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Joe Montemurro’s criticism of Arsenal Women is misplaced. The problem isn’t mental—it’s tactical.

Arsenal’s big game failings are again open for debate after another disappointing performance.

Arsenal Women Training Session Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

After a third straight defeat against Manchester City, Joe Montemurro could hardly be clearer. Asked about his team’s inability to win against their toughest opposition, the Arsenal manager said,

It’s obviously a mentality issue, to work out ‘we’re away from home, we’ll settle for the point,’ we know this is a difficult place to win. I can’t kick the ball for them the players have to make those decisions on the pitch and we had opportunities to clear the area and we’ve got world class players who have played in World Cups and big games making decisions in those situations, what more can I say?

While Montemurro is correct in that he cannot kick the ball for them, it is tougher to completely accept that Arsenal’s issues away from home in big matches are purely an issue of mentality. Since beating Chelsea 5-0 away from home in the title winning 2018-19 season, Arsenal have lost away from home against Chelsea in the league, FA Cup and Continental Cup, Manchester City three times in the league, and once in the FA Cup, and against Manchester United this season, whose results dictate that they have joined Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea in the WSL’s elite.

Not every performance has been the same, of course. But there a number of similarities. Speaking after Arsenal’s 2-1 loss away at Chelsea in October 2019, a match where Arsenal went 1-0 up, Kim Little said, “Yes, I think you can say that, we were passive and not good enough on the ball,” and Montemurro said, “[we] didn’t play well and couldn’t keep the ball.”

After a bright start yesterday, Arsenal began to become overrun. By the 30th minute, Arsenal were allowing over 60 passes per defensive action—a measure of pressing intensity—and possession had dropped under 40%. In the fifteen minutes before halftime, Arsenal were averaging 26% possession. Conversely, Arsenal were only having spells of five passes per Manchester City defensive action, a consequence both of City’s high press and Arsenal’s inability to play through it.

In fairness to Montemurro, Arsenal had worked out how to play through Chelsea’s press when the two sides met at Meadow Park in November, where Arsenal were unfortunate to only come away with a point. That Arsenal conceded late, but were at home, is perhaps a supporting point of Montemurro’s position, that Arsenal have a mental block, especially away from home, as Arsenal were positive and on the front foot for large parts of the game.

Indeed, it is puzzling that on one hand, Arsenal can solve Chelsea’s pressure, but fail to solve the pressing from Manchester United and Manchester City. And while Arsenal’s midfield was understaffed against Manchester United, with Kim Little and Jill Roord only available off the bench, it was largely the same team team against Manchester City that played against Chelsea, with Malin Gut replacing the injured Lia Wälti, and Lydia Williams replacing Manuela Zinsberger in goal.

Arsenal pass network vs. Chelsea

Against Chelsea, Arsenal were able to play out by using their full-backs, with Wälti’s movement successfully opening space for Arsenal to play through Leonie Maier and Katie McCabe. Against Manchester City, after the early start, Arsenal had very little in their own third down the right hand side.

Arsenal pass network vs Manchester City

This meant Arsenal’s play was funneled down the left and through the middle—right where Manchester City were strongest. Arsenal’s passing down the left hand side, for example, was about twice as frequent as the right hand side, and about three times more progressive. In simple, terms, that meant if Arsenal were keeping possession, they were doing so between Lydia Williams and the two centre backs, and then attempting to progress through the left.

From there, Manchester City could trigger pressure. It was here where the absence of Wälti was felt; Malin Gut, perhaps lacking the experience of Wälti, only attempted 8 passes in the second half, forcing Kim Little into deeper positions to try to help Arsenal retain possession.

Kim Little passes vs City

Jill Roord, in the team as a second striker, could only really pass laterally and backwards, while Manchester City’s own midfielders, Keira Walsh, Sam Mewis and Caroline Weir, attempting 41 forward passes to Arsenal’s 23, and 23 passes into the penalty box to Arsenal’s 10. City’s pressure meant Weir and Mewis could play higher up, pressing Arsenal’s midfield pivot into the back four; with Arsenal unable to play through, it effectively gave City a numerical advantage, with 70% of City’s possessions reaching Arsenal’s half, compared to only 34% of Arsenal’s in the City half.

Arsenal’s front three became isolated; in part because Roord, who is excellent at getting into good shooting positions, couldn’t link the midfield with the front three. This again seems a tactical issue; but when Joe Montemurro made substitutions, he brought on Steph Catley, a left-footed left back, on at right back, and two central midfielders, Jordan Nobbs and Danïelle van de Donk, on in wide positions, not attempting to fix Arsenal’s central issues.

Jill Roord passes vs City

Indeed, Arsenal’s lack of having a pattern of play on the right hand side is indicative in Jill Roord’s distribution map: a triangle on the left hand side, with Katie McCabe, Caitlin Foord, and Jen Beattie, but one that City were able to box in.

Jill Roord distribution vs City

What it resulted in was Arsenal being unable to construct attacks. Here, Katie McCabe, Caitlin Foord, and Jill Roord try to build up through the left. With City’s press, the passing has to be precise—and it isn’t quite precise. Beyond that, there isn’t an attempt to switch play over to the right, nor many options, boxing Arsenal in. Eventually, City regain possession, and can counter.

Many of Arsenal’s issues, then, were tactical. Perhaps Joe Montemurro’s assertion, that it is a mental block, is partially correct. But this is not Arsenal’s first instance of being unable to play through pressure, suggesting that it is also a tactical issue. Arsenal have the quality to play through pressure—it is up to Montemurro to figure out how to best deploy that quality to successfully play through pressure. Otherwise, a long standing issue will continue—suggesting that even if there is a mental block, the manager’s instructions to avoid this block are failing to get through.