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Arsenal Women: A tactically flexible, fluid, exciting side who are the team to beat in the FA WSL

Arsenal Women have been excellent this season, and their tactical flexibility has been a major reason why

Chelsea Women v Arsenal - FA WSL

Unai Emery is not the only Arsenal coach enjoying a long run of winning form. Under manager Joe Montemurro, Arsenal Women have swept all before them thus far this season, winning all five of their league games, scoring 27 goals and conceding only 3 in the process. And in the Continental Cup (a sort of equivalent to the League Cup), Arsenal have won two from two, beating West Ham 3-1 and Lewes 9-0, making it 39 goals in 7 games, conceding only 4—a throwback to the days when Arsenal were the premier women’s team in the country under the management of Vic Akers.

The opposition now, though, is far better than it was a decade ago, with the FA Women’s Super League now fully professional. The hallmark victory of the campaign, then, was a 5-0 demolition of Chelsea, last season’s double winners, who comfortably beat Arsenal in the FA Women’s Cup final in May. A short five months later, and Joe Montemurro’s side put 5 past them, making them strong title favourites. One week later, Arsenal beat Reading, who had conceded 1 goal in their first four games of the season, 6-0, even as Arsenal were without star midfielder Kim Little.

The success of Arsenal Women so far this season is in part down to their style of football. As Montemurro explained in an interview with Tim Stillman for Arseblog News (whose coverage of Arsenal Women is exemplary), “We’ve got a fluid squad where players can play three or four positions. This is work we did last year and it was really important work. We’ve seen Lisa Evans play as full-back, she can play as a winger, Katie McCabe can play wide or as a full-back or inside as a midfielder. Danielle van de Donk can play as a holding midfielder, but also as a winger or as a number 10.”

That flexibility was on hand as Arsenal beat Reading. Having played with a back four against Chelsea, Arsenal lined up with a back three against Reading, in a 3-5-1-1 shape that was often 3-2-3-1, with the nominal wingbacks, Lisa Evans and Beth Mead (a striker) playing high up the pitch as Arsenal pressed the ball.

Arsenal Women v Reading

While Arsenal have outstanding players all across the pitch, the star player so far this season has been Vivianne Miedema, who having only scored 4 goals in the league last season already has 9 in this campaign. Miedema, who grew up a Feyenoord fan watching game on Robin van Persie, is a sort of 9 and a half: an excellent striker, with great movement in behind, but also a playmaker. She is, then, a reference point of sorts for Arsenal’s game: if she makes runs in behind, Arsenal can play quick through balls from the likes of midfield all-rounder Jordan Nobbs, and if she drops off, she creates space for runs to be made in behind from the wide players, Mead and Evans, and then runs from midfield from Nobbs and Danielle van de Donk.

What enables Arsenal to play in this fluid style is not only the multi-functionality of the players, but the verticality that they play with. Arsenal’s style of passing is not to patiently pass squarely around the back and the midfield; rather, building from the back, Arsenal play quickly, with one and two-touches in midfield before the midfielders—Nobbs, Van de Donk, McCabe and Walti—look to play through balls for runners. Indeed, Arsenal’s play starts at the back, where, in the Reading game, two members of the back three could play in midfield. Leah Williamson is a converted midfielder, while Dominique Bloodworth is a midfielder who can operate in defence, as she has this season.

With such an emphasis on attacking, it is remarkable that Arsenal have only conceded four goals in 7 games. Arsenal are excellent at pressing and either winning the ball higher up the pitch—their third against Reading came from doing this—or forcing teams to play longer passes, with Arsenal able to win the ball in midfield.

Arsenal pressing

You can see this here. Miedema and Nobbs start the pressing from the front, with Nobbs cutting off the passing lane and gesturing to Lisa Evans, the right-wingback effectively acting as a right-forward. Behind her, Van de Donk can win anything played over the head of Nobbs. From here, Reading have to switch, and a loose touch acts as a trigger for Mead to press, forcing Reading to go back to the keeper and then go long, where Arsenal’s defence wins the ball in midfield. This is also where the multi-functionality comes into play: if Mead comes infield, either on the ball or off the ball, McCabe can push out wide, offering an overlap. Furthermore, Lia Walti, the holding midfielder can drop into the defensive line, allowing Arsenal to push the two wide centre backs, Williamson and Emma Mitchell, who is usually a left back, and keep two in midfield with Van de Donk and McCabe.

This flexibility allowed Arsenal to continue their strong form even as they missed their influential captain, Kim Little, one of the best midfielders in the world. With a small squad, this ability for the players to fulfill different roles but maintain the same standard of football has been crucial as various players have been absent with injury. And with an entertaining, fast and progressive style of football, Arsenal have started the 2018-19 Women’s Super League as the team to beat.