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Basque Blues for the Arsenal Women


Arsenal’s hopes of continuing a Champions League run for the 2019/2020 season came to an end at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain in a gruelling contest at the Anoeta Stadium in San Sebastian on Saturday evening. Despite fighting till the bitter end and giving it our all, we fell 2-1 to the French side who, it must be said, deserved the win on the balance of play.

Arsenal had played three friendlies behind closed doors so far in their preparations for this game and ahead of next season, victories against Aston Villa, Brighton and Charlton. It provided Joe Montemurro an opportunity to adapt his new signings to the rest of the squad and our way of playing, whilst also easing back the long list of players who had been injured prior to the hiatus from football.

PSG, on the other hand, had come into this game having already had two competitive matches under their belt in August, both in the Coupe de France Féminines (the equivalent of the Women’s FA Cup in England): a narrow victory against Bordeaux in the semi-final and a defeat on penalties to Lyon. Despite coming up empty-handed in terms of silverware, the chance for any player to gain match sharpness and fitness in a competitive setting is priceless, and ultimately gave the Parisians that upper hand which slowly gained them more and more control over this game.

Arsenal began with a 4-3-3 formation, with new arrival Noelle Maritz making her first competitive start for the club at right-back; Williamson and Beattie, our first-choice CB pairing for most of last season, and McCabe completed the back four. Midfield stalwart Lia Walti started alongside Danielle van de Donk in a double-pivot, while captain Kim Little began in her usual #10 role behind the attacking trio of Mead, Miedema and Evans. It was Paris, however, who began the match more strongly, operating in what seemed like a 3-5-2 formation, which immediately helped them overload the Gunners high up the field and prevent Arsenal from playing the ball through the middle as we so like to do.

We were unable to keep possession for any sustained period of time and ended up having to resort to long, almost hopeful balls from the defence in order to even momentarily relieve the pressure. McCabe, Van de Donk, Miedema and Mead remained slightly further up the pitch in hopes of forcing the opposition into a mistake, while Little set an early benchmark for the fight expected of anyone donning the Arsenal shirt, buzzing around all over the field and often winning the ball back herself and holding it up to try and give her teammates a chance to move up the field and start an attack. Considering that she had not kicked a ball since the end of January, it was a sight for sore eyes to see Little making a big contribution as she so often does.

She couldn’t be expected to do it on her own, however, and the pressure eventually told in the 15th minute. An outswinging corner was met with a well-struck volley from Marie-Antoinette Katoto, and Paris were ahead. Williamson should probably have been a little more switched on so as not to have allowed Katoto to edge past her as easily as she did, and Miedema would likely have blocked the effort had she been slightly closer to the near post, but as two players who rarely put a foot wrong whenever they step on the pitch, they can be forgiven.

Even the best players are allowed a mistake. Arsenal’s response to the goal was perfect, and we nearly equalized just three minutes later. A crisp move down the right-hand side ended with Maritz firing a low ball across the box to Little, whose slightly scuffed shot slid just wide. It probably should have levelled the scores, but the team appeared to take heart from the move and continued to dominate possession for the next ten minutes or so. PSG found themselves suddenly pegged back in their own half, yet managed to maintain their structure and prevent Arsenal from finding a clear chance through their ranks.

Around the half-hour mark, PSG began to gain more of a foothold into the game once again, and Miedema was suddenly becoming increasingly isolated up front, as Mead and Evans were forced to drop further into midfield to help combat the onslaught of blue shirts that threatened to overpower the Gunners midfield as they had in the opening minutes. The Dutch striker dropped into midfield herself, giving Van de Donk the freedom to play ahead of her briefly, and the subtle strategy helped turn the tide back in Arsenal’s favour. With six minutes to go until half-time, Little squeezed a ball through to Mead on the edge of the box, whose quick movement gave her just enough time and space away from her marker to curl a left-footed shot into the far corner. 1-1, and no less than we deserved going into the interval.

Arsenal would have been hoping for the half not to end, as we had continued to hold the momentum ever since going behind. Whilst we had grown into the game, there remained a couple of concerns at the back, as a couple of our more normally reliable defenders found themselves making uncharacteristic errors or getting caught out of position too many times. Fortunately, those minor lapses had mainly gone unpunished due to our growing confidence, but it was undoubtedly cause for concern nonetheless.

The second half began much as the first had, with PSG quickly gaining control and dominating play. Although we continued to hold our own, it was increasingly clear that we simply did not match Paris in terms of sharpness or fitness at the current time. Legs were tiring, passes were underhit or askew, and for all our efforts we simply could not hold onto the ball for longer than 15-30 seconds at a time.

The opposition clearly picked up on this as well, and cunningly timed a rough challenge on our players on the rare occasions that we looked like regaining some control; ex-Chelsea player Ramona Bachmann, in particular, was spoken to by the referee on more than one occasion for this matter, having been involved in a couple of such incidents in the first half as well.

Tiredness and perhaps some muscle issues forced Jen Beattie and Beth Mead off as the half went on, to be replaced by Viki Schnaderbeck and Caitlin Foord, respectively, while Lisa Evans was also brought off to be replaced by Jordan Nobbs. PSG made a change of their own, replacing Bachmann with Signe Bruun, which ultimately became the substitution which decided the match. PSG regained the lead once more mere minutes after the flurry of substitutions, but the goal was, once again, completely avoidable.

McCabe tried to weave her way out of our defensive third (perhaps understandably, given our difficulty in keeping possession so far) instead of clearing it, but lost out as three blue shirts converged on her. Katoto found herself free to carry the ball along the goal line and square it for an easy tap-in for Bruun with only 12 minutes remaining (a move reminiscent in some ways to the late Chelsea goal which decided the Continental Tyres Cup final nearly six months ago).

This time, it was perceptible that a few Gunners heads began to drop; having given everything thus far despite simply not having the level of sharpness our opponents had had the luxury of gaining, we just did not have enough in the tank to mount another prolonged assault on the Parisian goal as we had done in the first half. Ultimately, the statistics don’t lie: PSG had 22 attempts (9 on target) compared to our 4 attempts (2 on target). To our credit, we continued to battle all the way until the final whistle but ended up falling just short. The players, however, should be extremely proud of themselves, they have done the club credit and fought as hard as any of us would. For now, though, it’s time for them to regroup and prepare for the visit of Reading in two weeks, as the 2020/2021 edition of the Women’s Super League is just around the corner.

Arsenal: Zinsberger, Maritz, Williamson, Beattie (Schnaderbeck 49’), McCabe (Catley 88’), Walti, Little (c), Van de Donk (Roord 88’), Evans (Nobbs 76’), Miedema, Mead (Foord 76’)

PSG: Endler, Dudek, Bachmann (Bruun 74’), Geyoro, Katoto, Nadim (Baltimore 68’), Diani (Formiga 88’), Lawrence, Dabritz, Paredes (c), Morroni

Player of the Match (overall): Marie-Antoinette Katoto. One goal, one assist, and never stopped pressuring the Arsenal defence, constantly finding ways to play little passes to teammates and find them in space.

Player of the Match (Arsenal): Kim Little & Noelle Maritz. Impossible to choose between these two for me. Little as always showed why she is the captain, playing her first match since her injury and setting the standard that regulars know she always does. Maritz grew into the game as it went on, extremely established and confident performance in defence, a very difficult thing to do especially in your first match for a new club, that too in a European quarter-final.

Favourite Moment: Maritz genuinely about start a fight with Nadia Nadim, PSG #10, a minute before the Arsenal equalizer, just because Nadim tossed the ball away from Maritz when an Arsenal throw-in was given. Love that fight for the badge, and not always seen right away in new arrivals. Very exciting player and I’m sure she will help us to great success this season and in seasons ahead.

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