Arsenal Women have had, results wise, a perfect start to the season, winning three matches in 8 days. After beating West Ham 2-1 in the league opener, Arsenal convincingly won in the first leg of their Champions League round of 32 knockout match, beating Fiorentina 4-0, before traveling to Leigh to face Manchester United Women on Monday night. It took until the last minute, but after a fairly unconvincing first half, Arsenal started putting the pressure on Manchester United, and Danielle van de Donk popped up with the 89th minute winner to make it three wins from three.
What is more impressive is that Arsenal have navigated this period with players still returning from injury and the World Cup, and with key absences. Vivianne Miedema didn’t feature against West Ham, and Jordan Nobbs made her first start on Monday, continuing her comeback from ACL injury. Although Miedema and Nobbs are back in the fold, Arsenal are still without one of their most important players, with Lia Wälti stepping up her rehabilitation from knee injury.
Wälti was influential enough in defensive midfield to make the PFA Team of the Year, despite not featuring after January. In her stead, Dominique Bloodworth played in midfield, but with Bloodworth leaving for Wolfsburg in the summer, Arsenal have had to plug the gaps. In response, Joe Montemurro has played Leah Williamson in midfield against West Ham, before returning her to a centre back position against Fiorentina and Manchester United. Despite that, Montemurro has utilzied Williamson’s passing in part to replace Wälti, as the midfield trio of Nobbs, Kim Little and Jill Roord doesn’t feature a recognized #6. While Roord was often the deepest of the midfield three, she was given license to push forward as Arsenal rotated their midfield, with Nobbs or Little dropping deeper. This suits Roord more—it’s reminiscent of her goals against West Ham, and she is more of an attacking midfielder than defensive midfielder: “ I’m really technical. I can play offensive and also defensive midfield. I’m really technical and like to have the ball at my feet. I can also score a lot, so hopefully I can make some goals too.”
Playing offensive players in defensive positions is nothing new for Arsenal under Montemurro. Last season, Lisa Evans was often the right back or right wing back, and Katie McCabe has started this season at left back. It works in part because of the quality of Arsenal’s centre backs, but also because of the team’s defensive structure, and ability to press from the front. This not only protects the centre backs, but also protects midfield.
Here, Lauren James has just won possession, and looks to start a counter attack for United. But James is immediately blocked off by Roord, with Beth Mead coming behind, and Van de Donk and Kim Little blocking off the nearest passing options—which could start an Arsenal counter. James could try to slip in Sigsworth, but there’s a chance Little blocks that, and if not, then Jen Beattie can step up to win the ball.
In the end, Arsenal’s pressing forces James to turn, and play backwards, eventually re-starting with the goalkeeper, Mary Earps. But Arsenal’s pressing is again effective: Earps doesn’t have an easy short option, has to go long, and has her clearance blocked by Miedema, eventually winning Arsenal a throw-in. Thus, the combination of structure and pressure enables Arsenal to first force United back when they have won possession, and then cause United to lose the ball by cutting off their options.
This enables Arsenal to utilize Leah Williamson’s ball progression. An essential part of Arsenal’s style last season was Williamson playing the ball into midfield and to Lisa Evans, on the right hand side of Arsenal’s attack. So far this season, Williamson’s passing has become even more influential, as she has dictated Arsenal’s play from deep. Against Manchester United, she made 102 passes, all across the field. playing into midfield, as well as spreading the ball. While Jen Beattie, Williamson, and Roord all played a high number of completed central passes, it was Williamson who most frequently played through the lines, as evidenced by Arsenal’s passing map.
Without Lia Wälti, Arsenal have needed someone to control play from deep, and start the team’s passing moves. In Wälti’s absence, the team has largely done well to counter-press and stop counter-attacks, though they have been fortunate in playing sides that have been happy to sit deep to try to stop Arsenal from scoring. With teams sitting deep, Arsenal have relied on Leah Williamson to dictate play from deep and move the ball from back to front, resulting in even more influence from one of the best centre backs in the league.