The Continental Cup final between Arsenal and Manchester City at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane was far from a classic, with both sides somewhat failing to act out their game plan to full effect as a lack of meaningful chances or quality attacking play saw the final go to penalties for the first time.
Nick Cushing’s side hit the bar twice as Arsenal’s injuries, lack of squad rotation, and fatigue began to hit them in the second half and it was probably the eventual winners who would have been happier with how they dictated the game from the hour mark onward.
Perhaps it was the cup final we should have expected. It was the 15th meeting between two opponents now so familiar with each other but still yet to see a draw in the previous 14 meetings, let alone a 0-0 score line.
City had scored in every single one of their 19 games since losing 2-0 at home to Atlético Madrid in September, while Arsenal had talisman and top goal scorer Vivianne Miedema only on the bench.
There was also a familiarity to the starting line ups. Arsenal had only three players in the starting 11 who didn’t start in last year’s final between the two, while Man City had four, meaning 15 of the 22 players who walked out at Bramall Lane started the 2018 final too.
Both teams made tweaks for the game. Arsenal went neither their familiar 4-3-3 or 3-5-2, opting instead for a clear 4-2-3-1 with Kim Little sitting deeper and Danielle van de Donk playing just off Beth Mead, the striker getting the chance in the No. 9 role in Miedema’s absence.
Man City didn’t change their formation, sticking with the 4-4-2 which has proven so successful this season, but certainly altered their game plan to thwart Joe Montemurro’s side.
Both sides opted to press and in what was likely always going to be a cagey first half, the inability of either team to keep the ball under pressure or successfully play out from the back meant the opening 45 minutes was a largely dull and tepid affair.
Cushing opted for Karen Bardsley in goal despite Ellie Roebuck’s comfort with the ball at her feet but it was Jen Beattie who saw several passes go astray, while at the other end, both Louise Quinn and defensive midfielder Dominique Bloodworth were guilty of wasting possession under pressure from City’s midfield two.
It was Arsenal who enjoyed the best spell of the first half as their 4-2-3-1 threatened to override City’s square midfield two. With Keira Walsh and Jill Scott sitting alongside each other, van de Donk was able to find space between the midfield and defense to make third-man runs into the box.
On one occasion, the Dutch midfielder dragged Beattie out to the middle of the field before running in behind in a clear sign of what her job was for the day.
The Gunners, though, lacked something down the wings. Janni Arnth at right back isn’t a natural full back and Katrine Veje struggled to get forward regularly before going off injured. Veje did have one good chance early on when Gemma Bonner got sucked out by Katie McCabe and Tessa Wullaert failed to track the Danish international, but it was City who was the more dangerous side out wide.
Across the 120 minutes, City’s number of dangerous crosses from the left amounted to double figures with Wullaert enduring a quiet day on the other side compared to player of the match Caroline Weir.
With Lisa Evans further up the field than usual, City tried to make the most of the Georgia Stanway, Weir, and Demi Stokes triangle and Weir’s deliveries into the box caused Arsenal issues. On occasion, Stanway would drift out left to allow the aerial threat of Scott to make late runs into the box.
Cushing’s side also didn’t allow Arsenal to play out from the back as they would have liked. Williamson and Quinn split to either side of the box to make a passing option for Sari van Veenendaal, but Nikita Parris and Wullaert would go with them while Stanway would sit on Bloodworth to make Van Veenendaal go long, something she did on several occasions.
With Miedema up front to use her height, it may have worked, but Beth Mead found herself isolated and unable to test Beattie and Steph Houghton in the air. Arsenal’s best bits of play on the ball from deep came through Williamson.
Like Beattie had tried to do with van de Donk, the 21-year-old stepped out from the back on several occasions to intercept the ball and start Arsenal attacks. In the second half, she played one long-range diagonal ball across the field before splitting City’s midfield with another cross on a day where creativity was at a minimum for either side.
In the second half, City clearly looked to take the initiative, knowing that Arsenal would likely tire due to a midweek match against Yeovil. Montemurro wasn’t helped by an injury to left back Veje just minutes after he’d substituted Arnth to bring on Miedema, meaning a shift to Evans at right back and McCabe at left back.
Miedema, though, never looked herself, regularly drifting out to either side of the pitch while Mead remained isolated up front. As Arsenal dropped deeper and deeper, City was able to dictate the play more with Stanway dropping deeper off the ball but remaining closer to Parris on the ball than she had in the first half.
But in truth, neither side looked to create much from open play and set pieces certainly looked to be the best option. Arnth and Quinn both headed corners over for Arsenal while Houghton had gotten close in first-half stoppage time, but it was Parris who went closest of all when she looped Weir’s free kick onto the bar with Van Veenendaal in no man’s land.
The Netherlands No. 1 rarely looked comfortable coming for Weir’s dastardly crosses and minutes later, completely flapped at another in-swinging free kick from the Scotland international.
Weir and Wullaert were also clearly playing narrower in the midfield four in the second half, and Weir on several occasions cut out balls from the back and shifted the ball quickly to Stanway in attack, City visibly creating more space for themselves than in the first half.
Janine Beckie’s introduction didn’t spark much of a formation change but the Canadian roamed across the front four, starting on the right before switching to the left as Stanway interchanged with Weir with Arsenal’s legs tiring.
It was Beckie’s running and movement that suddenly looked likeliest to spark a breakthrough; the forward laid a pass off for Weir who was denied by Van Veenendaal before crashing an effort off the crossbar herself in second-half stoppage time.
The introduction of more fresh legs in the form of Lauren Hemp only caused Arsenal to drop deeper and when youngster Amelia Hazard was brought on, the Gunners settled into more of a 4-3-3 in extra time with van de Donk playing deeper to help stem City’s attacks.
In the end, neither side could find the breakthrough despite Walsh and Scott clearly pushing further up the field, almost to the edge of Arsenal’s own box at times as the Gunners looked to counter at any given opportunity, but a combination of solid defending and some sloppy attacking from Cushing’s side saw the game decided on penalties.
In truth, neither side fully got their tactics right, partly down to themselves but also the opposition. Man City were happy to close off Arsenal’s avenues playing out from the back while at times City didn’t deal with Arsenal’s press and were clumsy in possession. But a solid defensive shape from Arsenal was enough to make sure they took the game to penalties, and Cushing will have been delighted with his team’s ability to stay in shape in their own defense to deal with the threat of Miedema, Mead, van de Donk, and Little.