“A vision of the future”: Why Vivianne Miedema and Stina Blackstenius have given Arsenal a new attacking look – tactical analysis
Arsenal Women have been the frontrunners for the WSL title throughout 2021/2022, and currently sit five points clear of Chelsea Women (although Chelsea do have two games in hand). Their good form is a result of the tactics instilled in the team by head coach Jonas Eidevall, with the players now having more freedom to move around the pitch and create opportunities in the final third.
His signings have also been clever, with the most high-profile addition being Sweden striker Stina Blackstenius, who joined on a free transfer from BK Häcken in January. She has provided both competition and support for main target player Vivianne Miedema, and is potentially a vision of the future when Miedema may not be there. However, in the present, Eidevall has had a small problem; how to get both players onto the pitch at the same time and not disturb his already established formation.
As this tactical analysis will show, his solution was to give Miedema a new midfield role, whilst Blackstenius was asked to play as the centre forward, and this has arguably led to his team posing an even bigger threat than before. This scout report will look to break down the reasons for this, focusing on Miedema’s new role, how Blackstenius has fitted into the attacking line and why the partnership between both has been crucial to Arsenal’s recent good form.
Vivianne Miedema in possession
The player who has had to adapt the most to this new way of playing is Vivianne Miedema, as she has effectively been turned into a playmaker and is no longer the team’s main striker. Our analysis will therefore begin by looking at her performances since the new tactics were introduced.
The basics of Arsenal Women’s play are that they keep the ball on the ground and play through the thirds, and their quick transitions are one reason that other teams have found them much harder to beat this season.
However, the success of this style of play relies on players running into spaces and having a good control of the ball, and the fact that Miedema has always had these qualities in her skillset made her a natural fit for the playmaker role. When she drops into these deeper areas of the pitch, her vision and wide range of passing has been key in helping her team to build their attacks from the back, whilst her teammates get forward and provide her with passing options, as Stina Blackstenius, Caitlin Foord and Beth Mead are all doing here.
Against Chelsea, the players were still new to these ideas, and it became evident as the game went on that Miedema’s influence lessened as their opponents worked their system out. However, it was also clear that the tactics had potential, and the players only needed to be given time to properly adjust to them.
Over the following games, Arsenal’s attack with Miedema in the playmaker role became more fluent, and they have begun to use the Netherlands international’s reputation as a way of setting traps for opposing defenders, knowing that they will want to close her down and prevent her from having time on the ball. Three Brighton and Hove Albion Women players have come forward here to do just this, but have left spaces open behind them that Arsenal’s other attackers can now exploit, and this was what the attackers wanted to happen.
Brighton struggled to deal with their opponents throughout this game, with the contest being mostly one-sided, and Miedema drawing defenders out of position and creating gaps in their line was one reason for this.
There have been occasions when the defenders have not come out of line, meaning that there aren’t as many gaps available for the attackers to move into. However, this is when Miedema has been able to make runs forward herself, using the extra time afforded to her by the opponents’ decision not to press to play quick one-twos and link up with teammates. In this case, she works with Blackstenius to move the ball into a dangerous area and ends up scoring the opening goal of the game.
Therefore, their new tactics can be altered when required, and this is another really important point to make. Their adaptability again makes it harder for Arsenal’s opponents, in this case Reading Women, to defend against them, because Jonas Eidevall’s side appear to have a solution for every situation they face.
Vivianne Miedema out of possession
Even when she doesn’t have the ball, Vivianne Miedema has just as important a role to play in Arsenal Women’s attack, with her positioning key to their creativity over the last run of games.
In this case, Arsenal are looking to find a way through the Brighton defenders, and Miedema would normally have made a run behind the defence and into the space, looking to give her teammate a target to find with the pass. However, she stays outside the box here, and this allows Arsenal to keep possession amidst Brighton’s press.
To explain, passing the ball over the top or through the defenders would have risked possession being lost, and this is also why Mead, who is inside the box, is not in a position to receive the ball here. Miedema’s positioning therefore provides a link between the ball and the former Sunderland Ladies forward, allowing Arsenal to move the ball out of the immediate danger, but into an area where they can then set up a shot at goal for Mead. This has come from her new playmaker role, and shows again why moving her into these areas of the pitch has helped Arsenal to increase their threat.
Last season, under now-Juventus Femmenile coach Joe Montemurro, Arsenal played with a front three, but with Miedema free to drift around the pitch and appear wherever she was needed. This meant that she often moved over to the wide channels if the ball was over there, at which point one of the two wide forwards would temporarily slot into the middle.
This season, Eidevall has developed this tactic, with the result being that Miedema now has even more freedom as a playmaker, allowing her to play in the half-spaces as well as out wide or in the middle. We know that these areas of the pitch are incredibly difficult to defend against, as demonstrated by the individual improvement made by Chelsea star Pernille Harder this season since moving into these channels. For Arsenal, the benefit of Miedema getting into these areas is that they can stretch the pitch out more, increasing the width of their attack. As a result, Birmingham City Women, in this case, also have to stretch out, leaving gaps open in the middle that Arsenal can exploit.
This would not have been possible without Miedema’s clever positioning, staying outside the defence and causing them problems, and this is another way that Eidevall’s new tactics have helped his side to increase their attacking threat.
Stina Blackstenius’ role
Stina Blackstenius is a player who can drop back when needed and help in transitions, but this is not what Jonas Eidevall has asked her to do. Instead, with Vivianne Miedema doing the hard work in the middle of the field, Blackstenius has simply been tasked with occupying the opposing defenders and being the team’s target player. This sounds like a really simple role to have, but there is more to it than perhaps first considered.
Had Blackstenius not joined in January, then Miedema would have still been operating as the main striker. However, her tendency to drift around the pitch is perhaps not what Jonas Eidevall has in mind for his centre forward, and his decision to sign his fellow Swede hints that he likes a striker who stays in the middle and gives his team a constant presence in the goal area.
This situation highlights the benefit of that, as Australia international Foord is looking to play the ball into the middle of the box, where Blackstenius is waiting. Brighton defender Felicity Gibbons has tracked Foord, whilst Maya Le Tissier has come across to help her teammate out, leaving the Sweden striker unmarked and with space to shoot at goal. However, had Miedema been in this position, she may have been slightly further over, and that is why Blackstenius’ arrival could be what Arsenal Women have been looking for as a way of turning good attacking performances into great ones.
We also see Blackstenius changing direction during games, trying to create a gap in the opposing defence and give Arsenal a route into the space behind. In this case, she has positioned herself in between the Chelsea defenders, putting them in a really difficult position. Now, compatriot Jonna Andersson and Netherlands centre-back Aniek Nouwen are effectively out of the game, whilst England’s Millie Bright has been left isolated against the Arsenal attack. That last point was why Blackstenius moved into this space, because Mead can now make a run into the box, as shown by the yellow arrow, with less opponents between her and the goal.
The Sweden striker played a key role here, but the only reason that she can get into these positions is because she doesn’t need to help further back, as that is where Miedema comes in. Therefore, again, we can see how Eidevall’s plan to have both strikers on the pitch has worked, and led to them causing more problems for their opponents.
This partnership is reversible, with both players in the other role here. Communication becomes critical when this happens, as it is important that neither the midfield nor the forward areas are left exposed, but that is something that generally doesn’t happen.
It is not as common to see them this way round though, with their statistics indicating that Arsenal benefit more when it is Blackstenius who is highest up the field and Miedema further back; Miedema has a 76.8% passing accuracy this season, compared to Blackstenius’ 72.2%, whilst the Sweden striker has got 66.7% of her shots on target and the Netherlands forward has only managed 35.7%.
However, the reason that we have made this point is because it reflects Arsenal’s tactics under Jonas Eidevall perfectly, in that they have a starting formation but that the players are expected to move around and take up different roles during games. Again, this leads to opponents struggling to set up against them, as it is harder to predict which players will make runs and which will hold their position.
Areas to work on
We have looked in detail at both Vivianne Miedema and Stina Blackstenius in this scout report, analysing how their two individual roles combine well to give Arsenal Women a bigger attacking threat. However, as with anything, there are some areas that can still be improved, and there have been a few moments when they could have been better.
The first problem that Arsenal have experienced a few times is that Blackstenius is not the best at controlling the ball. This has been a problem when she has dropped into holes to receive passes, such as here, and is something that Arsenal need to look at if she continues to get between opponents. This is not a new problem, as there were a few times when she lost possession too easily with Häcken last season, so it is perhaps something that Arsenal need to look at in training and try to work on.
In this case, Arsenal were able to move the ball into the final third anyway, but they didn’t have as much space available to them as they would have done, with Brighton being given the chance to get back and close off the gaps that were previously open. Therefore, working on this detail will be of huge benefit to Arsenal going into the rest of the season, as they will be able to take even more of their opportunities and edge tighter games.
We have already mentioned how Arsenal’s communication is generally good, but it does occasionally let them down. Here, Foord has the ball in a good area of the pitch and is looking to find a teammate inside the Reading goal area, but it isn’t clear which of Miedema or Blackstenius is making the run to get on the end of her pass. As a result, she ends up getting caught in two minds and half-crossing, half-passing the ball, meaning that it drifted harmlessly out of play. These are the chances that Arsenal really need to take, and this was one example of what can happen when the two strikers don’t work together as well, although this hasn’t occurred too many times, and Arsenal still comfortably won this match.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has sought to break down Arsenal Women’s new attacking tactics, which have been implemented after the January arrival of Sweden striker Stina Blackstenius. We have looked at how Vivianne Miedema has become a playmaker for the team and how that has allowed Blackstenius to become an excellent target player, with four goals in her last five games indicating her contribution to their bid for a first WSL title since 2018/2019. Indeed, Jonas Eidevall will no doubt be pleased to have secured her signature, as league rivals Manchester United Women were also reportedly interested in her.
Fans have wondered whether Blackstenius is a replacement for Miedema, given that the Dutch international is out of contract this summer. She has been offered a new deal by the club, but has also been linked with a move to either PSG Féminine or reigning European champions Barcelona Femení. It is a question to which we may only find out the answer at the end of the season, but what is evident now is that Arsenal have a very real chance of lifting the trophy at the end of the campaign if both continue to feature in the team.