Though we are only in the fifth match week, this match represented a monumental match in terms of who might be lifting the league trophy at the end of the season. League leader’s Manchester City Women made the trip to Meadow Park in an attempt to truly set the tone in this year’s campaign. They are the pacesetters early on with four wins from four coming into this match. Arsenal Women come into the contest looking to avenge a shock 2-1 loss away to the Chelsea Women’s side last weekend. A midweek trip to Slavia Prague restored some order with a 5-2 victory, but City represented a much different obstacle in this fifth match week. This tactical analysis will detail the main tactics from each side in this massive encounter in the FAWSL.
Arsenal Women came away from the match 1-0 winners over their title rivals. Each side had very different approaches coming into this game, with Manchester City Women looking to hold on to their lead at the top of the table. Arsenal Women had a desire to reinstate their dominance in England, and this was evident in their tactical approach. This analysis will detail how Arsenal went about breaking down City’s defensive set-up.
Arsenal Women (4-3-3): Manuela Zinsberger; Lisa Evans, Jennifer Beattie, Leah Williamson, Katie McCabe; Lia Walti, Kim Little, Jordan Nobbs; Danielle Van de Donk, Vivianne Miedema, Beth Mead
Manchester City Women (4-4-2): Ellie Roebuck; Matilde Fidalgo, Steph Houghton, Gemma Bonner, Demi Stokes; Tessa Wullaert, Jill Scott, Carolina Weir, Lauren Hemp; Janine Beckie, Georgia Stanway
The host’s made one change to their side that started midweek, with Miedema making a return to the side. She had been struggling with an ankle problem but was shown faith by manager Joe Montemurro. Van de Donk has been impressive in her new position out on the right side of the pitch, as she is given the freedom to come in central as she pleases.
Manchester City Women’s manager Nick Cushing had some tougher decisions to make in his squad. An unfortunate injury to Aoife Mannion midweek meant Fidalgo was given her first start of the campaign at right-back. In midfield, Keira Walsh’s suspension created a massive problem for the away side. There is not a player in Cushing’s squad with abilities similar to the 22-year-old, which forced them into a formation switch. Bringing Scott and Weir into the centre of the park was an attempt to replace Walsh’s ability to link play from this area of the pitch, something that is crucial to the way City Women play. Up top, Stanway made her first appearance in the side since their opening match victory over Manchester United.
Arsenal Women’s high press
This may have only been match week five, but Arsenal Women played this match as if it was a cup final. With only twelve teams in the FAWSL, a slow start can end your title challenge before it even begins. Following their defeat against Chelsea last weekend, the London club knew they needed to put in a high-intensity performance.
Cushing set the away side up to defend in numbers. When possession was gained, Arsenal wasted no time in looking to win it back and continue to probe the City block. They achieved this by allowing possession into two specific areas.
Arsenal Women used their numerical superiority out wide to create pressing traps for City to fall into. When the away side gained possession in their defensive third, they were encouraged to look into their full-backs to try and build-out. When this happened, the Arsenal players suffocated the player in possession.
The winger and full-back was joined by the centre-midfielder in taking away the forward passing options, as well as the pass back into the centre-half. This normally resulted in a quick recovery of possession. The City player in possession was either dispossessed high up the pitch for Arsenal or went to kick it long. Here, Arsenal’s centre-halves dominated the City Women’s strikers.
Arsenal also looked to take advantage of Roebuck in possession. The young keeper has been fantastic for City so far this campaign but is still working on her abilities with the ball at her feet. Most teams in the league cannot afford to exert the pressure needed to exploit this, and the players around the keeper have the talent to expose any space left behind this press. Arsenal are the exception to this. The second line of their press was consistent in giving the attackers time to fall back into shape if this initial press was ever beaten.
City Women’s defensive structure
As mentioned previously, Cushing set his side up to defend very deep. The manager’s was forced to field a much different side than what he might normally have due to the suspension of Keira Walsh. The English international is integral to this City side and normally plays in a single pivot to link the defence and attack during the build-up.
To make up for this absence, the away side opted for a 4-4-2 shape. Jill Scott was joined by Carolina Weir in the centre of the pitch. This move was an attempt to better bypass Arsenal’s forward press. The two of them sat in a deep area looking to link up the possession held by the defenders into the wide attackers. However, Arsenal Women did an excellent job of not allowing Scott or Weir the time to receive possession and turned forward. This resulted in City trying to play to the wide positions, which as we discussed earlier, is where Arsenal wanted to use their pressing traps.
When Arsenal held sustained possession, City kept their two banks of four players very deep and compact. Their efforts were to try and limit the space for the likes of Van De Donk and Miedema the space to create any dangerous opportunities. They were largely effective in doing this. Van De Donk struggled to gain a foothold in the match. Her tendency to come central as the right-winger often made it easier for City to defend against her. Stokes was allowed to stay compact with her defensive line due to this, and her teammates were able to aid her in keeping the Dutch international quiet throughout the first half.
The two strikers were given different roles in the defensive phases of the match. Stanway was largely given a free role. She dropped in with the central midfielders as needed to prevent any numerical disadvantages, and would offer pressing support higher up in wider areas. Beckie was specifically tasked with marking Williamson. The 22-year-old centre-half is essential in Montemurro’s possession tactics. She is adept at finding passes through defensive lines to allow Arsenal’s attacking players opportunities to attack in central areas. With Beckie marking her throughout the match, the impetus to start attacks was put on former City defender Beattie. Williamson’s partner does not have the same eye for a pass, and this made it even more difficult for the home side to find any killer passes through City’s low block.
Arsenal Women’s attacking patience
With the City Women’s defensive structure set up so well, Arsenal knew that they would have to be patient as they looked for their opportunities. On top of this, they needed to be clinical when the chances came. Their goal was to move the City defence from side to side, attempting to pull one of the defending players out of position. This would allow time for one of their extremely intelligent attacking players to find space to get in with an opportunity at goal.
City did well to limit these opportunities. The home side were only able to create two opportunities in the first 40 minutes of the match where they found a player with time in a central position on the edge of the box. Both of these chances ended in a shot well over the bar, not giving Roebuck any kind of trouble. This patience was finally awarded in the 42nd minute.
From a goal kick, Arsenal looked to get forward down the left side. With a couple of neat passes and a fortunate deflection off of a McCabe cross, Weir was unable to settle a ball that came into the centre of the pitch. On her poor touch, Little had found space for the first time in City’s defensive third to look for a killer pass.
When Bonner sees Little with space, she steps forward to try and close her down. This was the exact moment Arsenal had been looking for all half. Miedema makes a run across Houghton and into the gap left by Bonner, and Little plays her into the channel. The striker makes no mistake with her first and truly only golden opportunity of the match.
The Swiss midfielder represented a lot of what Manchester City Women were missing in this match. She acted almost like a metronome, constantly shifting play from side to side to look to move the defensive block in front of her side. Her presence at the base of the Gunners midfield allowed Little and Nobbs to get forward into the areas they are able to make a real impact in.
Walti was essential in Arsenal Women’s ability to break down counter-attacks before they could threaten the defence. Above you can see possession given away in Arsenal’s own half. The deep-lying midfielder reacts very quickly. She immediately puts pressure on the ball, forcing her to think she needs to pass it to a teammate to avoid getting dispossessed. Walti anticipates this and positions herself to block off the passing lane.
Cushing will rue the lack of chances his side were able to create during this match. The absences of Walsh and Mannion were massive misses for his side, but the issues were greater than this. Manchester City Women gave too much respect to Arsenal Women, who did not seem to struggle at any point throughout the match. This will frustrate Cushing greatly, as Chelsea showed just last week the ability to catch Arsenal on the break.
Both sides go into the second leg of the Champions League round of 16 before an international break. The FAWSL looks poised to hold a very entertaining title race this season. Chelsea took advantage of the result in this match to jump to first place after five matches. There’s still plenty of the season to go, but this result is a massive boost for Arsenal Women in their quest to retain the title.
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