FAWSL 2019/20: Arsenal Women vs Chelsea Women
Much of the week’s build-up was centred around this game being a potential title decider in the FAWSL. The London derby saw the two teams pitted against each other with the victor taking the ascendency in the title race. Arsenal Women were top of the league with Manchester City Women sandwiched in between the two London clubs. However, Chelsea’s impressive performance on Sunday has blown the race wide open with just goal difference separating Arsenal and Manchester City, who leapfrogged the Londoners after their 2-0 win at Birmingham. Meanwhile, Chelsea sit invitingly one point behind, with a game in hand.
Many onlookers were relishing the Sam Kerr versus Vivianne Miedema battle and who would come out on top. Both players started for their respective clubs with both teams putting out strong lineups.
Arsenal set up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation with their strongest possible lineup. Miedema leads the line for Arsenal supported by the usual suspects in Kim Little, Danielle van de Donk, and Jordan Nobbs. Joe Montemurro wanted to overrun Chelsea in the central areas to block any service to their strikers because that is where the Blues are most dangerous. Miedema has 14 goals and eight assists already this season demolishing opposition. Lisa Evans is left out for the first time this season with Katie McCabe coming in at wing-back.
Chelsea, meanwhile made five changes to from their last game with Kerr starting for the Blues. Emma Hayes deployed a 4-4-2 hybrid formation with Sophie Ingle and Ji So-yun as the double pivot and the trio of Erin Cuthbert, Bethany England, and Guro Reiten in support of Kerr. The firepower of England and Kerr showed Hayes’ intension to unleash Chelsea’s attacking potential.
Chelsea Women’s aggressiveness
Chelsea’s key to winning the game came from their impressive midfield performance. The midfield four of Ji, Cuthbert, Ingle, and Reiten were instrumental and Hayes’ tactics paid off. Ingle played as the deepest lying midfielder and proved to be Chelsea’s most important player when it came to transitions from back to front. The Welsh midfielder sat in front of her defence providing an extra layer of protection while acting as a build-up option. Ingle would drop in between the centre-backs when Arsenal had rare attacking opportunities and quickly retained possession to release forward passes to her attack-minded teammates.
Chelsea maintained at least three players in central midfield to avoid turnovers and counter-attacks given the quality Little, Nobbs, and Walti possess. Little and Nobbs have been successful in controlling possession in midfield with Walti providing a source of relief in the event Arsenal needed to recycle possession in past games. However, Chelsea were wary of this and wanted to limit the effect Little had in the final third. In doing so they stopped one of Arsenal’s main creative forces who has unleashed the likes of Van de Donk. The Dutchwoman herself was very ineffective in the first half spending more time defending than attacking. Chelsea registered 37 of their 86 recoveries in the middle third as opposed to Arsenal’s 25.
Part of Chelsea’s midfield dominance came from their high, aggressive pressing tactics. Hayes wanted her players to win possession high up the pitch and not let Arsenal rest. Arsenal are usually possession-hungry in most games allowing them to dictate the tempo of the game. Chelsea did not want Arsenal to control midfield and therefore pin Chelsea back.
You can see here how Chelsea have committed five players to press Arsenal’s four players trying to turn their own tactics against them. Reiten, Ji, and England are especially mobile and are excellent pressers which put Arsenal on the back foot on numerous occasions. Chelsea’s dominance in midfield translated to the statistics with 35 recoveries in the opposition half turning into an xG of 1.87. What does this mean? Well, it shows Chelsea’s aggressiveness in the press and putting constant pressure on Arsenal’s back four and Walti to maintain their composure. They scored more than their xG suggests showing how clinical the Blues were and a testament to the partnership formed by England and Kerr.
Arsenal Women’s losing the midfield battle
Games are usually won and lost in midfield and this match was no exception. While much of the focus was on Miedema vs Kerr, the midfield battle between the two sides was going to determine the outcome of the game. Both teams have relied on strong midfield performances in their past games to overcome their opposition and assert their dominance.
Chelsea assumed control from the first minute through some intense and intelligent movement, positioning and pressing. While we we’ll elaborate on Chelsea’s pressing tactics later, it’s worth mentioning that Arsenal were the opposite. Arsenal lacked the aggressiveness to dominate a midfield that possessed a number of crafty, hard-working players. They didn’t apply enough pressure on Chelsea’s defenders in the first half which allowed the Ingle, Bright, and Eriksson to play out from the back.
Lia Walti, Little, and Nobbs were slow to react when Chelsea were in possession and that allowed the Blues to play through midfield. It was clear from the start that Chelsea wanted to utilise the wide areas and exploit the space behind Van de Donk and McCabe and stopping the supply was imperative.
As we mentioned earlier, Arsenal wanted to overrun the central areas to stop Chelsea advancing through the middle. This was done because Montemurro identified Chelsea’s two full-backs as more defensive players than offensive but Hayes responded well. Chelsea’s 4-4-2 transformed into a 4-1-2-1-2 formation with Cuthbert and Reiten tucking into central midfield alongside Ji and Ingle. This created an overload that powered through Walti, Little, and Nobbs. They weren’t able to press the four Chelsea players effectively and were wasteful in possession which resulted in turnovers allowing Chelsea to break against a disorganised Arsenal side.
Arsenal were punished through both of Chelsea’s opening goals. Kerr’s goal was an extremely poor goal to concede with the whole move lacking any real aggression. As we can see in the frame above, Little’s lack of press allows Ingle to pick and choose her pass and plays it into Andersson’s path down the left flank.
Reiten’s receives the next pass from the Swedish left-back and is in acres of space. Not a single Arsenal player had gone in to close down the Norwegian winger’s space giving her time and space to pick out a cross. Reiten’s ball finds Kerr’s head at the back post giving Chelsea a two goal lead. Chelsea took advantage of this multiple times in the opening exchanges and Arsenal paid the price for not being more aggressive in the press. While Van de Donk has been exemplary in her wide attacking position, her defensive work was tested against the energetic Nordic duo on the left flank.
Chelsea Women exploiting the wide spaces
Arguably where Chelsea dominated the game the most was in the wide and half-spaces. The Blues used the wide spaces intelligently as the forward line moved between the lines effectively. This was borne from Chelsea’s shape that started off as a 4-4-2 but transformed into a 4-1-4-1/4-1-2-1-2. England or Kerr – depending on the side of the attack – combined with the wide midfielder and full-back to create an overload and numerical superiority in an area that Arsenal slightly neglected.
You can see an example of Arsenal’s focus on the central areas. When Chelsea won possession back near the Gunners penalty area, they immediately looked to find the widest player. Here we can see Cuthbert under no immediate pressure once she receives Ingle’s pass.
Subsequently, Chelsea’s two forwards would drop into a wide position taking up spaces between full-back and centre-back and exploit the space there. The build-up to the first and second goal was a result of Chelsea’s persistence in supplying possession into the wide areas.
Notice the position England has taken up here in the event Chelsea retain possession in midfield. It just so happened that Reiten received possession in midfield and quickly released a pass to the striker. Notice the number of Arsenal midfielders in the middle with England in an advantageous position putting herself in a 1v1 situation against the central defender.
This forced Arsenal to scramble back into position with the left-back trying to cover the space between England and her goalkeeper but the Chelsea striker’s quick feet and excellent shot taking ability resulted in a well-deserved Chelsea goal.
Looking at the tactics holistically, Chelsea seemingly had two different plans for each flank. While they remained in a 4-1-2-1-2 shape when in possession in midfield, the way they played on both flanks differed. Chelsea’s widest two midfielders – Reiten and Cuthbert – both needed athleticism, pace, and creativity to perform this role. Both Reiten and Cuthbert effectively became ‘mezzelas’. The ‘mezzala’ usually gets into attacking positions that an inside forward would typically be found in. Moving into these positions the two players could offer diagonal crosses and through passes for the strikers and provide a pose a different problem to the opposition defence.
This was especially prevalent on the left side where both Andersson and Reiten combined with both players rotating to provide the width and wide passing option. The Blues registered 17 attacks down the left flank with an xG of 1.03. Whilst the opposite flank saw Cuthbert combine with England. Cuthbert would usually float between central midfield and the half-spaces providing diagonal crosses when England was further forward.
This was evident on multiple occasions in the first half when Chelsea looked to use Cuthbert in the half-space to send in crosses, while Reiten was instrumental in creating both of Chelsea’s opening goals. As we saw earlier, Kerr’s goal was a result of Reiten under no pressure from Arsenal and England’s goal mirrored this sentiment again.
The title race has blown wide open and Chelsea have well and truly established themselves as one of the sides to beat going into the tail end of the season. With a game in hand, the Blues are in the ascendency and one of Manchester City and Arsenal Women will face off in a potential playoff to decide who will keep pace with Chelsea. One thing is for certain, the FAWSL is enjoying a tight three-horse race for the title and the victor will need to be on top of their game at all times.