Women's Sport: Joe Montemurro's small squad philosophy - a matter of quality or quantity?

W-League Rd 4 - Sydney v Melbourne

Into his third year as Arsenal manager, it's no secret that Joe Montemurro has a preference for working with a small squad.

In fact, it's a reoccurring theme that Montemurro won't even name a full bench for match days, a select bench that is generally likely to include at least one or two academy players. 

Arsenal's home game against Chelsea felt like a clear indication of a gulf in class, particularly in terms of squad depth. But it was the tactics and game plan from the Arsenal POV which set them up for a four-goal hammering from Hayes' side. Montemurro himself admitted post-game that he 'got it wrong', but other than Lisa Evans and a somewhat out-of-form Beth Mead, Arsenal didn’t really have a lot to turn to on the bench to spark a miracle comeback.

But is this a matter of squad depth or squad quality?

Unpacking the philosophy

Montemurro opened up on his preference to work with a small squad a few months into the season, in an interview with Arseblog.

"I like working with smaller squads because you can give greater care to players and really develop them into your style and into your plan for the team," he said.

Continuing on, he explains: "If you’ve got 26 players, the reality is that someone becomes player 26 and they know player 25 has to get injured before they even have a chance of seeing the matchday squad."

One thing that Montemurro deserves credit for is his gentle rotation of his starting XI, while wholesale changes aren't all that regular there are still subtle changes that transcends beyond his use of the squad being merely black and white. And, honestly, there's sense in his logic. As a manager who aims to work closely with his players in a bid to not only keep them engaged with the club, but also mould them into players that fit into his squad with ease, it's easy to understand why he wants to work with a smaller squad than most.

The Australian is very self-assured in his approach and knows exactly what he wants and needs from a squad - evidently regarding the value of quality over quantity above all else. But, as we saw in the game against fellow title-chasers Chelsea, that quality isn't always necessarily there for Arsenal and when the manager gets it wrong tactically, not even the quality that is there could dig them out of a thrashing on their home turf. 

Arsenal Women v Manchester United Women  - FA WSL Cup

Quality versus quantity

The aforementioned subtle changes prove that squad depth isn't always necessarily the issue - although making no changes in the latest league game against City doesn't bode well for that - it's arguably as big of an issue that the squad isn't stacked with quality.

Out of the 11 players Montemurro has signed for the club, it can be argued that only one has had a significant impact on his side - and that's Lia Wälti. For some, however, the jury is still out - including the likes of Jill Roord, Manuela Zinsberger and Leonie Maier.

Attacking midfielder Jill Roord made the switch to London in the summer, signing from Bayern – where she netted 14 times in 36 appearances. The start of her Arsenal career seemed promising, netting a hat-trick in a 6-0 thumping of rivals Spurs. But other than that, her debut season in the WSL hasn't been as exciting as some would hope. With Montemurro's desire for versatility, he often rotates his midfield and that can lead to Roord playing as a defensive midfielder - a position completely unnatural to her and it shows, particularly with the fact the 22-year-old will be suspended for Arsenal's next game after picking up her fifth yellow card in just 14 games last time out. 

Perhaps the signing of a back-up defensive midfielder could have proved useful, particularly when it comes to squad rotation. However, just the one winter signing was enough for Montemurro. The January signing of Australian international Caitlin Foord will eventually add much-needed depth to the squad while giving an extra option going forward. But it feels more like signing with one eye on next season given that, due to Olympic Qualifiers with Australia, she's still not available for selection and has missed crucial league games against Chelsea and City which, with two losses, looks to have put Arsenal out of the title race.

Last year’s title win seems even more impressive when you consider the injury crisis Arsenal were hit with, including key players like Jordan Nobbs and Wälti suffering long-term injuries. For the former, this season hasn’t been plain sailing following on from an ACL injury that left her on the sidelines until the start of this campaign. Back in the squad, Nobbs is gradually finding her way back to form but, as is the case with ACL injuries, it can take time. The problem for Arsenal, however, is that while this is happening, they don’t have the type of quality as a back-up option that offers the same qualities that make Nobbs indispensable for them. They’re certainly not short of talented options in the middle of the park, but with each player offering different attributes, no one quite substitutes for Nobbs’ tenacity, reading of the game and ability to occupy pockets of space that allows her to pick passes others may not even see. 

Arsenal Women v Reading Women - FA Women's Continental League Cup: Quarter-Final

Competition stress

While City may have put an inconvenient dent in Arsenal’s title hopes, it was Montemurro’s side who earned a place in the Continental Cup final in the midweek prior to the league clash. This means Arsenal remain in four competitions this season – the FA Cup, Conti Cup, the Champions League alongside the league, even if the title seems out of reach the battle for top two is still very much on.

It would be an insult to suggest that professional athletes aren’t able to cope with this – it’s what they train and work towards, but it’s not out of touch to know that even the best athlete’s need a break sometimes – especially if it is getting to the point where teams are playing three games within a week.

If we look back to the league tie against City last weekend, due to Wälti and Little being out, Arsenal’s bench essentially consisted of two defenders, a goalkeeper and three academy kids – it’s unsurprising that Montemurro didn’t opt to make a single sub. But even in spite of minor changes, for the players who are on their third game in eight days, the brunt of the previous two can soon catch up at any point in the form of fatigue or worse, an injury. 

Arsenal Women v Tottenham Hotspur Women - Pre Season Friendly

The absence of Wälti and Little has been chalked down to ‘managing their load’, but should it be more serious than initially thought it could result in Arsenal being left with a smaller squad than they already have. A small squad of players who, this season, have been largely inconsistent - Leah Williamson is not included in this narrative – doesn’t exactly seem promising across four competitions.

On the topic of Leah Williamson, she's been Arsenal's only genuinely consistent player across this season with top drawer performances week-in-week-out. Of course, the likes of Miedema, Little, Van de Donk and so on are exceptional on their day, but a certain lack of consistency has shown on more than one occasion. Williamson, on the other hand, has proved herself to be one of the best in her position, somehow bettering what was a first-class campaign last year.

However, to Arsenal and Montemurro’s credit, we saw at the start of the season that even when they’re not performing at their very best, they’re still able to grind out results.

Ultimately, while the debate between squad depth and squad quality will continue long into Montemurro’s tenure at Arsenal, football remains a game of fine margins. Small differences. Even luck, sometimes. All of which Arsenal have had their fair share of, but in key games against their title rivals it just hasn’t fallen in their favour.

Squad depth as is hasn’t been a glaringly obvious issue this season just yet, but it will be interesting to see how Montemurro navigates the remainder of the season across all competitions, even more so should Arsenal suffer any significant losses to injuries once again.

Montemurro often refers to his preference of working with a small squad as a ‘risk’, one which has shown to pay off in the form of a title win and Champions League qualification – but it remains to be seen just how far it can take this Arsenal side, especially when they’re playing catch up with teams around them both in the league and across Europe who invest in quality and quantity.

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