FAWSL Analysis: How Chelsea pressing nullified Arsenal

With a short break in the FA Women’s Super League fixtures, I wanted to go back and analyse Chelsea’s pressing against Arsenal last week.

The match ended 3–0 to Chelsea, who stayed top of the league. Despite having 66% possession Arsenal struggled to create chances. This was only the second time this season Arsenal failed to score, while it was one of their worst games in terms of shots, shots on target and xG.

I felt this was mainly down to the effectiveness of Chelsea’s pressing, which is what I want to break down here.

As an aside — it was interesting being able to hear Emma Hayes on the touchline barking instructions to her players. Those instructions will help to inform this analysis.

DIAMOND MIDFIELD v ARSENAL’S 4–3–3

Starting line-ups

As you can see, Chelsea have a 4v3 at the back and a 4v3 in midfield. That leaves them two short at the front, where Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby are 2v4.

The natural quandary here — as is the case for most teams defending with a diamond midfield — is how to prevent being overloaded down the flanks. The behaviour of Chelsea’s front two was key in preventing this and formed the crux of their defensive gameplan.

PRESSING INSTRUCTIONS

If you want to hear the instructions for yourselves the (rough) timestamps are next to each quote, and you can watch the game for free via the FA Player.

“Fran, Sam — relax, don’t do everything!” — (23 mins 50 seconds)

“Wait! Wait! Wait!” — (33 mins 20 seconds)

“Hold, Fran!” — (51 mins)

The emphasis of these instructions is psychological — to make sure the strikers are patient. Kerr and Kirby are both aggressive and quick players, particularly the former, and they like to pressure high. But here they needed to focus more on position and wait for the right moment to press forward.

“Sam — wider, stay lower!” —( 28 mins 30 seconds)

“Wider! That’s it — in-between!” — (52 mins 50 seconds)

“Split the distance!” — (66 mins 50 seconds)

The emphasis here is on the strikers’ specific positions. “Split the distance” is key. Hayes wanted them to be equally able to press forward onto the centre-backs or sideways onto the full-backs if necessary.

“Keep her there, Fran!” — (15 mins 10 seconds)

“Keep her in! Keep her in! Keep her in!” — (24 mins)

The emphasis here was to remove the full-backs as options and force Arsenal’s centre-backs inside, playing square to each other or central. Hayes wanted to funnel Arsenal build-up through the middle — into an overload created by Chelsea’s diamond midfield.

NOW FOR SOME EXAMPLES…

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SUMMARY OF CHELSEA’S PRESSING (AIMS + RESULTS)

  • Chelsea set up in a 4–4–2 with a diamond midfield to ensure an overload through the centre. They set up their strikers to funnel Arsenal’s play into this overloaded area. This objective was evident visibly (watching the game) and audibly (hearing Hayes’ instructions).
  • Arsenal’s centre-backs and goalie were allowed time on the ball initially, but their options were limited by Kerr and Kirby blocking or threatening the pass wide to the full-back. Harder also marked Arsenal’s defensive midfielder, so that option was rarely on.
  • Square passes from centre-back to centre-back were an invitation for Chelsea’s strikers to press forward while still trying to cut the angle to the full-back. This led to multiple turnovers deep in Arsenal’s half.
  • Forward passes through the centre were an invitation for Chelsea’s midfielders to pressure the receiver from behind, safe in the knowledge they had an extra player in this area. This led to a few turnovers just inside Arsenal’s half.
  • Sometimes Arsenal went long through choice or lack of short options. This game of 50/50s and second balls favoured Chelsea thanks to their extra midfielder, the aggression of Leupolz and Ingle, and the physicality of Millie Bright at the back. Arsenal rarely succeeded in these situations.

SOMETIMES IT DIDN’T WORK FOR CHELSEA — WHY?

1) Bad positioning (individually or within a specific unit)

An example of this is seen below. Harder has swapped with Kirby and is now the left striker. But her position is too narrow, so Arsenal can play out to their full-back. Fortunately, Harder has the speed and work rate to get back and close the full-back down from inside, forcing a turnover.

This situation happened a few times — Chelsea’s strikers making up for a bad initial position with their speed and commitment to recover. But if not there was always the near 8 (Leupolz or Ji) who could shuffle across if necessary. So this wasn’t too big of an issue.

There was also one instance where Chelsea’s midfield unit wasn’t compact. This allowed Arsenal’s centre-backs to find Vivianne Miedema up front directly with a ball to feet through an open midfield.

2) An Arsenal player keeps it under pressure

CONCLUSION

It’s not clear why Hayes made this change. My guess is that she didn’t want her players to tire, drop deeper and invite Arsenal on. So she brought on fresh legs up front with England — a mobile, aggressive striker — to keep the pressure on Arsenal’s centre-backs.

Either way, the change happened too late in the game to have any major impact. By this point Arsenal were two down and discouraged. Chelsea’s pressing had nullified one of the country’s best possession teams.

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Analysis by Blair Newman — a scout available for hire with experience working for Scottish Premiership clubs.

Twitter: @thesecondball

email: blairn22@gmail.com.

Freelance football writer and scout. Based in Edinburgh.