Continental Cup 2020: Arsenal Women v Chelsea Women – tactical analysis
The 2020 Continental Cup saw two of English women’s football’s heavyweights clash at the City Ground, home of Championship side Nottingham Forest. Arsenal Women have won the cup five times, and are the most successful team in the competition, whereas Chelsea Women have never won it, but hoped it would be the beginning of a domestic treble for them. This tactical analysis will show how Arsenal’s all-around gameplay saw them deploy several tactics to take control of the game, and will show why they ended up as second-best after the end of 90 minutes. The analysis will also show why Chelsea were lucky to not concede more than the one goal they did give to Arsenal because it wasn’t a vintage performance from Chelsea by any stretch.
Arsenal Women Chelsea Women
M. Zinsberger (gk) A. Berger (gk)
L. Evans M. Mjelde
V. Schnaderbeck M. Bright
L. Quinn M. Eriksson (c)
K. McCabe J. Andersson
J. Nobbs (c) S. Ingle
L. Williamson E. Cuthbert
J. Roord G. Reiten
C. Foord S. Ji
V. Miedema S. Kerr
D. Van De Donk B. England
Arsenal Women made three changes from their last WSL match, a 3-2 win against relegation-threatened Liverpool Women. There was a change in goal as Manuela Zinsberger came in for Pauline Peyraud-Magnin, whilst Leonie Maier moved to the bench, with Jill Roord coming in to start. Lisa Evans moved to right-back from right wing, as Arsenal switched to a 4-3-3 formation. Winger Beth Mead is out with a long-term injury sustained in the victory over Liverpool, so January signing Caitlin Foord came in to replace her. As for Chelsea Women, they made no changes from their last WSL match, a thrilling 3-3 draw with title rivals Manchester City Women at the Academy Stadium. That meant that Ann-Katrin Berger kept her place ahead of Carly Telford in goal, whilst star strikers Beth England and Sam Kerr started in attack together.
Chelsea Women’s defence
Firstly, Chelsea Women’s attack was solid, and they created some really good opportunities, as well as obviously scoring twice through Beth England.
However, their defence was not so brilliant, and they were incredibly fortunate to not concede more than one goal. Here’s why.
Their aim was clearly to set up in a way that stopped Arsenal playing through them. As a tactic, this requires discipline from the players involved in these moves, but Chelsea didn’t have that. They struggled to stop Arsenal Women finding gaps in their ranks, and every time one of Chelsea’s players was caught out of line, Arsenal had one running in behind.
You can see above how Chelsea’s defence is not a straight line, and that has allowed Jordan Nobbs to see the space and move into it, as indicated by the arrow. This happened time and time again.
Here, Chelsea Women have set up with two defensive ranks, as shown by the lines. However, you can see that in the front line, again there has been a gap created, and there is a very easy way for Arsenal to play the ball in between the two lines, putting pressure on the Chelsea defence. The pass from Arsenal is indicated by the arrow.
Nothing really changed in the second half with this either, because you can see below how Chelsea have left too big a gap, which has allowed Arsenal’s Lisa Evans to make the run through the middle of them.
This move did come to nothing in the end, as Arsenal ended up playing the ball backwards, but it was a concerning sight for manager Emma Hayes. Chelsea should have been warned by their first-half defensive issues, and yet they hadn’t seemed to be. The gaps were still too big and the defence was still playing too narrowly.
The narrowness is what this analysis will pick up on next because that is the second thing that Chelsea did to help Arsenal out when the Gunners were attacking. Below, you can see how Chelsea’s very early defence was arranged so that the whole pitch was covered.
When Chelsea Women played wide, like in this image, they were on top, and Arsenal couldn’t find a way through them. Arsenal are well-known for hunting in packs of two or three when attacking, trying to surround an opposing player before taking the ball off them. Here, you can see how they have done just that to Sophie Ingle, although she isn’t in possession here. What is important to note is that, because Chelsea have this defensive width, Arsenal’s pack-hunting tactic is rendered useless. Chelsea can just move the ball out to the full-backs and play it out that way, so Arsenal can’t close down the player in possession.
However, it was when their defence narrowed that Arsenal had more freedom to use their secondary offensive tactic; moving stealthily down the wing and moving in behind the opposition’s defence without them knowing too much about it.
Here, Arsenal’s Australia international Caitlin Foord has been allowed to run from the wide area, because Chelsea Women have become too narrow in their defensive structure. Contrast this to the earlier image where Chelsea were spread out, and you can see just how much this had an effect on the game moving into Arsenal’s favour.
The dotted arrow shows the path of the ball, so you can see how Arsenal used this to greater effect in their tactics, because every time they attacked, they constantly drew Chelsea inside before moving the ball to the outside, where a player was waiting to receive it. In all honesty, had it not been for the outstanding Ann-Katrin Berger in Chelsea’s goal, and some poor Arsenal play which will be looked at later, Chelsea could very well have lost this match.
There was one player, aside from the two strikers England and Kerr, who had an effect on the way the game went, and that was Sophie Ingle in the midfield. Chelsea lined up with a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation, and Ingle is the player deployed at the base of it. Her general style of play is that she is a defensive midfielder who plays in the hole between the defence and the midfield, and in this game in particular, her role was even more important and contributed massively to the game’s final result.
Her positioning allows her to slot in at centre-back when needed, which has a huge influence on her team. The image below shows her in one such situation.
You can see how she is with the two centre-backs, England’s Millie Bright and team captain Magdalena Eriksson, and this is how it benefits Chelsea Women. Ingle slots into the middle of the defence, allowing the central defenders to move wider, as they have done here. That, in turn, means the full-backs can move further up the pitch, ready to receive the ball from the goalkeeper at a goal kick. That means that Erin Cuthbert and Guro Reiten, as the players on at the width of the diamond, don’t have to move so wide, because the full-backs are doing that, so can focus on helping out the attackers, which are Ji So-Yun, as the attacking midfielder, and strikers England and Kerr. That increases the attacking options Chelsea have, and this all comes from Sophie Ingle’s role as that defensive protection.
The other thing it does, much more simply, is that it creates more options for the goalkeeper at goal kicks, because they can now play the ball into deeper positions, or they have three players closer to them ready to receive the ball.
The final point to mention about this image is that Ingle acts as a buffer for Arsenal’s attackers because they can’t go beyond her when moving forwards, for fear of leaving their midfield more unprotected and outnumbered. This means that the centre-backs have more time on the ball, as shown here.
The next point to make about Ingle’s role in the Chelsea team is that she is able to see danger and get back to cut it out.
Both of the above images have Ingle circled, and you can see how she is crucial to stopping Arsenal’s passes reaching the central attackers. She gets herself into the spaces, and ensures that Chelsea Women always have an extra player ready to intercept the ball. This thankless and sometimes unnoticed task is a huge part of why teams can challenge for the league title and win trophies, just as Chelsea are doing this season. It was a particularly important role to have in this match, with Chelsea’s aforementioned defensive issues on show.
She doesn’t get involved in too many attacking moves either, preferring to stay back and prevent teams counter-attacking. This means Chelsea can get players forward for set-pieces, knowing they have this protection and that they will not be caught out if they lose the ball. This is another role she performs well, and another reason she is such an important cog in the Chelsea Women machine.
It wasn’t a perfect performance from Ingle, as she did have one moment where she gave the ball away to Arsenal, but the Gunners were unable to make it count.
Arsenal Women’s attack
That brings us neatly onto Arsenal Women’s attack, which was the reason the Gunners were the better side throughout the match, and yet went home without the cup.
There was a lack of quality on show throughout the match from them, and their biggest problem was that they couldn’t find the final pass with which to score from. They could and should have punished Chelsea Women so many times in the first half, but weren’t able to make the opportunities count.
Tactically, they set up really well, with a 4-3-3 formation enabling them to have three attackers in Foord, Vivienne Miedema and Danielle Van De Donk, but with three midfielders, Jordan Nobbs, Jill Roord and Leah Williamson playing through them, to create a double attack for Chelsea to have to think about.
The key to their play was the width, which has been mentioned before. The two Arsenal Women full-backs, Lisa Evans and Katie McCabe, constantly found space to attack into, playing around the Chelsea defence.
Above, you can clearly see how both players found themselves in these wider attacking positions, and that enabled them to operate by providing crosses into the box, ensuring that Arsenal’s central attackers always had something to get on the end of. However, Arsenal’s attackers were not having a good day, and their two main threats, Nobbs and Miedema, were very quiet in the first half.
Both of these players were much better and more lively in the second half though. Below, you can see one such example of how Nobbs got into the game even more in the second half.
By getting Evans and McCabe either side of the defence, Arsenal have forced Chelsea to stretch sideways, and the gaps in between the individual defenders have become enlarged. This allows Nobbs, who is situated just in front of the central defenders, to take the ball and run through Chelsea’s backline, and this happened time and time again.
Arsenal Women’s defence
As far as Arsenal’s defence was concerned, they set up very well and with clear tactics in mind. The plan was clearly to isolate Chelsea Women’s two strikers as much as they could, and they did this very well throughout. Below, you can see how they did this in the first few minutes of the first half.
You can see how England and Kerr are playing very close to each other, whilst Arsenal Women are playing in very wide positions. This means that Arsenal can ensure the two strikers don’t have many opportunities to shoot at goal, and also gives them more options in order to move the ball wide. When playing Arsenal Women, this is what opponents have to be aware of; Arsenal Women love to get the ball wide. It has been shown already how they do this in attack – this is how they do it in defence.
In the second half, these tactics of trying to isolate England and Kerr continued, and you can see below how this came about.
What can be seen is that Arsenal have virtually surrounded the two forwards, whilst there are two supporting midfielders who are trying to help out, but have been cut off from doing this by the Arsenal defenders. This ultimately was the reason why Chelsea Women created very little in the game, aside from their two goals. It also shows just how frustrated Arsenal Women will be with their attacking performance because if they had scored even just two or three of their chances, they would probably have won the game. Despite a better second-half performance from Miedema in particular, they still just couldn’t make a shot count though.
To conclude, Chelsea Women will be over the moon that they have won the Continental Cup for the first time, but also quite relieved that they have, given the team’s issues. Manager Emma Hayes will be secretly thinking about that, and how her team got away with this one. Arsenal Women, meanwhile, will be ruing their missed opportunities and will know that they will have to be much more clinical as the season comes to an end if they want to avoid it having a disappointing climax. Boss Joe Montemurro will be happy that his side were on top but disappointed by their lack of firepower.