Continental Cup 2023: How Arsenal “outwitted” Chelsea tactically to end their four-year trophy drought – tactical analysis
Chelsea Women and Arsenal Women have shared an intense rivalry in English women’s football for as long as anyone can remember, and any clash between the two is guaranteed to attract attention up and down the country. Sunday’s Continental Cup final at Selhurst Park was no different, with the latest instalment in their shared history sparking a great deal of excitement among fans, and it was certainly worth the wait when the game did get underway.
However, things didn’t pan out as many expected, with Chelsea starting well but making plenty of mistakes, whilst Arsenal looked sharp in all areas of the field and demonstrated a lot of confidence and belief in what they were doing, and this tactical analysis will look at how Jonas Eidevall set his team up to cause Chelsea problems and to take advantage of their errors. The analysis will look at the roles that their forwards played in getting the ball behind Chelsea’s back line, how they won the all-important midfield battle and how they worked hard to limit Chelsea’s key attacking threats inside their own third.
Both Eidevall and Chelsea Women counterpart Emma Hayes opted for continuity when making their squad selections for this game, but for different reasons.
In Arsenal Women’s case, it was because they currently lack squad depth due to key players being unavailable at the current time, and the lack of alternatives means that consistent starting formations have become a constant for them in recent matches. The only change made for this game from last weekend’s FA Cup fifth-round clash, also against Chelsea (which Hayes’ side won 2-0) saw Switzerland right-back Noelle Maritz rotated in for Austria defender Laura Wienroither, who dropped to the bench.
Hayes, meanwhile, wanted to maintain her side’s form across all competitions, with them only dropping points twice this season in all competitions (against Arsenal in the league and in the Champions League against Real Madrid Femenino) since an opening day defeat to Liverpool Women in the WSL. As a result, she resisted any urges to freshen her side up and named the same starting eleven, meaning that, despite rumours of them potentially being included from the off, Canada duo Jessie Fleming and Kadeisha Buchanan had to once again make do with a place among the substitutes.
In the final third
In Arsenal Women’s case, making no alterations to their forward line might have been seen as a risk, given that there has been a lot of focus lately on their inability to put chances away. However, to address that problem, Eidevall had come up with some new tactical ideas for his side to implement in this game, and there is no doubt that they provided a much-needed remedy for their current issues in the final third.
The first key aspect of his new plan was to change the role played by Sweden striker Stina Blackstenius, who has been the brunt of a lot of fan frustration of late, with Eidevall giving her more freedom to drop back and take up deeper positions in order to have greater involvement in their build-up play.
The reason that this tweak was made is that Eidevall knew that keeping Blackstenius at the top of the field would simply invite Chelsea to set up with the same defensive shape as they used last week, and that that would lead to the game going the same way. Therefore, in the interest of working on what didn’t go so well for them last time out, he knew that he needed to find a way of disrupting that rhythm and preventing Chelsea from having as comfortable a time in front of goal.
It was a tactic that gave Arsenal a lot of success in the final third, with Chelsea continually falling into their traps and moving out of line to close Blackstenius down, which left spaces open behind them for other players to exploit. On the whole, it was the two wide forwards, Caitlin Foord and Katie McCabe, who gave Chelsea the biggest problems, but other players were involved in keeping them under pressure and offering forward passing options, with Laura Wienroither, who came on during the second half, making the run here.
On this occasion, the pass from Blackstenius lacked quality and went straight to Norway forward Guro Reiten, but the intent was there and it was clear to everyone watching exactly what Arsenal were trying to do.
The change in her role was something that Blackstenius clearly enjoyed, with this graphic indicating the variety of areas of the pitch in which she got on the ball for her side, and there is no doubt that she posed a greater threat than she has done in some of her more recent performances as a result.
She has not had the easiest of times of late, not only because of the criticism over her lack of productivity in front of goal, but also because she was rumoured to be part of a deal to bring Alessia Russo to the club in January from Manchester United Women, and that can’t have done her confidence any good. However, if this game is anything to go by, then she still has a lot to offer her side on the field, with her putting on arguably her best performance in an Arsenal shirt so far, and Eidevall may well have found a way to unlock her qualities and unleash the player that he and many others saw when she first arrived in the capital 14 months ago.
As mentioned, Blackstenius’ new role meant that there was a greater dependency on other players to get into advanced areas and offer goalscoring threats, and both Foord and McCabe were central to that.
However, their ability to make runs into the middle again came down to clever tactics from Eidevall, because Arsenal’s starting formation indicated that both players would be operating on the side of the field that they don’t usually favour. This was a deliberate move by the Swede, because he wanted them to follow their instincts and to cut inside the pitch as often as possible, and so putting them on the opposite side of the field meant that they would have a greater tendency to move the ball onto their stronger feet and to drive towards the middle of the field rather than staying out on the wings.
As with Blackstenius, what Eidevall knew was that, by getting these players running towards the goal area, Chelsea would again be tempted to abandon their usual defensive shape and to focus purely on closing the ball down, with the result being that there would be a greater numerical presence in the central channel and not much cover on either wing.
However, Arsenal never really had any intention of shooting at goal when they got into these areas, and instead simply wanted to draw the Chelsea players towards the ball before releasing it into the open spaces that had been vacated, with Foord looking to find her fellow Australia international, left-back Steph Catley, here and trying to take Sophie Ingle, Buchanan and Ève Périsset out of the game. On this occasion, it didn’t quite work as planned, but, once again, the intent was there and it showed how Arsenal had a clear idea of how they wanted to break Chelsea down inside their own third.
It wasn’t only when they had the ball that Arsenal impressed in the final third though, because they looked just as confident when out of possession too. Here, Chelsea are looking to play out from the back, and they normally go about this by moving the ball into either of their central defenders, Millie Bright and Magdalena Eriksson, and then sending it into either the midfield or the forward areas.
However, because Arsenal knew that this would happen, they were able to work on a way to slow Chelsea down and force them into keeping the ball for longer periods of play at the back, and it was common to see the trio of McCabe, Blackstenius and Foord continually moving across the pitch as they followed the progress of the ball and closed off any passing routes that Chelsea might have looked to use.
It also allowed them to predict where Chelsea would move the ball to and to set up in ways that enabled them to win it in advanced areas, with Foord facing Périsset here and knowing that the France right-back will send the ball towards Lauren James, due to that being the only way for her to get her team onto the front foot. Therefore, before the pass is made, Foord is able to gesture for one of her teammates to get across and close the England forward down, which Catley does well, and this again shows how Arsenal’s attacking play was built on good teamwork and players knowing their roles around the pitch.
However, despite their final third play helping to get them on the front foot and put Chelsea Women under pressure, it was the midfield battle where Arsenal Women really took control of proceedings, with them once again demonstrating clear tactical ideas that had been developed during the week as they tried to prevent their opponents from repeating their FA Cup victory.
One player who was central to their ability to implement those ideas, and who it would be remiss to not mention, is their captain and former Scotland international Kim Little. In this game, she was involved in everything that Arsenal did well, with her making tackles to break up Chelsea’s attacks, finding teammates around the field to launch attacks, getting into gaps between lines that enabled her team to move the ball forwards and linking up with teammates in order to play through Chelsea’s lines, and the fact that Hayes’ side were never able to contain her in this game meant that she continually caused them problems and was the source of a lot of their misery as the match went on.
She attracted praise from fans, the media and Eidevall afterwards and picked up the Player of the Match award, and it was richly deserved after the performance that she put on.
However, it was the combination of her, Switzerland’s Lia Wälti and Norway’s Frida Leonhardsen Maanum that made Arsenal so formidable in the middle of the field, with them continually working hard to find each other and ensure that the team had clear passing routes whenever they looked to move the ball around the pitch.
In this case, Arsenal have regained possession inside their own half and, within two passes, they have moved the ball into the path of Foord, who is making a run into the area behind Chelsea’s back line, and what is really important to look at here is the speed and decisiveness that those in the middle demonstrated because it was that that prevented Chelsea from making an interception or closing down an individual player.
It is worth mentioning that Arsenal’s composure in these situations was in stark contrast to how their opponents moved the ball around when they were in similar scenarios, with Hayes’ team making plenty of loose passes and inviting Arsenal to play through them time and time again. Therefore, when looking at why Arsenal were able to dominate the central third, this was undoubtedly a clear reason that has to be taken into account.
That composure was also clear to see when Arsenal were out of possession, especially on the few occasions that Chelsea did manage to find a route into the middle of the field. In this case, Sweden forward Johanna Rytting Kaneryd has made an inside run and is now looking for a way to progress the ball into the forward areas, aiming to test Arsenal’s defensive resolve, and this is the danger of letting a team like Chelsea access these areas of the field and shows why Arsenal had been so keen to prevent them from doing so.
However, whereas they might have previously fallen back to focus on protecting their goal, what Arsenal demonstrated in this game was that they had learnt from last week and again had a clear idea of what to do in this situation, with both Wälti and Leonhardsen Maanum closing Rytting Kaneryd down whilst Little held her position to prevent the ball from being passed forwards, and the result was that Rytting Kaneryd was forced into sending the ball across the field to Scotland star Erin Cuthbert, with no territory being gained.
This ability to stay calm and composed and stick to the plan that had been given to them was another clear indicator that the Arsenal players had a solution for every eventuality, again demonstrating how they had worked hard on finding solutions to what had previously let them down, and that was another reason that they were able to maintain control of the central third and never let Chelsea have an opportunity to use it against them.
Strength at the back
When it comes to their defensive work, Arsenal Women showed just as much organisation and character, and it was again clear that key players knew what to do at each point in the game, and the fact that Australia striker Sam Kerr, who is one of the most lethal finishers in English women’s football at the moment, was kept largely under lock and key shows again how Arsenal worked hard for their win.
The player who had the biggest impact at the back for Eidevall’s side was Brazil international Raffaelle Souza, who has been a key player for Arsenal this season and who undoubtedly gives them defensive security when she is on the field. In this game, she was given the unenviable task of closing Kerr down and limiting her influence on the game, which is a task that not many defenders have been able to accomplish due to the Australian only needing a moment’s hesitation from an opponent to be in on goal.
However, she never got this from Raffaelle, who showed strength and desire throughout the 90 minutes and constantly thwarted the Matildas star’s attempts to double her tally for the afternoon, and, when looking at why Chelsea struggled to create opportunities, it is clear that Kerr’s inability to break free of her opponent was something that needs to be taken into consideration.
Raffaelle was not alone in this though, with her having a lot of help from her central defensive partner, Leah Williamson, and there is no doubt that both were instrumental in Arsenal getting the better of their rivals in this game.
In this case, it is Rytting Kaneryd who has the ball and is trying to find a way through to goal, but what needs to be looked at here is how Williamson has closed her down and how Raffaelle has stayed out of the way. However, this is clever from the Brazilian, because what she recognises is that it is better for her to hold her position here and not to be drawn towards the ball, as that might leave a gap open for Chelsea to exploit in the same manner as Arsenal were looking to do at the other end of the field. Therefore, here, she is in a position to offer the England captain assistance if it is needed, but is also looking at the bigger picture and making sure that her side are not easily broken down.
That intelligence was what Arsenal built their defensive setup on as the game drew to a close, with them getting players back behind the ball to keep it as far away from their goal as possible, but again recognising that they needed to be switched on until the final whistle if they were to prevent Chelsea from having any opportunity to get back into the game. This is where Williamson and Raffaelle came into their own, with them continuing to make aerial challenges but also directing their side’s defensive efforts, and their ability to control their own third meant that Chelsea’s hopes of scoring a second goal were very quickly extinguished.
As with Little in the midfield, it is difficult to see how Arsenal would have won this game without their two central defenders on the field, both because of their strength and dominance when challenging for balls and tackling the likes of Kerr and their leadership and ability to keep Chelsea out in the closing stages, and they undoubtedly played their part in Arsenal successfully bringing their four-year trophy drought to an end.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has picked out the different reasons for Arsenal Women overcoming Chelsea Women in the 2023 Continental Cup final, with a deep dive into their tactics during the game and a breakdown of why they were able to dominate each area of the field.
Chelsea will be disappointed with the manner of their defeat, in that they didn’t play well on the day, and they will know that their poor play led to Arsenal controlling the match. However, rather than criticising their display, it is more important to look at how Arsenal won the game, because there is no doubt that they deserved the win due to the clarity of their game plan and the fact that they didn’t lose faith in what they were doing even after conceding so early on.
Their fans will hope that this is a catalyst for the rest of the season now, with them still having work to do to secure a place in the WSL’s top three as well as hoping to advance deep into the Champions League, but they can take a second to celebrate this moment, purely because wins against Chelsea in any competition don’t come along that often.