It was carefree, scintillating football from Arsenal when they faced Brighton the week before their crunch match against Chelsea. Even accepting for the Seagulls’ standing in the league – the project on the south coast one much more in the embryonic stages – Arsenal looked every part Champions, the current holders just about with their noses ahead in the title race this season.
Three days later, at home, the Gunners were given an entirely different test in a resolute Reading team looking for overdue consistency and a defensive core that they’ve struggled with at times this season. It was the 14 meeting of the two teams and Reading had only claimed one win, and one draw, in their years of clashing with Arsenal; the Royals arguably overdue another positive result. And on a cold night in Hertfordshire they very nearly had one, Kim Little’s strike four minutes from time all to separate the two come the whistle.
The effort from Reading was commendable and although Louise Quinn refuted that the match had been a frustrating one, she did concede that Arsenal had had to be patient and smart in how they went about securing victory. But there was a spark missing from the team, the confidence and class the champions had oozed in Crawley was gone.
By the time Arsenal got underway in their third match in eight days, they looked a world away from the team that had dispatched with Brighton earlier in the month.
The tactics were, once again, different, the shape a newer one, the personnel rotated and the team well out of balance.
Chelsea hit their stride immediately, the Blues in full flow, massing in midfield, pressing at both ends of the pitch and looking every part the women to Arsenal’s girls. A team at the top of their game, the title-chasers were only encouraged by the Gunners’ [tactical] lack of width and general confusion. Although the visitors managed just four shots on target, each found the back of the net, from Beth England’s curled opener to Sophie Ingle’s world-class volley, Chelsea showed up in their very best form.
One team with the Midas touch, the other with the hungover touch, chasing shadows, pulled out of position and playing right into Chelsea’s hands. Following the conclusion of the match, Joe Montemurro immediately took the blame for the tactics but the bigger question isn’t around why he opted for them in the first place but why it took him so long to change what was happening (and going wrong).
Just four days previous, Quinn had praised the squad from top to bottom, citing the intelligent players, as well as the coaching staff who work extra hard to prepare the team, yet it had all gone to pot against Chelsea. For a team that had employed three different systems in their previous league match, it shouldn’t have been too much of a to do for the team to adapt on the pitch, to realise where they were failing and recovering before it was too late. Yet the Gunners hit the point of no-return 20 minutes in when Ingle’s outrageous strike made it 3-0.
The plan had failed and for all the blame throwing and owning, it took almost an hour for the manager to go to his bench and really effect change on the pitch, the team much better for the substitutions (Lisa Evans and eventual goalscorer, Beth Mead) who brought much needed width and danger back to the hosts.
For Arsenal it was all too little too late – Mead’s goal a conciliation on the day but one that may on go to have a say, regarding goal difference – sometimes you just have to accept a bad day at the office. The system not one that worked but the individuals within it struggled with the basics regardless of how they were set-up. But not for the first time this year, Arsenal have lacked their lustre – a bold statement for a team that had scored 23 league goals in the five matches before Sunday but very subtly, consistency is becoming a real worry for the champions.
Although Chelsea sit in third, a point adrift of Manchester City and Arsenal (the Citizens one goal better off than the Gunners), they do so with a game in hand and an attack that looks deadly. It would be careless to say that the title is gone when the race is a long way from over, but there are underline problems, light cracks that could deepen if not addressed. The team, currently, a world away from the breathtaking side that went to Kingsmeadow in October of 2018 and hit the then champions for five without breaking a sweat.
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