English women’s football’s classic conundrum is back: how on earth do you stop Arsenal?
It was something that troubled teams throughout the noughties, when the Gunners collected eight league titles, six FA Women's Cups and four league cups - as well as the Champions League.
Now, after winning the Women's Super League for the first time in five years in 2019, the Gunners are top of the table as we head into the second half of the season. They've failed to win just once in the league and scored an average of almost three goals a game.
To the casual onlooker, that Vivianne Miedema has 14 of those 29 goals might suggest this is a one-woman team. But, instead, nothing sums up this Arsenal side quite like the way they went into the winter break.
With Joe Montemurro back in Australia for personal reasons, his assistant, Aaron D’Antino, stepped in, and the Gunners were faultless still, beating London Bees 9-0 in the Continental Cup and Everton 3-1 in the league.
“I like working with smaller squads because you can give greater care to players and really develop them into your style and into your plan for the team,” Montemurro told Arseblog .
“My utopia is having 16 or 17 players who you can put into the team at any one time and not detect any real change in the way you play.
“If you’ve got 26 players, the reality is that someone becomes player 26 and they know player 25 has to get injured before they even have a chance of seeing the matchday squad.
“Having a smaller squad means everyone feels closer to the starting XI.”
There is no individual bigger than the team, a team so incredibly together, and that’s what makes them so formidable.
But for all the superlatives we can use to describe Arsenal – unstoppable is not one of them.
Emma Hayes’ Chelsea are proof of that. The Blues’ results against other clubs, clubs they’d expect themselves to beat, are the only reason they trail the Gunners in the standings, having beaten them 2-1 at Kingsmeadow in October .
Having trailed to a Danielle van de Donk strike at half time, Hayes’ side did things differently after the break and took all three points thanks to goals from Beth England and Maria Thorisdottir.
“This is a really tricky one because I don’t want to tell you how I did it because the manager is then going to read those comments and make sure he doesn’t do it again,” the Blues’ boss said after the game.
“But we did something and we said, we’re all going to do it together, or not at all, and that’s what I felt happened.
“One pressed, the other pressed. It’s not difficult. Football is not complicated.”
Hayes is right – it wasn’t complicated, but it was effective. Chelsea’s press was suddenly much higher, much more aggressive and much more together.
Arsenal’s centre-backs and their deepest midfielder, which switched between Lia Walti and Kim Little, were all pressed to the point that the Gunners couldn’t play out from the back.
A month later, Tottenham did something similar, trying to mark the centre-backs out of the game, while countering brilliantly – direct, with pace and while being decisive in their passes.
That game plan worked too, until Little struck home brilliantly to break the deadlock just past the hour mark, and Miedema followed it up to seal victory and paint north London red again .
“Arsenal changed their formation because they couldn’t get through,” Spurs boss Karen Hills said after the game.
“They couldn’t get Nobbs on the ball so they moved her in front of the back four to get her on the ball and that was credit to us.”
The fact is, if you can stop Arsenal playing out from the back, you thwart them almost completely – the key word being almost.
The difficulty is having the energy and stamina as a squad to do that for a whole 90 minutes. For Chelsea, they had talent off the bench to count on, with substitutes Thorisdottir and Ramona Bachmann combining for that winning goal. Other clubs, such as Tottenham, aren’t as fortunate.
Furthermore, with players like Miedema and Little in the team, Arsenal are always capable of producing moments of magic to win matches, even when you’ve disrupted them completely from their usual game.
And as Hills noted, the Gunners are a team capable of mixing things up, too.
Willie Kirk’s Everton were the last team to try their luck against the reigning champions before Christmas and, perhaps factoring in all those variables, went for something different in their attempts to overcome them.
Montemurro has spoken a lot about how his team plays with inverted full-backs and wingers.
Lisa Evans and Katie McCabe, both naturally more attacking players, drive forward from their full-back roles to combine with Arsenal’s world-class talent out wide – and it’s done to devastating effect.
Kirk’s plan was to thwart them with a 3-4-3 formation, something that looked promising on paper.
But, on the pitch, things are always different.
“The thinking was it would be three at the back, and we said, ‘Do not make it five at the back’ - but against Arsenal it’s hard not to be pinned back,” the Everton boss said after his team's 3-1 defeat .
“I watched their game against Reading and the wingers both come in all the time, constantly switching and we just wanted to have as many bodies in the middle as possible.
“We wanted to load up the middle of the park and protect the goal but when you leave the best striker in the world unmarked for the first goal it’s a little bit frustrating.
“Maybe we had one centre back too many. Maybe they were all expecting the other to pick Miedema up.”
Maybe this, maybe that. It’s easy to prepare to play Arsenal, but it takes something special to beat them.
And in the case of conquerors Chelsea, it takes something even more spectacular to keep up with them.
For anyone to stop them retaining their crown in 2020, it’s going to take something truly incredible.