Best of Three: Are Arsenal's substitutes the issues?
Plus Manchester United's forwards and Aston Villa's future
Arsenal’s title hopes look to be on very thin ice after their 2-1 loss to West Ham at the weekend. Now six points behind leaders Chelsea, the particularly frustrating part will be that their three losses have come in ‘winnable’ games - against Liverpool, Tottenham and West Ham. The latter two had never previously beaten Arsenal before.
In truth, it feels quite hard to exactly pinpoint where Arsenal are going wrong in some of these matches. For the handful examples of where they could not get goals back, you also have the matches against Aston Villa and Leicester where they did. The West Ham result had one of their lowest successful take-ons of the season but the Tottenham one had their highest.
In the matches against Tottenham and West Ham, Eidevall made four attacking changes from between the 60 minute mark and the end of the match. Arsenal have regularly made substitutes throughout this season with Frida Maanum, Cloe Lacasse and Stina Blackstenius being the three key players to come off the bench. The more intriguing substitute in those matches has been Kyra Cooney-Cross.
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Cooney-Cross has made three WSL starts this year in a run of matches where Lia Walti and Kim Little were both unavailable through injury. Of her four substitute appearances, only one has taken place when Arsenal were winning; she came on against Chelsea. Against both Tottenham and West Ham, Cooney-Cross came on for Victoria Pelova for the last thirty minutes. It is clear that the Australian midfielder is very talented but she is still finding her feet in the league. To have disrupted the midfield to turn to her twice in games they were losing, without having boosted her minutes in games they were winning, has placed an awful lot of faith in her. When, as was the case in the West Ham game, a veteran midfielder like Kim Little is available off the bench, the boldness of the decision is further exacerbated.
It is entirely possible this is just outcome bias. There are many factors behind Arsenal’s struggles in these games, and it is impossible to boil it down to one factor. But the role Cooney-Cross plays in the rest of Arsenal’s season is one to ponder. It seems as if right now she is Eidevall’s Hail Mary player, with little evidence of success yet.
Is Nikita Parris Manchester United’s new number 9?
Marc Skinner is a man who has been frustrating a lot of people recently. Ultimately, two things can be true in this situation - Skinner had a tough task replacing Alessia Russo up top for United and he has also not done a very good job at it. The player who was brought in, Geyse, has so far got one goal all season in the league. But Nikita Parris now has eight, having scored another brace
Parris’ form needs to be caveated with the fact that she is running very hot in front of goal right now. Her eight goals have come from an xG of 3.2 and 14 shots on target. But if she is the player who is converting at the moment, it makes sense to have her being the player who gets the shots off. When starting up top, Parris is averaging 3.75 shots p90, in comparison to 1.2 off the wing. With Geyse averaging only 2.4 shots p90 when she’s further forward, it feels like a natural upgrade. Geyse playing off the right has also made her carrying more effective as she has someone in the middle to actually cut back to.
Manchester United must have felt like Champions League football might have already slipped from their grasp but thanks to Arsenal’s loss, they are now only four points behind them. In two weeks time, they meet at the Emirates.
How do Aston Villa approach the rest of this season?
Aston Villa had a chastening start to the season, losing their first five fixtures, but they have been firmly out of any risk of relegation for a couple of months now. Their 2-2 draw with Bristol City over the weekend was probably the most accomplished they had looked going forward all season, against a side who are no pushovers defensively. However, Villa’s own defensive issues remain. Both goals they conceded came as a result of errors from their own players carelessly passing the ball to Bristol City.
Villa have had a lot of turnover throughout the year with Lucy Staniforth the latest player to be ruled out for the rest of the season. That has seen their defence and midfield constantly being shuffled, and Laura Blindkilde-Brown being sold to Manchester City has not aided this. That has obviously made it harder for Carla Ward to build relationships within her team. But crucially, they also need to be thinking about next year. Bringing in players like Freya Gregory (who returned from a loan at Reading) and Ebony Salmon will set them up much better for next season, which is what they are playing for at this point.