How has the title race changed in the FAWSL?

Have Arsenal thrown it away?

Going into the Christmas break, things couldn’t have been much better for Arsenal. They were top of the league and Chelsea couldn’t catch them up even if they won their game in hand. The rest of the season was in their hands.

A month later, however, things don’t look so great for the Gunners. Losses in their two crunch games have seen them fall two points behind Chelsea, who still have a game in hand, and three behind City.

There’s still time left in the season. City and Chelsea will likely drop points before the end of the season, but Arsenal are now reliant on their rivals faltering.

The question is, looking at their performance and underlying numbers, how worried should Arsenal be about their last two league games?

Well, it’s a mixed bag. There are reasons to not feel too bad, but also reasons to be more disappointed. The xG timeline for their game against Chelsea can be seen below.

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Chelsea completely deserved their win, but they also raced into a 3-0 lead thanks to some incredible finishes from Bethany England and Sophie Ingle. Sam Kerr’s goal after England’s almost identical chance a couple of moments earlier was the big defensive disappointment in those early moments.

Chelsea had better chances throughout the game but given it was finished as a contest, I’m not putting a huge amount of weight into that.

The main disappointment from Arsenal’s point of view would be their attacking display. They didn’t create anything substantial until past the hour mark and never once looked like getting back into the game.

Manager Joe Montemurro said he got it wrong after the game. He said they were looking for overloads in central areas and have players move from inside to outside, rather than width. It feels a tough thing to be too critical of knowing how the game went, but one criticism could be how little of a reaction there seemed to be after it looked clear it wasn’t working.

In the City game, Arsenal found themselves better off in xG, but I wouldn’t go down my normal route and claim they were unlucky to lose.

As you can see below, City had some good finishes to go 2-0 up, but Arsenal offered nothing up until that point. Their strong xG numbers stem from a late fightback. They can take some comfort at not being necessarily being outclassed or torn apart, but it’s still far from good for them.

It still seems too early to be definitive, but it feels as though Arsenal have probably thrown their title hopes away in their last two games. They went into these two games with the upper hand but now have to hope that Chelsea and City falter against lower opposition. Something that City haven’t done all season and it’s hard to imagine Chelsea doing it again.

Struggles playing out from defence

Chelsea pressed high against Arsenal, recording their 3rd highest number of pressure events in the final third this season, and stopped the North London side from progressing the ball.

Looking across the season, Arsenal’s numbers for moving the ball back to front have taken a bit of a dip in recent weeks.

The plot below shows the percentage of possessions starting in Arsenal’s defensive third that reach the final third. The dashed black line is league average and the grey dashed line is Arsenal’s average.

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You’d expect some kind of drop off against fellow title challengers but, after not falling below average for the first eight games of the season, they’ve been below average in 4 of their last 6. The last two are City and Chelsea while the other two below average are Birmingham at home and Reading away. They recorded comfortable wins against these sides, with strong xG numbers, but didn’t have the same outcome from poor numbers in their most recent two games.

Using the numbers from BBC Sport’s match reports, Arsenal had more possession in both their recent two games, which makes the above numbers look even worse. It seems they’re controlling the ball but not progressing it, moving the ball in the dreaded u-shape along the backline.

Montemurro has made changes over the last six games, both to personnel and system, so it’s hard to pinpoint one specific change as the cause. There’s also a chance how this is measured could make it look worse. If Arsenal were to win a throw or free-kick that would start a new possession. The fact that this didn’t affect their early-season numbers makes me fairly confident that this isn’t down to a quirk like that though.

One contributing factor could be the absence of Jennifer Beattie.

Beattie was in the squad for the first time since the beginning of December last weekend and has been a big miss for the Gunners. She has the 2nd best progression via passes per 90 in the league behind only Steph Houghton. Replacement Viktoria Schnaderbeck has fairly average numbers, having just the 6th best numbers for Arsenal.

Beattie also has strong numbers when under pressure. She has the best pass completion for forward passes when under pressure (where it must be at least 5 yards forward to get rid of all of those passes that are technically forward but we all know they’re basically sideways). Beattie even has a high percentage of pressured passes that are forward. It’s not as though Schnaderbeck’s numbers are bad, on the plot below both metrics are above average, they’re just not as good as Beattie’s.

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This isn’t to blame Schnaderbeck in any way, but point out just how good Beattie has been this season and how Arsenal could have missed that in recent games with both Chelsea and City pressing high.