The coronavirus pandemic means that Arsenal Women haven’t played since the end of February, when Arsenal lost to Chelsea 2-1 in the Continental Cup final. A lot has happened since Arsenal have last played, including the arrival of four players, and the departure of five. The Champions League and Women’s FA Cup were suspended, and will be played later this month and in late September and October respectively. Chelsea were awarded the title on points per game, with Manchester City awarded second, meaning Arsenal will be out of the Champions League unless they win the tournament later this month.
Arsenal finished third last season in a large part because they took three points from four games against Chelsea and Manchester City, beating only City in the league (as well as in the Continental Cup). Arsenal have been extremely consistent against the rest of the league, having last dropped points against Yeovil Town, in April 2018. In winning the league in 2018/19, Arsenal beat Chelsea and City once each and lost to each once, and won the league on the basis of winning all sixteen of their other fixtures. While teams outside the top 3 have improved, with some flashy additions this summer, to win the league, Arsenal will need to get more points against the best.
To an extent, that explains some of Arsenal’s additions. Fullbacks Steph Catley and Noëlle Maritz have arrived from OL Reign/Melbourne City and Wolfsburg respectively, and both will strengthen a defence that gave up 8 goals in 4 games against Chelsea and City, and was specifically susceptible to conceding crosses.
The additions and versatility should serve Arsenal well in a unique situation. The 2019/20 Champions League finishes in August, with the 2019/20 Women’s FA Cup coinciding with the 2020/21 Women’s Super League, and the beginning of the Continental League Cup, and should Arsenal win the Champions League, Arsenal will be in four competitions during the autumn. Arsenal have a small squad in comparison with their counterparts. While Chelsea and Manchester City have twenty-two first team players, Arsenal only have nineteen, with one, goalkeeper Fran Stenson, likely to go out on loan. Manager Joe Montemurro prefers this, to some debate, but one important component is flexibility, and a number of Arsenal’s players have the capability of playing multiple positions.
Style and Tactics
Under Montemurro, Arsenal generally play a 4-3-3 system that features pressing and patient, fluid passing. Arsenal build from the back, and the full backs generally get very high and wide to provide attacking width. With the number 8s, usually Jordan Nobbs and Kim Little, supporting Vivianne Miedema, and running beyond Miedema, and the wide players allowed to get into scoring positions because of the full backs. Miedema is a creative player in her own right, having been a number 10 as a young player, and often drifts from the front line. Arsenal generally play with a single number 6, though Little can drop to utilize her passing and press-resistant dribbling to move Arsenal out of pressure.
Defensively, Leah Williamson and Jen Beattie are the first choice centre backs, and complement each other well. Both are good passers: Williamson is more adventurous, with the ability to play passes through the lines, and progressing the ball forward, while Beattie is a little bit safer, completing 85% of long passes as opposed to Williamson’s 80%. Williamson will be the more aggressive of the two centre backs, often stepping out, with Beattie covering.
The defending, though, starts from the front: Arsenal’s three most successful pressers were Danïelle van de Donk, Beth Mead, and Vivianne Miedema—last season’s usual front three. Jill Roord and Lia Wälti were the next two, from midfield; Wälti in particular is adept at reading the game and winning the ball back.
The goalkeeper is also regarded as one of the eleven outfield players by Montemurro. Thus, who he picks depends on who Arsenal are playing, and whether the opposition will sit deeper, or press. Both Lydia Williams and Manuela Zinsberger are very good shotstoppers, with Williams perhaps a little better at commanding the penalty box, with Zinsberger slightly better at coming out. Williams is a very good distributor of the ball, who specializes particularly at longer distribution. Zinsberger is very good with the ball at her feet, completing 272 out of 273 passes between five and twenty-five yards last season. Thus, if the opposition are going to sit back, Zinsberger is the more likely starter; if Arsenal are going to be pressed and need to be more direct expect to see Lydia Williams start.
The key players are essentially everyone whose name comes up above: Leah Williamson, Lia Wälti, Kim Little, and Vivianne Miedema. That is the spine of the team. Wälti is the principal player who wins the ball back; Wälti, Williamson, and Little build the play, and Vivianne Miedema is the key creator further up the pitch (along with Little and Nobbs). Miedema, of course, is the goal-scorer, with 16 in 14 games in the WSL last season, 22 in 20 the season before, and 10 goals in 4 games in this season’s Champions League.
Arsenal’s spine is essentially the same as the title-winning campaign. An addition this summer, Steph Catley, should be another key player. Catley is one of the best left backs in the world, who worked with Joe Montemurro in Australia at Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City. Catley is an excellent offensive threat, with the capability to play passes over the top from deep positions, as well as crosses. She and Ellie Carpenter, now at Lyon, were the main attacking threat for Melbourne City in the last W-League campaign. But Catley is also an excellent defensive player, who reads the game well and is a good one v one defender. An upgrade in this position for Arsenal could be crucial in the games that will decide trophies, against Chelsea, Manchester City, and in the Champions League.
Arsenal are in a unique position, finishing the 2019-20 edition of the Champions League at the beginning of the new campaign. Arsenal finished third on points per game in last season’s shortened campaign and must win the Champions League to participate in next year’s event. Doing so would be a tall order—not impossible, but Arsenal, who are in a coin-toss matchup with PSG, would then have to likely beat four-time consecutive champions Lyon, and then either Wolfsburg or probably Barcelona in the final.
The WSL, with all games on the (free) FA Player, will have three Champions League places for the 2021-22 season, and Arsenal are 99% likely to finish in the top 3. Some of the sides outside of the top 3 have improved—Everton have made some astute signings, Reading have added Jess Fishlock—but none of the sides outside of the top 3 will be consistent enough to challenge Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea over the course of the season. Domestically, the trophies are still very much split between the big three.
Games between the top 3 should decide the location of the title. Arsenal have been remarkably consistent, having not dropped points against a non-top 3 side since April 2018. The next step for the evolution of this team is to strengthen, in the league, against their rivals. While results against City have generally been good in recent years, the Gunners have lost their last five meetings against Chelsea—three league defeats, a lost in the 2018-19 FA Cup, and defeat in last season’s Continental Cup final. Catley and Maritz should also give Arsenal an added physical component, as will January addition Caitlin Foord, and can give Arsenal a direct component in addition to their possession play. Finally, the ability to utilize Lisa Evans and Katie McCabe further up the pitch gives the Arsenal front line additional variety and an alternative to the finesse of Little, Nobbs and Miedema.