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How Arsenal Women ended their Chelsea curse

A run of 5 league games without a win against Chelsea is over.

Arsenal Women v Chelsea Women - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

Arsenal Women had not beaten Chelsea in any competition since October 2018 until yesterday’s 3-2 win at the Emirates Stadium. The numbers were grim: five league games, with one point, and in all competitions, eight games, with just one draw, with Chelsea outscoring Arsenal 21 to 6. It was an area where Jonas Eidevall could have immediate impact—and he did, even if the performance was, in his words, “not perfect, the effort was perfect.”

Eidevall, though, did focus on two parts of the game: “In some aspects I think it was, like the way we defended as a team in the last 20 minutes and the way we played out from their pressure in the first 30 minutes too.” While he also, in his post-match interview on Sky Sports, highlight Arsenal’s problems, namely the lack of running for the second part of the second half, it was the playing out from Chelsea’s pressure that will bring a lot of satisfaction, as it was an area that needed addressing.

Eidevall said post match that Arsenal had prepared for Chelsea to play in a back 3 or back 4, but that Chelsea’s warm up had him fooled into thinking they were using a back 4. The way Arsenal played out, though, was well-suited to Chelsea’s system.

Eidevall looked to create overloads on the left to get out of Chelsea’s pressing. With Chelsea in a back 3, with 3 forwards, that could enable Chelsea to cut off Leah Williamson and Jen Beattie from playing entry passes into midfield, as Beth England does in the picture below. To counter that, Frida Maanum dropped in from central midfield to the left back space, while Katie McCabe pushed forward.

Throughout the first half in periods of buildup, based on the position of the ball, you can see Maanum sprint to the left back space to enable McCabe to push forward. Yet it is not only a player taking up the space, allowing McCabe to go forward that is clever, it’s also Maanum’s characteristics. She’s not only a very good passer, but very good at carrying the ball. By carrying the ball beyond Erin Cuthbert, who has come to engage, she forces Niamh Charles to decide whether to engage or to track McCabe’s movement.

In this particular move, Charles opens up the space for McCabe, who receives the pass from Maanum but has a heavy first touch. However, it showed how Arsenal were looking to exploit the left hand side throughout the first half, including the goal, which rather than being in transition, as Emma Hayes asserted post-match, came from build-up in Arsenal’s half, before McCabe, in space, could play in Vivianne Miedema. Miedema’s goal speaks to another way Arsenal created overloads on the left: the positioning of Kim Little and Mana Iwabuchi.

Maanum has again occupied Erin Cuthbert and Ji, though this time, Charles presses high against McCabe, who takes her out of the move with a clever piece of skill. This opens a move up for Arsenal: Kim Little is in space because Ji was paying attention to Maanum, and because Little is in space, Millie Bright, out of picture, has to push up. But what makes this move even more effective is Iwabuchi’s movement: by coming out to the left touchline, she not only offers an easy pass for Little, it forces Jess Carter to make a decision. McCabe continues her run, and it’s an easy pass from Iwabuchi into space, and suddenly Arsenal are away. Beth Mead goes too early, and the move comes to an end because of the offside flag, but minutes later, a similarly structured move would lead to Arsenal’s first goal.

Arsenal’s defensive structure initially saw high pressing but as the game went on, in warm conditions, Arsenal’s pressing dropped off. As Eidevall said post-game, some of Arsenal’s problems came when they “stopped running,” but they were able be effective on the counter attack, and Vivianne Miedema started playing an influential role in Arsenal’s build up, with Beth Mead making outside to in runs off of Chelsea’s wide centre backs. Defensively, Arsenal allowed the most opposition passes per defensive action, an acknowledgment that, especially in the second half, the Gunners focused on maintaining shape.

This is indeed something Arsenal rarely did under Joe Montemurro, and Arsenal’s organization is something that Eidevall pointed out as an area of concern following Arsenal’s 3-1 over PSV two weeks ago. Overall, Arsenal’s structure was far superior in this game, be it through high pressing in the first half, where they forced Chelsea to be more direct than they might usually prefer, or in the second, where the only way Chelsea would score would be through a cross. That has trade-offs, and Eidevall will surely want to have more structured possession in seeing out games, but on the day it was enough tactically to win the game.