Speaking to Tim Stillman after Arsenal Women’s 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur, Danïelle van de Donk said, “I stay relaxed and chilled, I don’t really get scared anymore I just know it’s gonna come. We’ve just got so many people on the pitch that can score goals so I feel comfortable.” Van de Donk’s confidence isn’t misguided; Arsenal haven’t been shut out in a league game for nearly a year. But recent performances have pointed to a new tactical reality that Arsenal are facing, where teams are realizing that if they don’t want to get crushed, they have to dig in and bunker.
Indeed, Arsenal’s last domestic fixture before the international break was a 0-0 draw in the Continental Cup. Although a rotated team, with Vivianne Miedema and Van de Donk starting on the bench, it still featured Kim Little, Jordan Nobbs, Katie McCabe, Beth Mead, and Jill Roord.
Brighton achieved their result by sitting deep, and sitting on Arsenal’s centre backs, particularly Leah Williamson, building on Manchester City, who did the same in Arsenal’s 1-0 win last month. Tottenham built on that, by playing a front two and back five, blocking off Williamson and Jen Beattie, and surrounding Lia Wälti, making it difficult for Arsenal to play through the lines, and affecting their distances.
Joe Montemurro recognized the influence the Brighton game had on the North London Derby, saying, “In the game against Brighton you saw that they played a very deep block, hit us on the break and got a little bit of joy through that so I think a lot of teams are now looking at that gameplan and think that’s a way to unlock us.” For Montemurro, this is the pressure that comes with being champions: “The pressure of expectation is there as reigning champions and every game from now is going to be a challenge,” with the games coming up being challenging “because they’re teams that we are expected to win against.”
In the second half, Arsenal regained their shape, with Montemurro saying that the half-time adjustments consisted of “show[ing] them how I wanted the structure to look in the second half and [trying] to give them the energy and the confidence to keep believing in the way we play because we knew if we stuck to our principles we would win in the end and it paid off.”
The difference between Arsenal’s recent matches was clear. Spurs’ set-up restricted the ability of Leah Williamson to play forward, meaning that she played far more square passes; indeed, Williamson to Beattie was Arsenal’s top passing combination.
In the second half, Montemurro’s adjustments consisted of rotating his midfielders, Little and Nobbs, deeper, allowing them to throw off Spurs’ marking. Furthermore, he had Wälti take a higher role, creating the space for Nobbs and Little to drop in, and allowing Arsenal to be better at constructing attacks and moving the ball forward with good positioning. This also had the effect of tightening Arsenal’s own defensive structure, meaning there were fewer times Spurs were able to run at the Arsenal defence.
So far, Montemurro and Arsenal have been able to adjust at whatever has been thrown at them. It is how they continue to adjust to new tactical realities, and other new realities, such as the arrival of Sam Kerr at Chelsea, that will go a long way to deciding if the Gunners can repeat as champions.