Arsenal’s Joe Montemurro: ‘I’m of Italian descent but I don’t park the bus’

The Arsenal manager knows how to defend but is also pragmatic as he faces Chelsea knowing victory would put his side eight points above the WSL champions

It says something about the standard Arsenal have set in the WSL this season that a Chelsea side that have kept clean sheets in 11 of their opening 12 games and won their last six find themselves five points off the lead, having played a game more than the Gunners, and staring down the barrel of an explosive fixture on Sunday that could derail the champions’ attempts to retain their crown.

The only game in which Chelsea’s opponents have scored was when Arsenal visited Kingsmeadow in October and ran riot, winning 5-0. It was par for the course for Joe Montemurro’s side, whose first six league games this season ended with an outrageously one-sided aggregate scoreline of 31-3, with only West Ham breaching their defence – and they still lost 4-3.

Where Chelsea have failed to shut out their opponents only once, there has been just one occasion when Arsenal have failed to score. While there has been a bit of a defensive drop-off of late, with one clean sheet in their last five WSL fixtures, they have still won four of them.

Arsenal finished third last season, seven points behind Chelsea and one away from Manchester City, and the games between those teams will inevitably have an enormous impact on this year’s table. Chelsea remain in search of their first win in this mini-league, while so far Arsenal have comfortably won one before, like the leaders in the men’s Premier League, finally losing their unbeaten record in Manchester.

The fixture list has been helpful to their cause, however, and by the time City get another chance to claw back some of Arsenal’s advantage, in the final game of the season, it may be too late for it to matter.

“We’ve put ourselves in a very good position,” says Montemurro. “We’re two points clear, we’ve got a game in hand, we’re playing a team that’s five points behind us and the possibility of us going further ahead is a real opportunity for us. One game at a time – I know it’s a cliche but that’s the way we’ve got to approach it. We have enough quality and enough knowledge to solve any problem that’s put at us. Our destiny is in our own hands.”

Joe Montemurro
Joe Montemurro has led Arsenal to the top of the Women’s Super League and victory over Chelsea on Sunday would take his side eight points above the champions. Photograph: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Arsenal’s squad contains three of the division’s top five scorers, all of whom have already claimed more goals than any of their players managed in the entirety of last season. They are led by the absurdly prolific Dutch international striker Vivianne Miedema, who having scored four times in 11 games during her first season in England has got 14 in the same number of appearances this time around.

“There’s no freaks in football,” Montemurro says of this achievement. “There’s planning, there’s the ability to work hard, and obviously there’s confidence. What I try to do is provide players with opportunities where they can express themselves, where they can be the best that they can be.”

Chelsea’s form coming into this game stands in complete contrast to that with which they approached their last meeting with Arsenal. As the Gunners blitzed their way clear at the top, the Blues scored in only one of their first six matches, drawing four of them 0-0.

“Were they prepared for the start of the season? I don’t know,” says Montemurro. “I don’t know how Chelsea prepared. Let’s not kid ourselves here, they’ve got a fantastic squad but the league at the moment is a very tough league. Since we first played them the squads have developed, there are more games under our belts and we’re in different positions now and facing different scenarios.”

The Blues finally discovered their shooting boots in late October, since when they have won six in a row by an aggregate score of 16-0. Not only do they have the best defence in the division, they have just strengthened it by buying the best goalkeeper – Ann-Katrin Berger – from Birmingham. Against a resurgent side, and with a small lead at the top of the table to protect, many coaches would be tempted to defend.

“I’m of Italian descent and Italians know how to defend a lead, but I don’t park the bus,” Montemurro says. “We play our style. We’ll go out there and play how we need to play. Will we adjust a couple of things? Obviously. But it’s about winning, and it’s about winning in our style, and the way we do it.

“We’re always on the front foot, we’ve always got the ball, and if it looks as if we’re leaky in defence we’ve only copped nine goals in the whole league. We’re proactive and when a team takes risks, when a team goes forward, when a team pushes defenders into midfield, maybe there’s going to be one opportunity. That’s the risk we take. But we believe that having the ball and the chances we create outweighs the chances that our opponents will have.”

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It may only be January but the title run-in is in full swing: lose this match and Chelsea will be eight points off the pace with only seven games to play. Sunday represents a chance they cannot afford to miss.