Not too bad of a result, all things considered.
Given that we had a left-back at centre-half, that we conceded another goal on set-piece and that we were down to ten players with fifteen minutes to go, snatching a point against Man Utd isn’t too bad.
It tastes bittersweet, though: we went into this game with renewed optimism after the back-to-back wins against Brighton in the league and the London City Lionesses in the FA Cup, we had a good opportunity to turn the heat on Chelsea before their home game against Manchester City but we ended up being those who had the heat turned on ourselves.
Conceding so early, again on a set-piece scenario, made things complicated for the team and Manchester United’s intense pressing was hard to deal with, resulting in few clear-cut chances created by Jonas Eidevall’s players. It was a very slow start for the Arsenal Women, something that the coach refused to describe as a pattern despite some evidence of the same happening in recent times: we started slowly against Birmingham and did the same against Brighton, with some sluggish performances dating back to the closing weeks of last year.
The coach blamed the lack of chemistry and the state of the pitch for our poor passing and overall ball retention, yet I feel there is more to that: the players look a bit hesitant and nervous, still, and I take this a sign of a low confidence level, possibly linked to the poor results and performances since the draw against Tottenham Hotspur. We did win the following games against HB Koge, Manchester United and Leicester but then proceeded to lose to Hoffenheim to put our UWCL qualification in danger, lost to Birmingham away and rescued a point apiece against Manchester City and Manchester United.
Surely the makeshift central defense didn’t help our build-up play against Sinner’s team but I have this feeling that opponents have sort of figured us out, since the start of the season and the reality is starting to match the underlying numbers: back to the summer and autumn, we used to largely outperform our xG and xGA indicators, while in winter we started to create less, concede more and were unable to maintain our superior finishing. We scored three against Chelsea with a xG value of 1.1, we scored five past Man City with a xG of 2.3 and so on, while in defence we managed not to concede against Brighton despite a 0.9 xGA and we did the same against Manchester City with a 1.2 xGA*.
Also, the over-reliance on overloads in wide positions is steadily becoming less effective and less productive, with opponents kind of expecting that from us: the quality of our wide players often makes the difference, still, but our offensive flow is looking less and less fluid and way to industrious to be sustainable.
You figured already, I do think that Jonas Eidevall has some work to do to make this team truly competitive against a Chelsea team that is knocking very hard on our door. Friday game at Kingsmeadow is likely to be a very tense one, both because of the state of our team and because of what is at stake: it goes beyond the first place in the league, it might be the make or break of this team and this season.
I don’t like being dramatic but things have changed a lot since we were in full flow, confident, sharp and marching on the league and our UWCL group: since then, we almost didn’t qualify for the knock-out phase, we saw Chelsea battering us in Wembley in the 2021 FA Cup final, we had a few disappointing results and now we can feel Chelsea’s breath upon our necks.
A positive result against Chelsea away could shake the fears away and feel like a new start for our season but a loss, especially a heavy loss, could be a knock-out punch for the players, the coach and their relationship. For what I can see, the players are looking for answers from the coach but those aren’t coming or perhaps aren’t convincing enough.
I do agree with Jonas Eidevall when he said that we are the team most likely to improve and develop in the coming weeks, because Rafaelle and Leah Williamson will be a fantastic duo at the back and so can be Vivianne Miedema and Stina Blackstenius upfront, but it might be too late, by the time we get there. We are undoubtedly much better than what the pitch has been showing lately but we need a string of good performances and results to actually believe it.
I can’t leave you with with such negative vibes, though. There were some positives, too: we showed some character to come back from one goal and one player down, we snatched one point when everything seemed lost and refused to give up, once again, after successfully salvaging a point against Manchester City. We have the drive, willingness and desire to chase a result until the very last moment, regardless of the situation we find ourselves. That truly is the minimum requirement for a team that aspires to drag themselves out of this difficult period and keep challenging for the top honors.
Also, we need to talk about Vivianne Miedema’s stunning pass to release Stina Blackstenius on one-v-one against Earps: that was pure genius for anticipation, vision and execution from a player who is much more than a forward. Goals seem to be just a big plus for a player like Viv, whose all-round football is so complete, so inspired that she should probably be a considered an attacking midfielder, first and foremost. I would be very intrigued to see a formation where the Dutch star plays slightly behind a more traditional centre-forward, in a free role, but that might require some big adjustments to the lineup as I don’t see Vivianne Miedema, Beth Mead, Stina Blackstenius, Tobin Heath and one of Kim Little or Jordan Nobbs all together from the first minute, not without conceding too much space to the opponents in our middle third.
Could it work in a 4-2-3-1 with Lia Wälti and Kim Little in a double-pivot? Maybe.
It’s time to regroup and focus on Friday’s big away game at Chelsea, now, then the girls will play Liverpool in the FA Cup, on 27th of February, after the international break.
*(stats provided by Fbref)
Thirty-something Italian, currently in Switzerland. Gooner since mid-ninties, when the Gunners defeated my hometown team, in Copenhagen. Twelve years ago I started my own blog (www.clockenditalia.com) after after some experiences with Italian websites and football magazines. Debate, don’t insult or you’re out.