Arsenal Women Dish Out a Royal Thrashing
The Barclays FA Women’s Super League season has begun for 2020/21, and Arsenal opened their account with a demolition of Reading at Meadow Park on Sunday, 6th of September. A hat-trick from Jill Roord, a brace from Vivianne Miedema, and a peach from Kim Little saw us swat aside the Royals easily, with ex-Gunner Danielle Carter’s late consolation the only blot on the proverbial copybook in a 6-1 win.
Season and Match Kickoff
Arsenal handed a full league debut to new signing Steph Catley as she started at left-back in place of Katie McCabe, who was serving a suspension given to her back in February. Noelle Maritz retained her place on the opposite side of defence after her impressive display against Paris Saint-Germain, while Viki Schnaderbeck paired Leah Williamson in the centre as Jen Beattie missed out. Manuela Zinsberger, the first-choice goalkeeper for most of last season, retained her spot between the sticks. Lia Walti, Jill Roord, and Kim Little made up the midfield three, while Vivianne Miedema was flanked by Jordan Nobbs and Beth Mead to complete the usual 4-3-3 we tend to operate in.
Reading appeared to start in a primarily 4-4-2 formation; having lost 7 of their last 8 games against Arsenal, it seemed that they were planning to keep two lines behind the ball in an attempt to prevent the Gunners midfield from having time and space.
Similar to how PSG had benefitted from competitive action prior to facing the Gunners in their recent Champions League clash, Arsenal were now the ones who experienced the positive impact of having played in a competitive fixture prior to the start of the new league season. From the early moments, it became clear that the North Londoners were just that extra bit sharper, fitter, and quicker in their movement and decision-making on the pitch. Within the first couple of minutes, one could see Arsenal’s front three applying pressure on the Royals’ backline high up the field (Figure 1). Meanwhile, whenever we were in possession, it was noticeable that we would regularly try to play the ball wide on the right-hand side to Mead, who would then take on – and often get the better of – another ex-Arsenal player in Emma Mitchell.
It didn’t take long before Arsenal’s dominance managed to break through Reading’s resistance, and the goal came in spectacular fashion on the quarter-hour mark (Figure 2). An Arsenal attack was half-cleared and fell to Williamson, who clipped in what is fast becoming her trademark diagonal long ball back into the box. Of course, it was captain Kim Little on hand to exquisitely guide a volley back across the keeper and into the back of the net… a proper Arsenal move and finish to give them a well-deserved lead.
The next fifteen minutes continued in much the same vein, with the Gunners applying the majority of the pressure and Reading temporarily clearing the ball to give themselves a brief reprieve now and then. Steph Catley nearly doubled the lead with a curling free-kick which struck the crossbar, but soon afterwards they did go two up anyway. Reading had a rare spell of possession in our half and Arsenal showed that they can not only work the ball intricately but also play direct football to unlock an opponent.
Arsenal won the ball back in our own defensive third and, with Reading’s defence near the centre line, Catley intelligently fired a ball up the line where Nobbs latched onto it and raced past the defence before squaring it to Miedema, who coolly rounded the keeper and rolled the ball into an empty net (Figure 3). In a spell where Reading had just started to look like they were getting a foothold back into the match, that goal came as a sucker punch and knocked all the wind out of the Royals’ sails. Jill Roord completed another smooth Gunners move five minutes before the interval, which again involved Williamson and Mead in the build-up, and we went into the break three goals to the good.
Second-half Improvement By Reading
Reading came out much improved as the second half began, with Danielle Carter and Jess Fishlock the main creative forces for the Royals as they managed to have more sustained spells of possession and restrict Arsenal time on the ball. With Fara Williams having been substituted off, Bruton came on to add some fight to the midfield, and she picked up a yellow barely ten minutes into the half for a rough tackle.
Arsenal soon adapted, however, and the game once again began to follow a similar pattern to the first half: quick, incisive passes and movement which began to open up the Reading defence once more, and it also became plainer to see that they were rapidly tiring. Arsenal’s match sharpness was starting to show as we asserted our dominance and put together more intricate passing moves. Just after the hour mark, one such move got Roord her second, and our fourth, with Catley, Nobbs, and Little all involved in some beautiful one-touch passes which ended with Little squaring the ball across the box for Roord to dart past the bamboozled defence and tap in.
Similarly to when Miedema scored in the first half, Roord’s goal killed the momentum Reading had built up, and the Royals found themselves virtually pinned in their own box for the next several minutes as they desperately defended wave after wave of attacks from those in red and white. Joe Montemurro clearly smelt blood and decided to make a triple substitution to keep the pressure on Reading.
Catley, Walti, and Mead went off to be replaced respectively by Maier, Van de Donk, and Foord, thus allowing us fresh legs in each of the three main outfield areas. Soon afterwards, Little and Nobbs were also withdrawn, as Lisa Evans came on along with another debutant in Malin Gut.
Miedema was growing frustrated, having missed a couple of (by her standards) very easy chances to increase her own goal tally, but her persistence paid off in the 78th minute. Foord took a quick corner, exchanged a one-two with Gut and then fed Miedema. The prolific Dutch striker let the ball roll across her just outside the box before unleashing a powerful drive which rattled the underside of the crossbar and crashed into the back of the net (Figure 4).
Viv’s resulting fist pump is about as close to an emotional celebration as you are regularly going to see from her, compared to the usual amusing expression of near-boredom that she normally shows after scoring, and we could all see what the goal meant to her.
Three minutes later, another free-flowing Gunners move involving nearly half the team ended with Miedema spinning around two Reading defenders and laying the ball off to Caitlin Foord, who smartly found an opening to square it for an onrushing Roord to tuck away her hat-trick with excellent composure. 6-0, and it could have been much more, but ultimately it was Reading who had the last word.
One minute from time, Zinsberger received the ball and took far too long to assess her options, giving Danielle Carter a chance to charge in and poke the ball into the Arsenal goal. It was mere consolation but, after a game where Arsenal had managed to successfully nullify Reading’s attacking threats, it was frustrating to have given away such a cheap goal. Given that the battle between Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City is usually tight at the top and can come down to goal difference, it is essential that such mistakes are ironed out and prevented from happening again.
One very interesting point of note in today’s match was the Arsenal’s ability to use their versatile players to quickly flit between different formations, thus making it difficult for their opposition to keep an eye on any one single player. The most notable formation change early on was going from a 4-3-3 to a 4-1-4-1 (Figure 5). Since Reading were unable to isolate Vivianne Miedema the way Paris had, Nobbs and Mead could drop alongside Little and Roord in midfield in order to help win the ball back and orchestrate attacks, while Lia Walti anchored the midfield while sitting just in front of the back four.
On other occasions, Williamson positioned herself slightly further ahead of Schnaderbeck and anchored the midfield alongside Walti. This allowed two of Little, Roord, Nobbs, and Mead to stay further up the field to provide more support for Miedema while the other two to stay back in midfield to ensure Reading were constantly under pressure, in a makeshift 3-4-2-1 formation (Figure 6).
Given that Montemurro did experiment with a formation involving three defenders at times last season (though admittedly not to a great degree of success), this suggests that he is now trying to perfect the squad’s ability to perform at a high standard while interchanging on the fly between three or four defenders. If this strategy can indeed be mastered, it could prove invaluable as it would allow Arsenal to have a Plan A, B, and maybe even a Plan C without having to substitute players, making it much more difficult for opposing teams to be able to fully prepare to face the Gunners.
All in all, it was a very satisfying start to the new league season for the Gunners, who are now sitting, as we should be, at the summit of the Women’s Super League. Manchester City, Everton, and Brighton all picked up three points as well this weekend, but with smaller margins of victory, while reigning champions Chelsea were held to a draw at Manchester United.
Arsenal have hit the ground running and need to maintain that momentum when they travel to West Ham next weekend, but the players can be very proud of their performance on the opening weekend. With fewer injuries and a seemingly new dimension in attack, there is no reason that Arsenal cannot reclaim the title again this season, especially if we keep playing as we did at Meadow Park against the Royals.
Arsenal: Zinsberger, Maritz, Schnaderbeck, Williamson, Catley (Maier 69’), Walti (Van de Donk 69’), Roord, Little (c) (Gut 76’), Nobbs (Evans 76’), Miedema, Mead (Foord 69’)
Substitutes: Stenson, Gut, Evans, Van de Donk, Maier, Foord, Mace
Reading: Moloney, Leine (Rowe 46’), Mitchell, Williams (Bruton 46’), Bartrip, James, Fishlock, Eikeland, Harding (c), Cooper, Carter
Substitutes: Nayler, Jeon, Rowe, Skeels, Quirk, Bruton, Woodham, Roberts, Harries
Player of the Match (overall)
Jill Roord. Three well-taken goals, calmness personified, and excellent positional awareness shown throughout the match in an attacking sense.
Arsenal Player of the Match (personal opinion)
Leah Williamson & Jill Roord. Difficult to choose between the two. Roord is an obvious choice because of her hat-trick, of course, but she also performed her defensive duties to perfection in midfield alongside Walti. Williamson was a rock as usual in defence, constantly in the right position to deny Reading a clear effort at goal on the rare occasions they did create a clear chance; however, she also forayed into midfield and could be seen regularly venturing even further forward to help arsenal maintain pressure on the Reading defence. Her usual tireless work ethic always sets her apart, but if this game is anything to go by, she is adding a new element to her game which gives the team the chance to fluidly switch between two or three different formations in the blink of an eye.
Leah Williamson’s pass and Kim Little’s finish for the opening goal of the match. Two of our most key players and who embody the class of Arsenal as well as any of the greatest, creating a goal in true Arsenal style, was brilliant to see. A reminder to regular match-goers of how much we enjoyed seeing those goals in person regularly, and a fantastic advertisement for Arsenal and women’s football for any new fans who may have tuned into the match.