Tottenham Hotspur Women hosted Arsenal Women during this Women’s Football Weekend. This match represented the first North London Derby in the FAWSL and produced a record crowd of 38,262. In this tactical analysis, we will take a look at how Arsenal Women ground out the three points to keep pace with Chelsea Women and Manchester City Women.
Spurs set up to frustrate Arsenal for large periods of this match. Their tactics worked almost to perfection in the first half and were unlucky not to find a goal for their efforts. However, Arsenal Women responded well in the second half and were deserving of the three points on the day. In this analysis, we will look at this set-up by Spurs and the adjustments Arsenal made in response.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Manuela Zinsberger; Katie McCabe, Leah Williamson, Jennifer Beattie, Lisa Evans; Lia Walti, Kim Little, Jordan Nobbs; Bethany Mead, Vivianne Miedema, Danielle Van de Donk
There were no surprises from Joe Montemurro in this weekend’s clash. The Arsenal Women boss continued with the same side that beat Manchester City Women 1-0 before the international break. With all of his stars returning to the pitch in recent weeks, the goal is now to get them all in-sync with each other before the business end of the season comes around.
Tottenham Hotspur Women (4-4-2): Rebecca Spencer; Siri Worm, Anna Filbey, Hannah Godfrey, Ashleigh Neville; Josie Green, Rachel Furness, Chloe Peplow, Ria Percival; Kit Graham, Rianna Dean
Tottenham’s set-up was very defensive. Normally, Spurs play a 4-4-2 with Graham and Rosella Ayane on the wings. They are given the freedom to move forward into almost a 4-2-4 shape when in possession, as we have seen in matches against the likes of West Ham Women. The two wingers on this occasion were much more defensive. Percival is traditionally a full-back but was deployed in the right-midfield position ahead of Neville. On the left, defensive-midfielder Green was tasked with adding defensive cover on this side. Furness dropped into a deeper position than her normal place beside Dean and formed a double-pivot with Peplow in midfield. Lastly, Graham was moved into the second striker position in Furness’ usual spot.
Tottenham Hotspur Women defensive structure
Tottenham Hotspur Women set out in an entirely different set-up than we have seen so far this season. While the formation they played was familiar, how it was utilised was specific for this match, in particular, recognising the threat Arsenal Women provide.
Above, we discussed the specific personnel changes that were made by the home side. These alterations were extremely effective in the first half. The defensive wide midfielders were initially tasked with staying narrow. This was done to limit Arsenal Women’s ability to play through the middle of the park. Below you can see an example of their 4-4-2 structure, with a narrow midfield line.
Using this tactic, the home side largely frustrated Arsenal Women’s midfield for large portions of the match, specifically in the first half. It took until about the 15-minute point for Arsenal to get a full understanding of the defensive set-up they were trying to break down. Even after this, chances came at a premium. The narrow midfield line did an excellent job at blocking off the passing lanes into Little and Nobbs. Trying to have an impact in the match, the two would often find themselves dropping extremely deep to get away from this set-up to receive possession. However, the Spurs line was able to press them instantly as they received a pass, forcing them to go backwards or sideways. This also created a huge gap between Arsenal Women’s creative players and Miedema. This largely took our their Dutch striker for most of the first half.
Out wide quickly became the only outlet Arsenal Women were able to exploit early on. Mead and Van de Donk were moving into wide positions to receive possession, where initially they would find themselves one-v-one with their opposite full-back. Spurs were aware of this potential in their structure though, and the wide-midfielders and near-sided central midfielder consistently made efforts to close down this space once the ball was played into it. Below you can see Spurs’ defensive block shifting in the event of possession moving out to the wide area. Arsenal were only able to create two chances from these positions in the first half. However, the numerical superiority in the centre of the pitch meant that they were well-positioned for any crosses Arsenal attempted.
Spurs’ focus on counter-attacks
Despite the focus on containing Arsenal Women during this match, Spurs still maintained a portion of their attacking prowess. Furness provided this from a deep position. Her work rate combined with her attacking ability made her a perfect fit for this role. On numerous occasions, she bypassed Arsenal’s press by making forward drives between the lines, giving her side the opportunity to attack.
Above you can see an example of this. The English international picks up possession from a piece of sloppy work from Arsenal Women’s midfield. She is then able to pick up the press coming towards her and dribble through it. This creates a four-v-three against Arsenal defenders quickly trying to recover from their advanced positions.
Walti was identified as the preferred opponent to press for the home side. This was a tactical decision due to the different shapes the sides were lined up in. When the Swiss international took possession, Tottenham Hotspur Women had four different players in the centre of the pitch – two strikers and two centre-midfielders – who could step in to press her. This gave them plenty of different options and did not allow Arsenal to get comfortable with a specific pressing scheme.
Graham specifically was guilty of wasting a couple of golden opportunities to put Spurs ahead. On two occasions in the first half, the winger-turned-striker on the day should have put her side ahead. Both instances came from the home side’s selective pressing scheme. They timed their efforts perfectly. The first came from Green taking advantage of a sloppy touch by Evans in the right-back area. Once a tackle was made, Dean dropped in to win possession from Walti, who found herself out of position due to the mistake. The Spurs striker made a backwards pass to Green who pushed it forward towards Graham. A fortunate bounce off of Beattie put her through on goal, only to shoot straight at Zinsberger.
The second big chance came from a very good press by Peplow. A long pass was made out of Arsenal Women’s penalty area intended for Nobbs. The Spurs midfielder read the play and stepped forward out of her normal place just in front of the home side’s defensive line to make the interception.
Peplow was able to settle the ball before passing it ahead to Graham to bypass the rushing Walti. She then used her intelligence to continue her forward run towards the Arsenal defence, forcing them to drop back to track her. This gave Graham the space to turn back and shape her positioning for a shot that went wide by a couple of inches.
Arsenal Women’s issues and adjustments
Miedema was extremely frustrated in this Spurs set-up. The clinical Dutch striker was devoid of any service from her teammates, as Spurs emphasised keeping her isolated upfront. Mead and Van de Donk’s wide positions made it hard for these Arsenal attacking players to combine during the first half.
In the middle of the park, Spurs did a good job of not allowing Arsenal’s midfield stars to find a rhythm. We spoke earlier about the emphasis on pressing that was made on Walti in particular. Ahead of her, Nobbs and Little had their space limited by the home side. Little was only able to find space to make one forward run during the first forty-five minutes on Sunday afternoon. This had a massive impact on Arsenal’s ability to break down their rivals.
Montemurro knew his side needed to make changes in the second half to come away with three points. His front three were struggling to find possession in dangerous areas.
To solve this issue, Mead and Van de Donk were instructed to play in more central positions. This was effective because it allowed Little and Nobbs the ability to drop deeper to receive possession, without giving up the connection to Miedema upfront. Adding in this line gave the Spurs set-up difficulty in being able to properly mark and outnumber their visitors.
This tactic had an immediate effect on the match. Mead was given complete freedom to roam as she saw fit. Van de Donk, on the other hand, took a position as a secondary striker. She stayed close to Miedema, with the two looking for quick combinations to beat the defensive line.
Miedema went from totally marked out of the match during the first half to a constant threat in the second. While her goal came from an error by Finley attempting a pass backwards to Spencer, her presence had a massive impact on the match. With her compatriot beside her, they created numerous chances. However, their most important contribution came without any touch on the ball.
Arsenal Women attempt to play long in the build-up to their first goal. Nobbs is in a deep position as she looks to get on the ball. Her forward pass looks for Miedema to try and win the aerial duel and distribute to one of her teammates around her. Her run has also stretched the Spurs defensive line backwards. The aerial ball is not dealt with properly by the Spurs defender and comes out to Little in space behind the Spurs midfield line. With Miedema and Van de Donk representing threats for a through ball in towards goal, a defender is unable to close down Little fast enough to dispossess her or allow the midfield to recover. The Arsenal Women’s captain takes advantage of the space she found and puts her side ahead.
Arsenal Women leave the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium deserving winners. However, Tottenham Hotspur Women will be rueing their missed chances, having made a very good showing of themselves in this match. On another day we could be discussing a very different result.
Arsenal continue their title defence by keeping pace with the top two. Their next two matches are against the bottom two sides in the FAWSL, before Manchester City Women travel to face Chelsea Women, where Arsenal will be watching keenly.
Tottenham Hotspur Women are in sixth place following match week six. Their first season in the top flight has been very promising. Although they come away with nothing, Spurs can be content with their performance. A top-half finish is a very realistic target as they travel to Everton next.
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