Birmingham City named almost a full squad for their opening home match of 2022, missing only goalkeeper Marie Hourihan. Emily Ramsey took stock between the sticks for this game.
Arsenal were without Lydia Williams, Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord who will be participating in the Asia Cup, as well as Nikita Parris who were not named in the matchday squad. Leah Williamson was absent through injury.
Arsenal’s typical high line got them into trouble very early on as the home side, rather unexpectedly, put themselves ahead just three minutes in through an effort from 20-year-old Libby Smith. After tussling the ball from Vivianne Miedema in her own half, Lucy Quinn slipped a through ball between the highly placed duo of Simone Boye and Jen Beattie. Gathered by Smith, she drove forward to take on Manuela Zinsberger and calmly took her shot, beating Austria’s number one.
Possibly even more surprising was Arsenal’s lack of response, which ultimately allowed Birmingham the opportunity to score a second just before the half time whistle. Once again, stemmed from the midfield, Veatriki Sarri darted forward in possession before passing it out the right to Jamie Finn. Finn put in a decent delivery which bounced off of Smith to fall the feet of Sarri who had continued her run through the middle. Sarri cleverly opened up her body to decoy Zinsberger and sank her effort in the top left corner.
Two nil up and certainly the most comfortable of the two sides, Birmingham still had an arduous task ahead of them to maintain such presence. Arsenal have the capability to turn on its head, and once the floodgates open, they are difficult to close. But the Gunners did no such thing. Almost entirely uncharacteristically, Arsenal created next to nothing in the second half. Poor free-kicks from Katie McCabe and Beth Mead and a booking for dissent for Miedema just about sums up the Gunners’ afternoon.
This is all credit to Birmingham. What the Bluenoses did exceptionally well was to stifle any sort of accurate positive play. Consistently, as Arsenal gathered possession in the middle third, the Bluenoses immediately cut off forward passages of play through tight and compact marking, thus forcing wayward passes and hot-pot shots from the Gunners. In fact, Birmingham did this so well in the first half that Arsenal only registered one shot on target.
Particularly the efforts of Jade Pennock and Sarri made the workings of Arsenal’s midfielder extremely difficult. Their relentless pressure meant the likes of Jordan Nobbs, Mana Iwabuchi and Frida Maanum simply could not find any space or rhythm. The same can be said for centre back Louise Quinn who was the first to any ball that infiltrated her box.
Birmingham also excelled in possession. Although Arsenal saw more of the ball, Birmingham showed far more quality and ambition here. An example of this could easily be seen in the second half when Birmingham countered after Kim Little’s shot was blocked by Gemma Lawley. Unpanicked, Birmingham gained hold of the ball and drove forward directly, making good use of the transition whilst Arsenal were out of shape. In doing this, the Bluenoses forced a 3v3 situation with Arsenal’s trio having to backpedal in order to offer any sort of defence. Although this play did not result in a goal, it clearly shows the divide between a determined Birmingham and a sluggish Arsenal.
The Gunners really did not generate anything in terms of creation. They made little use of their wings and the lack of width played into Birmingham’s hands allowing them to pack out central areas. When Arsenal did stretch play horizontally, the deliveries they mustered were lacklustre with little direction. Similarly, at times when they managed to find any joy around Birmingham’s area, play often remained negative and Arsenal either passed it back or ran it into opponents, a far cry from the quick firing, positively driven style of play Jonas Eidevall has set out to impose.
Undoubtably a deserved win for Birmingham and one that should gift them confidence in this second half of the season. For Arsenal, a stark wake-up call to remind them they cannot sleepwalk through any game. Quite the match for all, one that has shaken up both ends of the table.