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Dutch magic and the Montemurro effect: the story of Arsenal’s WSL title | Suzanne Wrack

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Arsenal were frontrunners for the title from the moment they kicked off their league season on 9 September. The 5-0 dismantling of Liverpool on the opening day announced Arsenal as serious contenders, but despite that it has not been plain sailing for Joe Montemurro’s side and it was only on Sunday, on the penultimate weekend of the season, that they secured the WSL title with a 4-0 win over Brighton. An unforeseeable injury crisis crippled the team for much of the season, stretching the squad to its limits and testing the manager’s tactical nous. So how has Montemurro done it?

Before the arrival of the Australian in November 2017, Arsenal lacked steel. Having conceded eight times in three league games the Gunners were already off the pace in the title race. A 5-2 loss to rivals Manchester City, after they had come from behind to take a 2-1 lead, showed a talented team stagnating and without direction.

Montemurro’s first task was “to go back to basics” and shore up the defence. He had form: in 2016 he led Melbourne City to an undefeated title-winning season, during which they did not drop a single point and conceded just five goals.

At Arsenal the Montemurro effect was almost instant. The Gunners let in nine goals in their remaining 13 league games in 2017-18 (an Ellen White hat-trick in a surprise win for Birmingham responsible for a third of those), they converted a goal difference of -2 into +20 and went on a 14-game unbeaten run that included 10 clean sheets. They also produced a gritty 1-0 win against Manchester City in the Continental League Cup final.

Montemurro’s efforts last season were about foundation building, providing the framework for the possession-based game he wanted his team to play. It worked. The 22-year-old Leah Williamson, a surprise omission from the PFA team of the year, has arguably been the best centre-back in the league. Alongside Louise Quinn, Emma Mitchell, Lisa Evans, Katrine Veje and any other player who has slotted into the back line in an injury-hit season, the defence has conceded 13 goals and dropped only six points all season. It is the second best defensive record in the league, one goal behind Chelsea on 12.

Katie McCabe and Louise Quinn celebrate in the away dressing room at Brighton.

Katie McCabe and Louise Quinn celebrate in the away dressing room at Brighton. Photograph: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

That base, with the ball-playing centre-backs Williamson and Quinn at its heart, has given Arsenal something they can build from.

The Swiss midfielder Lia Wälti was sitting in front of the back line as a shield before she picked up a knee ligament injury in January and her absence was really felt, especially as it came after Jordan Nobbs’s ACL rupture and Kim Little’s fibula break. Wälti still has the third-most successful tackles in the league.

Mounting injuries have been a hallmark of Arsenal’s campaign. With Tabea Kemme, Victoria Schnaderbeck, Danielle Carter, Veje, Jess Samuelsson, and Nobbs all missing for much of the season, and the shorter-term injuries to Little, Wälti and Mitchell, Montemurro’s squad has been stretched to breaking point. Such was the extent of the crisis that they were able to cobble together only five players for the bench in their defence of their Continental League Cup title against Manchester City; a goalkeeper, three academy players and an unwell Vivianne Miedema.

Managing that has been a bigger part of Montemurro’s season than he could ever have predicted. What the injuries have done, however, is to focus the squad. The cups were essentially sacrificed to prioritise their attempt to win a first league title in seven years and a return to the women’s Champions League for the only English team to have previously won it.

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A crushing Continental Cup final loss on penalties to Manchester City after a backs-to-the-wall 120 minutes and a chastening 3-0 defeat by Chelsea in their FA Cup fifth-round tie could have dampened their belief but instead it just increased their title drive: “We maybe didn’t play the Arsenal way, but that character is what it takes to play for a top team: to take a game as far as you can, to fight. And when it comes to the league, that’s exactly what we will do,” said Williamson after missing her penalties against City.

A not insignificant role has been played by academy players who were initially promoted into training with the first team to help bolster the ranks. Ruby Grant provided a hat-trick to ensure Arsenal’s passage past Crawley Wasps in the FA Cup, while Ava Kuyken, Ana Albuquerque and Amelia Hazard all looked the part when called upon, if understandably a little lightweight.

Arsenal celebrate during last month’s game against Birmingham.

Arsenal celebrate during last month’s game against Birmingham. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

In addition, when it was needed, players adapted. Dominique Bloodworth was used to great effect at the back and across midfield. Daniëlle van de Donk, so potent wide right of Miedema, had to move into the middle and into a more defensive role in more desperate times but still chipped in with 11 league goals and five assists across the season.

Van de Donk has been just one element in a sometimes masterful forward line. With Little, Nobbs and Wälti feeding the attack, in the early part of the season Arsenal looked unplayable – their comprehensive 5-0 win at last season’s double winners Chelsea in October perhaps their most complete performance. A staggering 69 goals, up from 38 last season, is testament to the fluidity the team has established.

And the spearhead of it all has been Miedema. The Dutch forward has 22 league goals and 31 in all competitions. With Beth Mead playing her way into England contention, Katie McCabe chipping in at crucial moments – most notably scoring the only goal in a recent vital 1-0 away defeat of Birmingham – and Lisa Evans rampaging down the wing, Arsenal have had by far the best attack in the league – and that told in the end.

The challenge next term is being consistent and competitive across all competitions. The standards of these players are high and one trophy will not be enough. It is hard to believe an injury crisis could hit to the same extent but there can be little doubt that Montemurro will be looking to add to his squad and not leave anything to chance.

EltasZone Sportswriters, Sports Analysts, Opinion columnists, editorials and op-eds. Analysis from The Zone Team
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