A long range screamer from Katie McCabe helped Arsenal Women claim all three points over a spirited Aston Villa side in the Women's Super League.
Joe Montemurro’s side were already cruising when McCabe struck her rocket, but it was well worth the wait for the Gunners. The ball came to her from 25 yards out and the defender took a moment to set herself, before rifling a shot into the top corner. It was deserved for the visitors as they were dominant throughout the game, but there were plenty of positives for Villa to take.
Story of the match
It was a turgid first half, dominated entirely by the visitors. Aston Villa boss Marcus Bignot set his team up with five defenders to soak up Arsenal pressure and it worked a treat. The centre back trio of Anita Asante, Elisha N’Dow and Nat Haigh looked comfortable sitting back, meaning Arsenal were limited to just two chances.
The first was from one of the many Arsenal corners. The cross was fizzed in towards Villa’s near post by Kate McCabe, catching Villa’s defence off guard. Leah Williamson was the first to react, dashing to get her foot to the ball and fire a shot towards goal. However, she got just too much power on it and the ball flew harmlessly over the bar.
Arsenal had to wait until the end of the half for another chance, with this one falling to Noëlle Maritz. The right back had a pot shot from range, which caught a lucky deflection to divert it towards the top far corner. Despite looking destined for the net, Lisa Weiss was able to acrobatically tip it over her bar. These two chances are all Arsenal were able to carve out in another subpar attacking performance from the Gunners.
Villa looked threatening on the counter attack, particularly through Stine Larsen and Mana Iwabuchi, yet they failed to force any chances for themselves. The strikers relied on long balls up from defence, despite Iwabuchi’s efforts to retrieve the ball in midfield and drive forward. There wasn’t much either side could do on the ball in Arsenal’s half as the Banks’ Stadium pitch is in poor condition.
The second half started much more open than the first. Arsenal were able to carve out a real chance quickly, falling to Danielle Van De Donk. A tricky ball was floated across Villa’s goal and the Dutch midfielder was there to meet it. Despite being an open goal and from point-blank range, Van De Donk sent it over. Villa had a good shot from range go just over from N’Dow just before the hour mark, giving Arsenal the chance to break and grab the opening goal.
The first goal came right on the hour from Vivianne Miedema. The ball came to Beth Mead by the corner flag and she flashed a teasing ball across goal. The Dutch striker graciously stabbed it home to finally break Villa’s brave defence. The lead was quickly doubled in cruel fashion for the Villa goalkeeper. Lisa Weiss dived at the feet of Miedema to make a good save, but the rebound went straight to Jordan Nobbs and into the net. It was harsh on the ‘keeper who had kept Villa in the game up until then, but it was no more than what Arsenal deserved.
Lisa Evans made it four late on to put the icing on the cake for the Gunners with a header from close range. Villa can be proud of how they defended for the first hour of the match, but the late collapse was inevitable given Arsenal’s relentless pressure.
Takeaways from the match
Villa's defensive woes are over... but they are still lacking going forward
The big task facing Marcus Bignot when he took over as Villa manager was sorting out their leaky backline. By switching to a system with three central defenders, they look much more solid. They can easily compensate for Asante's lack of pace and N'Dow can play up to her strength of taking the ball into midfield. This has given Villa much more solidity at the back, but a new problem has presented itself.
A common theme throughout the match was Villa breaking from defence and sacrificing possession cheaply. They have lacked a killer final ball all season long and it is beginning to cost them. Villa still have winnable games against the likes of Brighton and Bristol City to come where they cannot afford to melt away in the final third. With the defence sorted, Bignot must turn his attention to sorting this glaring issue out.
Arsenal are the best of the rest
While the Gunners are massively off the pace in terms of the title race, they are comfortably the best of the rest. Despite the massive investment and improvement at Everton and the good side built by Reading lately, no side outside of the top three can come close to the quality at Arsenal's disposal.
Their display against Villa highlighted their professionalism and resilience to not lose confidence in themselves, despite missing chances and being sealed out by Villa. There is plenty for Montemurro to be positive about going forward as they look to catch up to the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United.
Stars of the match
From a Villa perspective, their star player was Mana Iwabuchi. The Japanese star never stopped running into midfield and displayed some good touches and turns to get Villa moving forward. An honourable mention should also go to Lisa Weiss for her string of acrobatic saves to keep Villa in the game.
While she did miss a golden opportunity in the first half, Leah Williamson put in a great performance for Arsenal. The defender controlled the game well from the back and looked composed when carrying the ball into midfield. While McCabe or Nobbs may get the plaudits for their goals, Williamson's leadership and composure played no small part in keeping the Gunners' heads up.