By Andrew Misra
If you’ve spent a large amount of your life playing, watching and generally consuming football then it follows logically that you should know a lot about it. But the sport is so broad, deep and structurally layered that it’s impossible to be on top of it all. Stop a self-confessed football fanatic on the street and ask them who is fourth in the Eredivisie and there’s a good chance that they won’t know (AZ Alkmaar). That same fan, though, can tell you off the top of their head that Emile Heskey scored seven goals in 62 England appearances over an eleven-year international career. Or that a young Dimitar Berbatov came off the Bayer Leverkusen bench in the 39th minute of the 2002 Champions League Final.
The point here is that the latter two are impressive but emphasise that you cannot know it all. Certain areas of football are more interesting to some of us than others and that’s fine. But sometimes you do get the sense that you should be paying attention to more than just the football that you are used to. Personally, I’ve recognised for a while that this is the women’s game in my case. Seldom have I paid it any attention, maybe because there’s simply so much men’s football readily available to be consumed.
On Saturday I attended a women’s football match for the first time: Manchester City v Arsenal in the Continental League Cup Final at Bramall Lane, Sheffield United’s home ground. With most of the players unfamiliar to me, I approached the match with a completely open mind. What followed was an enlightening experience. Typical of a cup final, there were no goals. But that had its own empirical advantages – thirty more minutes to examine the style of play and the patterns of the game. If this was an educational lesson, the key take-home points are as follows…
Slower Pace but High Quality
With eyes that are accustomed to the high-octane blood and thunder of the Premier League, perhaps the one preconception I had was that the pace of the game would be slower. Indeed, this was the case, but what struck me in the opening exchanges was that the slower pace is actually a really positive thing.
The less frenetic style gives rise to much more of an emphasis on technical ability, which is refreshing. The quality was very high, reflecting that these sides occupy the top two positions in the Women’s Super League (WSL).
Every outfield player, without exception, looked genuinely comfortable on the ball. That comfort was largely accompanied by the confidence to look after the ball through playing simple passes along the floor. If such a pass was not available, players would look to manufacture an angle for a pass or hold on to the ball. Nikita Parris, the Man City striker, held the ball up brilliantly. Rarely is the ball ‘hoofed’ long, even by centre backs, who showed equally fervent support for the short passing game.
A natural consequence of this is that heading is not a major feature of the game, limiting the goal threat from set pieces and corners, although Man City did hit the bar after one well-worked set piece on the hour mark.
It seemed that the ball was in play for longer too and the play only occasionally disrupted by fouls. Disruptions that do occur tend to be shorter than in the men’s game, where last season a Premier League match was found to have only 47 minutes of actual football over the course of the 90-minute game. It’s a real shame that detailed match statistics are not available for Saturday’s final as it would be a very interesting exercise to compare the numbers with the Burnley v Tottenham match which took place simultaneously in the Premier League.
Risks and Turnover in Possession
Similarly, this analysis becomes more difficult without possession statistics. It was clear, though, that the ball was lost, misplaced and recovered more regularly than in the men’s game. This is not in any way a criticism – just a difference. It contributes to the excitement, the ball is often lost between defenders and midfielders as they attempt to play out from the back, only to then be swiftly regained.
Both teams were perhaps understandably cautious given the magnitude of the cup final so were reluctant to over commit players when going forward. However, forays into the final third quickly seemed to break down. This was partially due to a lack of support, but there were also some brilliant runs that were not spotted. It has been said previously that this is simply a factor of having played the game for a shorter period of time than most male professionals.
Organic homegrown feel
Maybe it was the uncharacteristically sunny February weather, but there was a warm atmosphere in the stadium. Sure, there were only 2,424 fans in the 32,702 seater stadium making the ground just over 7% full. The fans could be easily identified and heard at either end of the John Street stand. Man City fans were in the greater number, the journey to Sheffield a shorter one for them. Both sets sang pretty much throughout, which is admirable.
The feel good factor seemed to extend to the managers too. In the post-match press conference afterwards, Arsenal boss Joe Montemurro was friendly and pragmatic. He spoke openly about how his squad was depleted before the game, which led to star striker Viv Miedema only making the bench – with only five substitutes named. “She was still feeling some fatigue and there were some areas which we felt that, if she went through the whole 90 minutes, we could put her at risk”, he said.
On the pitch, there were many homegrown players. Manchester City’s starting lineup contained no fewer than nine England internationals. It also seemed that many of those in attendance were friends or relatives of the players, giving a more personal feel to proceedings compared to the anonymity of many Premier League encounters.
The main take-home point here is that technique just feels more important in the women’s game. If you’re like me and have never really given it a chance before, I’d urge you to give it a go. It’s not better, not worse, just different. If it’s not for you, fair enough, but there’s a lot of skill on show and it’s no exaggeration to say that Pep Guardiola would’ve been proud of some of the passing sequences that were put together.
Andrew Misra is a founder of 5WFootball, presents the weekly podcast and writes regularly for the site. You can see his work for 5WF here. He also contributes to The Anfield Wrap and you can follow him on Twitter here. He also maintains a general sports blog.