For the second season in a row, the Liverpool FC Women knocked off a title contender in the opening match of the season. It was probably even more impressive when the Reds defeated Arsenal on Sunday as manager Matt Beard revealed after the match that quite of few players and staff had been dealing with illness throughout the week, causing two players and his assistant manager to miss the match completely.
It’s been a tough week, for sure. I just think if you share the togetherness of the group today, even my assistant Amber fell ill last night and just the way the week has been, you just didn’t know what was going to happen. We lost Jas and Yana on Friday, Saturday, obviously Flinty had been ill with COVID, Taylor was ill with COVID and Sophie’s obviously [got] a nose and face fracture. It’s been a challenging week and a great end to it.
Despite being shorthanded and having to play a more makeshift lineup than he would like, Beard was very pleased with the performance of the players on the pitch. Facing and Arsenal side littered with premier attacking talent, his Liverpool side limited the Gunners to very few clear looks at goal. When a shot did sneak through, goalkeeper Rachael Laws was always on hand to knock it away.
I think defensively we were outstanding today. I think people will say, ‘You were lucky.’ We weren’t. We defended, we put our bodies on the line, we made great saves when we needed to. I was really pleased with that. I think Lawsy was outstanding today. She’s had such a good pre-season and I think that showed today.
Beard revealed that his side had set tactics to handle a back three of Arsenal by gumming up the middle of the pitch and forcing them wide early. His central defenders and midfielders did brilliantly to handle the crosses that did come into the box.
No, not really. Because even if they’re playing a back four, they build with three anyway. We had planned for dealing with a back three or them dropping a full-back just to create the overload. We just wanted to make sure that we dominated centrally because they like to get it into midfield, get it back [and] then go round you. We stopped that happening. They had to go wide, [we] forced them into the turnover every now and then. As I say, defensively – crosses, blocking shots, Lawsy’s making saves when she needed to – I thought we were outstanding. I think we really restricted them to crosses coming in and shots from distance.
Another tactical tweak at the half helped Liverpool become more aggressive going forward. Beard said he had wingback Taylor Hinds push further forward to give better spacing to beat Arsenal’s aggressive press.
We changed that at half-time really. I felt we started slowly and it reminded me a little bit of last year. We weren’t getting into positions that we should be getting into. We were hesitant with the movement because Arsenal press you with a lot of players. We did it really well in training on Saturday but training’s different to matchday. If you look at the way we started the second half, the goal came from the way that we broke their press. Once their press is broken, that’s six, seven players out of the game. We wanted to stretch them, we wanted to drop the centre-backs a little bit deeper because they do press so high and it gives us a bit more space to try to get Fuka or Gemma on the ball in the middle. From that side, we were pleased with how it worked, especially at the start of the second half.
With his side leading by a slim 1-0 margin as the clock ticked towards the 90 minute mark, Matt Beard saw the fourth official hold up 10 minutes of extra time for various stoppages. With a group of subs on, with a few playing in spots not the most familiar to them, Liverpool kept their composure. Beard said that the squad worked on just these situations during preseason.
We do a lot of work tactically, a lot that goes into pre-season. What we have tried to do this year is try to make it a little bit simpler and consistent. We had a nightmare second half of the season last year with the injuries. I remember planning for one game and the team changed three times; it was actually when we played Arsenal away, then we ended up having to change the system.
We have done a lot of work on defensive distances, defending crosses, because that’s where the majority of goals come from in the Super League. We looked at last season, we looked at the statistics, we looked at where do the goals come from? We looked at goalkeepers’ positioning, were they set, were they not set? We have done a lot of work on one, to stop conceding goals – but then two, how to score goals. There was a bit of a shift last year in goals coming from open play. We wanted to make sure we give ourselves the best possible chance of winning games. We have done a lot of work on that to make sure that we win games.
His team staying calm was even more impressive when the record crowd is taken into account. A WSL record 54,115 fans were on hand to see Liverpool pip Arsenal. While Beard was happy to see such a good crowd, he was even more happy to spoil the party.
I think if you look even when we don’t play in the main stadiums, the attendance has increased anyway. It was a great atmosphere today… my throat doesn’t think so! But it was a great atmosphere, it really was. It just goes from strength to strength, doesn’t it? I think if you’re an Arsenal fan today you think, ‘How have we not got anything out of that game?’ But I know how hard we’ve worked to stop them playing, because they’re a world-class team. It was fantastic, it was a great atmosphere and I’m just glad we spoiled the party!
With the huge opening day win behind them, Beard feels his side is in a better place this season to have a more consistent opening quarter to the season than last year when the Reds beat Chelsea but lost their next five. An improved squad and more experience in the WSL are two of the keys for why the Liverpool manager believes his squad will be more consistent this time around.
I think we’ve got a better squad this time around. We have got the experience of last year. If I go back to the Anfield game, we froze. But we played at Anfield, Goodison Park, Villa Park. So, coming here, obviously it’s a fantastic stadium and it’s a record crowd today, but we have got the experience of last year which we didn’t have before. The thing is, it’s one game. We beat Chelsea last year and everyone was raving about it and then we went on a run without winning for four. For me, it’s just important we take it game by game, we keep our feet on the ground. It was great to celebrate with our fans today. I like the way they’ve segregated it now because I think that’s going to make for better atmospheres in stadiums.