left ten, is still quite central and, as a right footer, has a tendency to come inside anyway. This was deliberate, it was about trying to drag United players out of position and allow Catley and Blackstenius space in the channels, as well as crowding Zelem and Ladd in central positions.

The idea behind having Little operating in a slightly wide role had an off-ball purpose too. Arsenal wanted to stop United playing out through Ladd and Zelem and were slightly less concerned about Hannah Blundell at right-back. As Earps prepares to play out here, Little is blocking the passing lane into Ladd and Arsenal are congesting the centre. But you can see Little has a look over her shoulder at Blundell in case she needs to shuffle across.

Ladd tries to make an angle to receive but can’t and Earps doesn’t feel she can clip the ball out to Blundell either. Arsenal sat Little in this half space off the ball a lot to prevent the supply to Ladd and Zelem.

We see it again here, Little is positioned in-field to crowd the space around United’s double pivot and Blundell is left more or less alone. Zelem and Ladd are both critical in how United build play.

As United move the ball to Arsenal’s right, Little follows because she wants to be close to Zelem and suffocate her play from deep. This was a very clear part of the rationale for playing a central midfielder in the slightly wider role.

And one more time just so you know it’s no fluke! As Le Tissier surveys her options here, Little is in-field, crowding the central area.

With Ladd and Zelem well marshalled, Le Tissier sends it long instead. Arsenal wanted to disrupt United’s favoured avenue of playing out from the back.

I think Arsenal also wanted to select the players who look after the ball very well in tight spaces. So Pelova played in midfield and Russo was one of the wingers and we see the value of that with the first goal. Pelova picks up an Arsenal clearance here in a tight area.

Pelova pushes the ball to Russo, who also wriggles out of a tight space and releases the ball to the left.

And sure enough, Arsenal expose United on the counter per their game plan. Catley receives Russo’s pass and the through ball to Blackstenius, who specialises in running the channels, is on. This is where Arsenal’s attacking game plan really came to life. Pelova and Russo looked after the ball in tight areas and then the Gunners countered through Catley and Blackstenius in the wide channel.

Blackstenius makes a beeline for goal and scores.

Eidevall talked about how Arsenal could have made more from these situations on the left but sometimes the understanding was missing. Here is an example. D’Angelo swings a pass out to Catley on the left.

Catley collects the pass and you can see that if Stina was making another supporting run in that left channel she would again have a lot of space to run into.

Catley goes in-field to Little, whose attempted first time layoff doesn’t work and the attack breaks down but you can see, even from this image, how vulnerable United could have been behind their defensive line.

As Beattie finds Pelova here, Pelova spins away from her marker and looks for Wälti.

Wälti immediately spins and plays the ball over to the left because she anticipates a runner on that side. Again, look at how central Little is as this move develops.

Catley is indeed the runner but Earps is out quickly to clear.

Immediately after that situation, Arsenal look to expose the same area. Beattie swings the ball out to Little, who is now on the left.

Little looks for that channel again where Catley and Blackstenius are running but Le Tissier is across to hoover up.

Arsenal play out here and Codina finds Catley and the idea is really forming at this stage.

Catley immediately releases Little who is, unfortunately, offside.

Immediately after United’s gift of an equaliser, Arsenal’s first response is to attack that left-side again. Little has dropped in-field, United’s right-back Hannah Blundell has followed her, Little swivels and without looking, plays the ball into the area Blundell has vacated.

Catley collects the pass in acres of space and Le Tissier has to abandon her post to go and meet the Australian. In the end, Earps punches the cross away but it’s another good example of how and where Arsenal wanted to expose United.

So we can see that Arsenal wanted Little on the left because of her inclination to come inside. Off the ball, this meant she could create congestion around Ladd and Zelem. On the ball, it meant Arsenal were able to create wide overloads between Little, Catley and Blackstenius. So what of Russo playing wide?

Eidevall wanted Blackstenius due to her proclivity to run the channels and, in one respect, Russo is a player you don’t leave out if you can help it. But like I said earlier in the piece, Eidevall wanted the players who excel in tight spaces. That’s why Pelova started and it’s why Russo was played in the wide position too. Russo finished the game with 22 carries, only two defenders (Catley and Ilestedt) and D’Angelo had more. She was by far the most ‘dribbly’ of the attacking players.

Russo was often used as a release valve to help Arsenal launch counters. We saw that in the build-up to the first goal and we see it again here. Arsenal are defending, they half clear and Russo drops, takes the ball under pressure, resists that pressure and plays Arsenal out of trouble.

The whole team selection was geared towards ball retention in tight spaces and counter-attacking. D’Angelo was selected in goal for this reason, she releases the ball longer and quicker than Zinsberger. Here she takes a corner out of the air and quickly bowls it out to the right.

Maritz finds Blackstenius and you can see how exposed United are here on the counter. This is where Russo comes in.

Russo collects the ball under enormous pressure from Turner here.

Russo spins Turner brilliantly and drives towards the area and Zelem has to take her out. Russo is very good at turning out of tight spaces and Arsenal used this in their own half and United’s half to good effect.

The camera isn’t quite fast enough to catch it in its entirety but Russo produces a fine layoff here under pressure with her back to goal to put Maanum away in a good position.

Russo’s ability in small spaces is inches away from giving her a goal too, she collects a wayward pass from Maanum and, from here, she has no right to get a shot in.

But the ball cannoned off the post.

Arsenal’s game plan was built around counter-attacking. Little played wide because of her ball carrying abilities but was also asked to tuck inside to crowd out Ladd and Zelem. Russo often dropped deep and used her ability under pressure to help launch counters, while Blackstenius raided the channels. Pelova’s selection in central midfield was all about how adept she is in crowd scenes.

Eidevall wanted players who could spin away from pressure and launch counters and Pelova, Russo and Little are three of the best players he has for that. The tactical plan was a pretty sound one but there is no escaping that Arsenal didn’t win the game because they essentially gave United a pair of very cheap goals.

Article image by Alex Burstow


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Michael (1)

Great read as always, but I have to say I’m disappointed in the way we played in possession after I rewatched the game. Out of the 50+ buildup sequences we had we managed to get into the final third less than half the time and if we did get into the final third it was wide and we couldn’t work the ball centrally because players were isolated. We only created 0.1xg more this game than the Liverpool game. I think the setup of the team was largely for out of possession reasons although I think the most effective part of… Read more »

Michael (1)

My only problem with this explanation is that we managed to progress the ball fairly well with Lotte and Steph Catley at the back during the beginning of last season. I expect that players were given explicit instruction to look for the channels or go long for this game but I don’t think we should try to play that way.

Fun Gunner

I think if JE doesn’t start with Pelova rather than Maanum in a 4-2-3-1, he needs to provide written reasons why. Pelova is in form, Maanum isn’t.

Fun Gunner

This is such an astute observation. Maybe JE was doing the tactical equivalent of taking one step back in order to then make two steps forward because team morale and inspiration is a bit low and we needed a plan which relied more on carrying out specific instructions rather than individual brilliance. (Although, step forward Cloe Lacasse!)
It could have been a psychological “trick” to wake up the team’s intensity, because normally you counterattack when you are the underdog and have to be absolutely concentrated and clinical.


Excellent analysis Tim. Certainly it seemed a left-field formation when announced but I can see the logic now. And shame it didn’t pan out with a victory. Looking forward to seeing what tactical tricks up his sleeve Jonas brings out next!


Thanks again Tim – excellent piece. Astonished by Skinner’s “We’re United – we don’t solve problems, we wait and see what happens” response. I think Arsenal’s press also highlighted another issue with United – Neither Le Tissier or Turner are the ball-playing CBs Skinner wants them to be. It’s either go short and hope something opens up, or go long and hope a teammate can get to it, with little in between, and neither of them can dribble (don’t think I’ve ever seen MLT try and run past anyone with the ball).

Fun Gunner

Good point, MartynJ.
Even our 5th choice CB, whichever one you think it is, is as good as or better than most teams’ first choice. We just need more familiarity and for our players to recover properly.


Absolutely. Always feel I’m in a tiny minority thinking Le Tissier is somewhat overrated, but I am backed up here (a) by the stats and (b) by my partner, who is a MUWFC fan and would very much like to see that CB pairing upgraded.


I’ve been struck by how well Liverpool’s defence has played this season. It was rebuilt by signing Jenna Clark and Grace Fisk in July, two young British players who weren’t at the World Cup. I do wonder whether we can be dazzled by high-profile international competitions when there are gems to be found elsewhere.


Jenna Clark has been excellent for Glasgow CIty in recent seasons; Grace Fisk had the misfortune to be at West Ham. I think they’re perfect for what Matt Beard is trying to do – win every game 1-0 – but I’m intrigued to see how they get on across the season. Other teams will be looking at those first two games closely.

Fun Gunner

This is not exactly the subject of the article but I would love to know what difference, if any, our set piece coach has made.

Gunner H

Thoroughly brilliant analysis with studious detail, Tim. True that we should have definitely won the game but a couple of defensive mix ups meant a draw.

Looking head to the Villa game, I feel it’s time for another bold step in starting with KK – who is absolutely ready & capable, as is Kyra, who I consider may have a major impact. Perhaps a tactical plan can be made accommodating these 2 very promising and exciting young players.

Peter Story Teller

Liverpool beat Villa today so that says something about the presumed hierarchy of the mid-order teams. Also with City vs Chelsea ending in a draw were are only one lost game behind City, Utd and Chelsea so the grey clouds of doom may have lifted a little given 20 matches remaining!


Yes – Chelsea have been poor in both games so far. Man City look like Man City – excellent in patches but no sign of a plan B. Villa struggling with key players missing.

Salvador Berzunza

mate, to be fair with Mancity, they did a lot with 10 and more than that with 9, plan b was defend that goal with whatever left, but in the chelski goal the witch don’t let Kennedy to enter the pitch before the corner.

Fun Gunner

Heaslip made some shocking decisions but please don’t call her a witch.

Salvador Berzunza

fair enough, sorry about that.


Player can’t come back on for 30 seconds. Ref actually applying the rules correctly there…

Fun Gunner

Trouble is, Chelsea. They would have wanted all three but a draw away at a rival ground is a good result. They seem to get all the luck.

Fun Gunner

*Trouble is Chelsea have four points.

Peter Story Teller

I see Paris FC drew with Wolfsburg 3-3 tonight which puts our draw and losing on penalties into perspective!!!


Thank you Tim, an excellent analysis, the use of Russo and her qualities was something I had not picked up on. I do wonder if we are able to field 2 separate attacking teams/players depending on the opposition. For teams that won’t to crowd us out in the middle, having players who can keep the ball in tight spaces and play more one-twos, more Montemurro type team, may be better than having players that like to attack space, either behind or out wide. Manuum, Foord, McCabe, Mead (maybe Blackstenius, although I always like variety in attack and the threat of… Read more »

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