After defeat against Manchester United in the WSL last weekend, Arsenal have an opportunity to make amends in another huge game on Sunday, against last season’s points per game champions Chelsea. Arsenal have lost to Chelsea in their last six encounters in all competitions, and while a defeat wouldn’t signal the end of Arsenal’s title ambitions, Sunday’s game is really more of an existential question about Arsenal’s capability to compete with the best teams, following defeats in the fall of 2020 to Paris St. Germain, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea in the Continental Cup.
Chelsea, as Arsenal saw in the Conti Cup, are in rampant goal-scoring form. They put four past a previously unbeaten Everton this past weekend, with Beth England and Pernille Harder both scoring. Harder, of course, joined Chelsea this summer, making their strike force even more terrifying.
Chelsea largely played a very attacking 442 last season, but with Fran Kirby out with injury, they switched to a 433 system against Everton, with Harder and Erin Cuthbert wide. There are other options—Sam Kerr was a substitute. Chelsea’s midfield has been consistent: Ji So-Yun has formed a partnership with new signing Melanie Leupolz, with Sophie Ingle able to come in.
Chelsea’s recent success against Arsenal has come through being a dominant pressing side, but their fullbacks can be got at. When Arsenal lost to Chelsea in the league game at Meadow Park last season, Joe Montemurro tried to flood the middle of the pitch, which ended with Arsenal being exposed in the wide positions. In the Continental Cup final, where Arsenal played extremely well, Caitlin Foord and Jordan Nobbs found joy in the wide positions, and Arsenal were deeply unlucky to come away from the final empty handed.
Jordan Nobbs (hamstring), Noëlle Maritz (knee), Steph Catley (calf), Lisa Evans (calf), and Jen Beattie will all miss Sunday’s game, as well as Wednesday’s Continental Cup fixture against Spurs. They should return after the upcoming international break. Kim Little and Jill Roord played half an hour as substitutes against Manchester United.
In his pre-match press conference, manager Joe Montemurro hinted at a potential tactical shift: “We have been focusing on our ability to identify the moment where we need to probably be a little bit more…I don’t like to use the word pragmatic…a little bit more in control of the situation where the other team has the ball.”
Arsenal played the final half an hour against London City Lionesses with a back three. On that occasion, Lia Wälti dropped into the defence as a third centre back, which she is more than capable of doing. Arsenal could also utilize Lotte Wubben-Moy in her more natural centre back position. Playing a back three would give Arsenal added security, while it’d also enable the full backs to get forward—especially Katie McCabe, who led Arsenal in successful dribbles last weekend. That sort of individual ability will be important to get Arsenal out of the press. Furthermore, were Chelsea to lineup with a strike-partnership, a back three could give Arsenal the potential to outnumber Chelsea’s strikers and central midfielders.
Player to watch: Kim Little
Little is still returning to full fitness, but her insertion into the game last weekend made a huge difference. Whereas Arsenal had been very much second best, and succumbing to Manchester United’s press, Little’s ability to carry the ball, and turn in tight spaces meant that Arsenal all of sudden had a player who could begin to dictate the game more in midfield. Little completed 88% of her passes last weekend, and was Arsenal’s best dribbler last season, averaging 2.2 per 90 minutes. As a team, to get out of Chelsea’s pressure, Arsenal will need to be able to carry the ball out of pressure, and pass the ball more quickly and sharply—both of which will be better enabled by Little’s presence.
Predicted lineup (3-5-2):
1. Zinsberger; 3. Wubben-Moy, 6. Williamson, 22. Schnaderbeck; 20. Maier, 13. Wälti, 10. Little, 7. Van de Donk, 15. McCabe; 11. Miedema, 19. Foord
Substitutes: 18. Williams, 7. Van de Donk, 9. Mead, 14. Roord, 21. Gut, 30. Mace, 31. Denton, 32. Pearse 33. Garrard
WHAT: Arsenal Women vs Chelsea Women, Women’s Super League
WHERE: Meadow Park, Borehamwood
WHEN: Sunday, November 15th 6:30 AM PST | 9:30 AM EST | 2:30 PM GMT
WATCH: NBCSN (TV), NBC Live extra (streaming), BT Sport (UK)