It’s hard not to enjoy any time spent with Manuela Zinsberger. One of Arsenal’s bubbliest characters – across both men and women’s teams – she speaks with passion, personality and expression on any question put to her.
To top things off, she is having one of the best spells of her career, stretching back to the start of last season. Thirteen clean sheets in the Women’s Super League saw her clinch the Golden Glove for the 2021/22 campaign, before setting a new league record when she kept 10 successive clean sheets this calendar year.
However, Zinsberger is at pains to point out that anything related to clean sheets is not only down to her, but the entire team playing their part. Putting the team first is something she continually refers to during the interview.
Ahead of Arsenal’s match against Manchester United live on Sky Sports, the 27-year-old said: “At the moment I got the Golden Glove, we figured out we hadn’t won the title. How would you celebrate?
“At the end, it’s a really great achievement of an individual, but I don’t take it as an individual award because it doesn’t mean if I am getting a clean sheet, I have saved all the balls. No, you have to imagine that my 10 players in front of me are keeping the ball as far as possible so it’s actually a team achievement.
“It may be my name underneath it, but for me, it’s totally a team achievement. It’s how they put their bodies between the ball and the goal to defend as a unit and as Arsenal, you can see the passion.
“At the end, the more clean sheets you have, the possibility keeps improving to win the title and that’s where we want to go. If I have the title and not the Golden Glove, I’ve done everything right.
“Of course, I want to keep the clean sheet as often as possible. But we are there to win the big trophies and the little ones, they are part of the personality of the club as well. But we want to win the big ones and if we add on the little ones, we nailed it.”
But a clean-sheet record is just the tip of the iceberg for Arsenal this season. They currently sit top of the WSL – level on points with Chelsea, but with a game in hand – and have set a new record for record consecutive league victories. They have won each of their last 14 games.
“It’s an incredible team achievement,” Zinsberger reflected. “Everyone thinks about scoring goals, but first of all, keep the zero, be compact.
“It’s so much about little things and I think with injuries and so on, you have to compromise so many things, but we have to put the team first and that’s the most important thing.
“How we defend on the pitch is like putting our passion in it and how we score, there are so many different ones. It’s not only one [scorer], it’s the team and that’s what I love to see. We score as a team and we defend as a team.
“It’s about the little things, like your running back, and also in the 80th minute, to try and defend even when you’re leading 4-0. It’s about taking the last whistle of the ref, then you can take a deep breath and relax.
“But before that, we are putting everything in for Arsenal and that’s what I love to see and hopefully, we can keep progressing in the next couple of games.”
One of Arsenal’s standout performances this season actually came in the Champions League, when they beat eight-time winners Lyon 5-1 in their first group-stage match – a landmark victory that came on Zinsberger’s 27th birthday.
She said: “I was shocked in a positive way. I was always believing in us, I knew it would be possible, but it would be tough against Lyon, who are such a great team.
“Just seeing the performance of the team progressing from minute to minute then scoring one, scoring two, then conceding one but still keep going. It didn’t impress us that they scored. We knew they were going to be brilliant at corners and free-kicks – they have such tall women in their team, of course they’re going to be good. But just watching the team push forward, but still defending with all we have was amazing.
“It was my birthday as well and Caitlin Foord, I have her jersey. She wears the No 19 and it was on October 19 and she scored the opening goal. Suddenly, in the game, I thought ‘that’s it’ – not in the way that we should stop, but to keep going [after the first goal].
“So my birthday was hilarious, I couldn’t imagine winning 5-1 at Lyon.”
From outfield talent to goalkeeper
It’s not just Arsenal where Zinsberger shines. She is also No 1 for Austria, where she grew up in a small village ‘of around 350 people’, she estimates.
Actually, the 27-year-old followed in the footsteps of her dad, who also played as a goalkeeper – apologising to him after joking that he was not as good as she is. Like female footballers in the UK, she grew up playing with boys in Austria, and a lack of goalkeeper on her team as a youngster saw her rotate into the position.
However, it did not prove to be a popular choice with her parents, although they have of course since become her biggest supporters and cheerleaders.
“I found out about my talent with football quite late, I was an outfield player at the beginning,” she recalled.
“I most likely played with boys, kicking a ball around in a small village and just having fun. Once, we were just playing on a soccer field and one of the mums said they had to leave for training and I was left out.
“She said ‘why are you not joining? Come with me, have a look and if you want to try it out, you can’. When we arrived there, the boys started practising and I was sitting with the mum on the bench and she said ‘are you not interested to just try it out’ and I wanted to.
“After the training session, I had my little piece of paper [consent form] which you need to sign. My mum was not happy about it because she had two girls and one was playing football. But at the end, she was happy that I’d done it and she signed the paper.
“I was an outfield player until I was nine and then the goalkeeper had to leave the club because of his parents’ job so the coach said ‘if no one is in goal, we can’t play’. So at the beginning, we just swapped so I went in goal and then I started to like it. I liked the balance between being the hero and being the ‘boo man’ or ‘boo woman’.
“My dad wasn’t happy about it, he said ‘you have so much talent being an outfield player’. Then we had a small test on the asphalt, and we stood face to face and he said ‘fall on your right side’ and I did it because your dad is saying it.
“There was no grass and I stood up and then did it on the other side. Then he was like ‘OK, I’m fine, you can be a goalkeeper’.
“I was running to my mum saying ‘dad is going crazy, I had to fall down with no grass and I had no protection’ and she asked him what he was doing. He said ‘I was making sure she was falling in the right way otherwise she’s going to get hurt and that’s definitely what we do not want to happen’.
“Since that time, he’s been the best supporter and the best family I could ever imagine to have.”
Presence on the pitch and improving at Arsenal
Now in her fourth season at Arsenal, Zinsberger is proving to be one of the best goalkeepers in the WSL. She feels that her calming presence behind the defence can help them do their job, and despite vast development since arriving from Bayern Munich in 2019, is still targeting improvements.
“It’s about my presence on the pitch,” Zinsberger said. “I’m giving the team calmness, I communicate with my defence as much as possible, how do we go on goal kicks, taking responsibility, trying to step up in hard situations in the game, like taking crosses. There, you can show in actions that you are taking responsibility.
“I have grown and sometimes I’m a quiet leader and not talking that much, sometimes I’m just trying to read my players and figure out how they are doing and what we can take out of any situation.
“I think it’s also about my footwork. I’m trying to be active and help them, I’m not trying to hide myself, I’m there like ‘you need me, I need you so we have to keep working together’, so I think it’s a mix of all of them. You need a real presence behind the team so they don’t have to look back, they know they have a strong goalkeeper without even looking. That is what I’ve shown to them in the last few years and the team needs someone they can trust without looking.
“When I joined Arsenal, I didn’t even think about how much potential was left in myself. It’s not even about being a football player on the pitch, it’s also about the physical part, the psychology part, the personality, the mental health, the nutrition.
“I made a plan for myself of how do I get better as quickly as possible, but still being patient. So I took my boxes and had one for ‘football’, ‘mental health and ‘nutrition’ and got better and that made me the person I am today.
“It’s been incredible and I’m really happy with how my development has gone at Arsenal, but I’m still trying to work hard and I’m not done. I want to go until the end with Arsenal and we will see at the end of the season how my fourth year has been and we can summarise it in a better way.
“Other than that, I’m quite satisfied – could have won more titles, but at least I got one, but at the end of the season, I might have another one.”
When I joined Arsenal, I didn’t even think about how much potential was left in myself. It’s not even about being a football player on the pitch, it’s also about the physical part, the psychology part, the personality, the mental health, the nutrition.
‘I love the Emirates Stadium’
This weekend sees Arsenal return to the Emirates Stadium as they take on Manchester United in the WSL, live on Sky Sports. The club’s hierarchy is making a concerted effort to play more women’s games at the men’s ground – all of their Champions League group games are being played at the Emirates.
For Zinsberger, she enjoys any opportunity to visit the impressive stadium, saying: “I love the Emirates Stadium. I love it. I really love watching [football] there and also playing on the pitch.
“It’s still mind-blowing. I could never have imagined I would play at the Emirates. It’s still a great achievement and a great appreciation of the club as well that we can keep pushing the women’s game forward so we can play as many games as possible at the Emirates.
“The atmosphere is great when it’s filled up with fans and having the 12th player on the pitch. I can’t wait to play on the pitch again and more often.”
I love the Emirates Stadium. I love it. I really love watching [football] there and also playing on the pitch.
Man Utd have kept pace with the Gunners for much of the season, although defeat to Chelsea before the international break sees them sit three points behind in third place. Man Utd will have a point to prove as they look to be true title contenders this season, and Zinsberger is not underestimating the challenge.
“They have done great since the beginning of the season,” she said of this weekend’s opponents. “Never underestimate Manchester United, the whole team, it’s impressive what they have achieved, how they work against the ball, with the ball.
“Mary Earps, she has kept as many clean sheets as I have and she is having a great performance since the Euros, and also before, plus the team has done great. It’ll be a really good game at the Emirates, and it’s pushing the women’s game forward.
“But I don’t want to focus too much on Man United. I’m not going to underestimate them, but it’s about us. I can’t influence Man United, I can only influence my part in the game, with the team, but also as individuals.
“So we have to work hard, putting our [Arsenal] badge in front and saying we are working together, doing our things right and if we’re doing that, Man Utd are going to be tough. But if we are doing our things right, hopefully I can keep a clean sheet and we are going to win the game, but it definitely won’t be easy.
“But this is the game you are waiting for and especially having it at Emirates, it makes it such a great environment. It’s a great atmosphere, so many fans can come and watch and it’s the next step of keeping women’s football going. It’s a great game on Saturday and everyone should come and watch!”