Jonas Eidevall announced his arrival on the English soccer scene by steering Arsenal to a 3-2 win over Chelsea. That was the opening day of last season, and it promised big things. Afterward, however, things didn’t quite go according to plan, as Arsenal then failed to beat Chelsea for five consecutive games. In 484 minutes of play against their rivals, spread over 14 months, they recorded just one goal, conceded eight, and lost in the FA Cup three times, including a final.
Finally, last weekend, that streak came to an end. Arsenal got the better of Chelsea in the League Cup final, winning 3-1. The game started ominously enough, with Sam Kerr putting Chelsea ahead in the second minute. But Arsenal turned it around with a whirlwind first-half pressing performance, essentially flipping the script and imposing on their opposition what they used to have imposed on themselves.
Arsenal take control with pressing
After the match, Chelsea manager Emma Hayes put her side’s defeat down to losing the physical battle, questioning her team’s hunger. “The amount of 1v1 duels, and first and second [ball] situations they dominated today is the thing I’m most disappointed with,” she said. “I saw the fire in the players for Arsenal, and I didn’t see that in us today. That made it really difficult to get back into the game and…I’m very disappointed with that complacency from us.”
There was some merit to that point. All three of Arsenal’s goals originated from restarts—free kicks or throw-ins—where Chelsea were slow to react or lost the initial duel. There was a larger tactical issue, though, which was Arsenal’s pressing. This asked questions Chelsea didn’t have answers to, and forced them into a game of long balls and 1-v-1 battles.
Arsenal deployed their usual defensive setup, albeit with some key decisions on positions within their frontline. Attacking midfielder Frida Maanum played alongside striker Stina Blackstenius, the front two doing a fantastic job of screening Chelsea’s passing routes into midfield. They were helped by the wingers, Katie McCabe and Caitlin Foord, who narrowed in to form a compact front four.
This approach forced Chelsea’s defenders to play sideways along the back line. Arsenal pressed on the sideways ball, rushing their opponents, forcing them wide and long, then handled most of the subsequent aerial and physical duels. The consequence of all this was that Chelsea were unable to control the ball for more than a few passes, nor gain significant territory.
Stina + Frida hide Miedema’s absence
At that point, the game was being dictated by Arsenal. Apart from the odd Kerr-led counter-attack, Chelsea looked forlorn, and even those counters were marshaled well by a pacey center-back duet of Leah Williamson and Rafaelle Souza. To her credit, Hayes reacted early. She took off attacking midfielder Jelena Cankovic in the 40th minute, bringing on Kadeisha Buchanan and moving to a back three. That meant her side could string passes along the back line a bit easier, and breathe a little more. But they still struggled to play through midfield.
The player profiles in Arsenal’s front four underpinned the performance. McCabe has always been a gutsy, sometimes overly aggressive player, and spent a good amount of her peak years playing as a fullback. Defending comes easy to her. On the other flank, Foord is a relentless runner and an exceptional athlete. Maanum is a strong, 5’8” box-to-box midfielder who is enjoying playing in a higher role, while two of Blackstenius’ most admirable traits are her defensive focus and intelligence.
A front four filled with speed, determination and defensive awareness posed constant problems to Chelsea’s build-up play. They took away short passing options, and took charge of the contest. Vivianne Miedema’s absence through injury was specifically not felt in this game—while a spectacular goal-scorer, her pressing has always been inconsistent. It’s worth considering, had she been available and played instead of Blackstenius or Maanum: could Arsenal have played the same game?
Eidevall impact shows
In the latter stages of Joe Montemurro’s tenure as Arsenal head coach, this is exactly what Chelsea did to Arsenal, time after time. Chelsea would press, force Arsenal into mistakes, attack quickly, demonstrate a chilling ruthlessness in front of goal, then sit on the lead for the rest of the game. Montemurro’s inability to adapt in these games was a source of frustration for supporters, and one of the main reasons his team got left behind in the hunt for silverware.
With that in mind, this is a significant victory for Eidevall. Yes, because it ended Arsenal’s four-year wait for a trophy—an incredible length of time for a club that historically has been England’s most successful—but also because of the manner of the win. Eidevall has placed greater emphasis than his predecessor on increasing the pressing intensity but previously failed to implement that with any real success in the one-off games against Chelsea. On Sunday, that changed.
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