Stina Blackstenius has five goals in Arsenal’s opening nine games of this season. Three of those have been from the bench and all but one arrived after the 75th minute. The outlier is her goal against Manchester United in the WSL which came after 14 minutes in her only WSL start of the season. I will come on to why that game perhaps wasn’t such an outlier in a moment.
Calculating player minutes has become an even more imprecise science with the new directives around stoppage time but I have Blackstenius as having played around 325 minutes so far this season, meaning she has scored a goal approximately every 65 minutes. Of course, we are dealing with a very small sample size and I wouldn’t expect that sort of ratio to hold up for the entire season. Last season’s WSL Golden Boot winner Rachel Daly averaged a goal every 88 minutes in 2022-23.
Last season Blackstenius, who was really Arsenal’s only out and out centre-forward, averaged a goal around every 200 minutes. Despite the small sample size from this season, I do think there is something about Blackstenius’ new role as a ‘finisher’, ‘impactor’ or ‘supersub’ (delete as appropriate) that suits her attributes. The summer signing of Alessia Russo has seen her take a slightly reduced role, whereas last season she took part in every single game (a feat she already cannot match this year, she was an unused sub away at Bristol City).
For a start, there are similarities between Blackstenius and Russo, but differences too. Russo is far more inclined to drop into midfield and connect play. She drops a lot deeper than Blackstenius does when the Swede plays upfront and that draws defenders away from their penalty area. I think that creates good situations for Blackstenius, who prefers to runs the channels, to come into.
When teams become accustomed to following Russo away from the penalty area, bringing on Stina and her strong running in behind causes teams a different problem and one they have often struggled to adjust to. Blackstenius is a good player to use against tiring defenders but she is also a good player to bring on when her teammates are tiring and want a more direct outlet, as Jonas Eidevall explained to Arseblog News after her winner against Manchester City.
“I brought on Stina because I thought ‘if that is the way we are going to do it (being compact and defending deeper), instead of trying to be too hollow and playing inside, let’s stay compact and then when we do win the ball we have one of the best players at attacking the channels in the world and that proved to be a good choice.” It was exactly how Stina notched the winner, as McCabe hit her with a long ball into the channel.
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These are the sorts of goals far more likely to happen later in games, when opponents are tired and less diligent about chasing back and when teammates are tired and more inclined to ‘get it launched’ into the channel. In a sense, Arsenal are beginning to develop an attacking model where Russo softens them up and Blackstenius comes on to land a killer blow.
On occasion, Blackstenius and Russo play together too, with Russo dropping into the slightly deeper role and Blackstenius ahead of her. In the Aston Villa game, Russo scores her stoppage time winner from the edge of the area, with Stina attacking the six yard box when Mead tucks the ball back to Russo. It is a model I think we will see plenty of times from the bench in this campaign and not just when Arsenal are chasing games. Blackstenius came on at Leicester with the score at 4-2 to play ahead of Russo.
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When you watch the Leicester goal back, Russo is deep in her own half teeing up the counter, with Blackstenius at the sharp end of the pitch with the finish. Leicester were playing with a high defensive line and Stina was well positioned to punish them. Her goal in the Conti Cup against Bristol City comes on the only occasion this season where she starts and finishes a game. But it is still a very ‘game state’ goal, with Bristol chasing an equaliser at 2-1 in stoppage time, Arsenal counter and Blackstenius is better able to run in behind.
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The Manchester United goal is an outlier only in the sense that it comes in the first half of the game. The whole reason Stina started that game was because United play a high defensive line and Eidevall felt Blackstenius’ ability at attacking the channels would be beneficial from the start, as he explained 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. For the first goal it worked very well.”
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No player, let alone a striker, really aspires to be ‘Plan B’, of course. However, a lot of Blackstenius’ qualities are suited to game states that more commonly occur towards the end of games. Eidevall talks a lot about swapping out his front line during the second half and the importance of “finishers.” For the time being, being one of Eidevall’s ‘finishers’ is turning Blackstenius into one of Arsenal’s most lethal finishers.