Jonas Eidevall is perhaps one of very few managers who can say they took a step up by leaving a coaching role in the men’s game for one with a women’s club. When the Swede was in charge of the semi-professional men’s team Lunds BK, who he helped into the third tier, he was juggling the job with full-time work in a bank.
“It was good money but I had no life and I was also very limited in the time that I could spend preparing for the next training session or the next game,” the Arsenal Women manager says. It is testament to the strength and ambitions of the women’s team Malmö (now Rosengård) that he found a place there to coach professionally, initially as an assistant before two spells managing the club.
Last summer Eidevall took his next big step, when chosen to replace Joe Montemurro at Arsenal. They were the non-Swedish team he supported as a boy. Why?
“Why does anyone start to follow a club? It happens for the simplest of reasons: I liked Anders Limpar as a player, I liked the crest, I liked the way I felt when I saw the team playing and from then on it was a love that grew. ”
In his first season in north London, the 39-year-old has been searching for the smallest changes that will have the biggest impact.
“You can’t change too much, because players need to handle the information and be able to act on it,” he says. “But even if you just change the smallest of details, that can make a huge difference to the outcome. Football is a dynamic system, so the butterfly effect is in play all the time. If you change a small detail and that leads to a different feeling on the pitch, then that leads to a better self-confidence, which means you take one step towards a situation instead of one step back. Then, all of a sudden, you started a process that grows and grows and the team grows and grows. ”
At the start of the season the small changes worked. Eidevall had not had his team for a full pre-season, with many players competing at the Olympics and Champions League qualifiers preceding the domestic campaign, yet Arsenal burst out of the blocks in style.
In December, though, things started to unravel. After the international break they suffered a bruising 3-0 defeat in the delayed 2020-21 FA Cup final to Chelsea. “We could barely recognize ourselves in that game,” says Eidevall. “It’s not us playing the game, which hurts.”
Then they were outplayed by the European champions, Barcelona, at the Emirates. “First half, before they score, I think it’s hard to see another team that has been more solid against Barcelona than we were there. Then we give them a goal for free – you can’t do that against Barcelona – but it was a performance on a totally different scale to Chelsea. So, you feel like you’re building. ”
A 4-0 win at home to Leicester followed but a collapse against Hoffenheim saw Arsenal lose 4-1 but still progress to the Champions League knockout stage. “Most of the time when you’re losing you want to attack but we actually still had a result that sent us through, so it was about not exposing ourselves to unnecessary risks. So, for me, these were all such different games. ”
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After the winter break, a shock 2-0 defeat at Birmingham City was followed by a 1-0 loss to Manchester United in the League Cup. Eidevall is frustrated by the postponement of games in the new year that he feels disadvantaged his side.
Considering Arsenal had 24 days between their final match in December and their first in January and played on with four players at the Asian Cup, Chelsea had a 33-day gap, two players away at the Asian Cup and played one game less without them after their match against Tottenham was postponed because of Covid and injuries. Eidevall sees a problem in the way postponements were handled.
“I was angry at that time because there was zero transparency in the league,” he says. “I do not understand what happened in January. I know we went in and had the intention all season that we wanted to play games. Other clubs seemed to have had other intentions. For me, in order for the league to develop and be more professional, it clearly has to be very transparent. If you don’t play a game, why don’t you play the game? In the end, rules are there to be followed for the teams to be treated equally. ”
On Friday Eidevall was explicit in his accusations regarding Chelsea. “I didn’t focus on Chelsea when they were rearranging all their fixtures out of January so that Sam Kerr didn’t have to miss any games because of the Asia Cup. I don’t focus on them now either. And just focus on Arsenal. ”
Eidevall has learned a lot about his team. “We played Chelsea four times, we played Man City twice, Barcelona twice and Wolfsburg twice. Of course, sometimes you’re going to lose those games but the only way to reach that level and to be consistent is to play them. Otherwise, you just go around thinking about what you might be capable of. You play those games and you find out reality and then you work with that. It’s so clear for us now; we see which gaps we need to bridge. I think that, in essence, is a success for us, understanding where we’re at and where we need to go in order to take the next step. ”
Arsenal sit four points behind Chelsea with a game in hand and the title fight will likely go to the wire, with Chelsea hosting Manchester United while Arsenal travel to West Ham on the final day. On Sunday Eidevall’s side are at home to Aston Villa.
The integration of players, coping with the comings and goings caused by the Asian Cup and an unwillingness to give up despite the defeats will be successes Arsenal reflect on whether or not they win the league.
“We could find many excuses in January to stop working but we didn’t, we kept going and we’re here, three games to go, four points behind,” Eidevall says. “If somebody would have said before the season that you would be playing for the championship with three games to go, I think we would have said that’s a success.”
Another highlight has been the club’s determination to make the women’s team feel at home playing at the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal host Tottenham on Wednesday in the season’s fourth fixture at the ground. Does putting on a good show matter more when playing in front of bigger crowds?
“We played against Barcelona there and we didn’t get any results at all out of that game but they’re behind us for every second of it,” Eidevall says. “They saw how hard the players were fighting on the pitch trying to do the gameplan. If you feel like you are entitled to the team winning and you can boo the team when they’re not winning then don’t bother coming; that’s not supporters for me. You’re a supporter when you give everything for the team. It’s what we do together that matters. ”