Tactics Talk: A not so Super Sunday for Arsenal who were caught in two minds against Chelsea
It may have been the first game of yet another Super Sunday, but Chelsea welcoming Arsenal to Stamford Bridge didn’t quite inspire the usual excitement. The home side were coming off the back of a 2-2 draw with Southampton in midweek in a inconsistent performance which typified how their season so far. Arsenal may have overcome Swansea thanks to a last gasp Jack Wilshere goal in midweek, but they were dismal last weekend in a 2-0 defeat to Manchester City and will have earmarked this one as a must-win for fear of losing more ground on the top four.
Since taking over from Roberto Di Matteo in November, Rafa Benitez hasn’t changed much in the Chelsea formation. What he has done though is instil more defensive responsibility in a side which has lost only 14 goals since his arrival 17 games ago. He began the game with Petr Cech in goals behind a now tried and tested defence of Cesar Azpilicueta, Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill and Ashley Cole. Ramires and Frank Lampard were the sitting midfielders in front of them behind an interchanging attacking trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. Demba Ba has three goals in five appearances since signing from Newcastle United, yet Benitez went with the uninspired Fernando Torres up top who was looking for his first goal in seven. A vote of confidence from his manager, but would the Spaniard deliver?
Arsene Wenger went in to the game devoid of a handful of key players as Lukasz Podolski and Mikel Arteta, both with 20 appearances apiece this term, missed out through injury and the suspended Laurent Koscielny watched on from the sidelines. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal looking for his first clean sheet in seven. Bacary Sagna, Per Mertesacker, Thomas Vermaelen and Kieran Gibbs lined up in a defence which has never lost after starting together. Santi Cazorla was pushed out to the left wing, with Theo Walcott on the right, making way for Francis Coquelin to begin the game in midfield alongside Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere. Olivier Giroud appeared to be up-front alone, but could rely on the support of a pacy Walcott for help.
A first minute penalty call from Chelsea set the tone of the opening exchanges. Although Diaby’s tackle on Oscar went unpunished, the home side came out the traps intent on attacking their opponents who looked lost.
When in possession, Chelsea operated with a 4-2-3-1 as expected. Hazard and Mata provided the width and Oscar was free to roam around a high Torres. Off the ball, Azpilicueta and Cole never ventured far enough forward that they would be caught on the ball and even if they did Hazard, Oscar or Mata would rotate in tracking back to cover or help either full-back. That’s the one major change Benitez has brought to the Chelsea team; where Di Matteo allowed his front four to attack without any defensive worry, the Spaniard demands that the shape of the team comes first and that hasn’t been lost on the Chelsea attackers.
Contrastingly, that responsibility in defence was unclear for Wenger’s team. The opening goal came on five minutes directly from sloppy Arsenal passing in the centre of the park (it won’t be the last time you’ll read that).
Coquelin, normally assured on the ball, ran in to a Ramires-shaped brick wall and although he may have been fouled, there was still plenty for Chelsea to do to capitalise fully on his mistake. His pass went straight to Azplicueta and the full-back found Mata in between Mertesacker and Sagna to hit the net.
The positioning of Sagna and Mertesacker will disappoint Wenger as both appeared to expect Coquelin to keep possession and ignore their basic defensive position. Give Mata a five-yard space to do damage in the box and he’ll probably kill you, but to give him 25 yards of space is suicide and Arsenal went a goal down inside five minutes.
Arsenal’s shape was particularly significant in the first period. Chelsea, apart from the tracking of their widemen, didn’t do anything spectacularly to defend Arsenal’s attack. They remained in a clear shape, but time and again the away side tried to play through the middle before their passes were cut out. Did Arsenal learn their lesson?
Well, Diaby never. Torres robbed him of the ball on 15 minutes and the ball went via Mata to Ramires before the Brazilian was fouled by Szczesny and Chelsea had a penalty to make it 2-0. Lampard safely netted, but why did Diaby not once, but twice, take too many touches before losing the ball in the middle of the park? Why did Sagna feel the need to be so advanced before the ball had crossed the halfway line?
Arsenal were sloppy on the ball in the first half, Chelsea were clinical, and the half-time score perfectly reflected the balance of play.
Two goals down and struggling to break through a resolute defence, Wenger did exactly what he shouldn’t have and kept Arsenal in the same shape. He had to find a way of getting Wilshere and Cazorla – Arsenal’s key creative talents, but who made just 22 passes in the first half – in to the game. Giroud was competing well with Ivanovic and Cahill, yet looked likely to plough the lone furrow again in the second half.
Credit must be given to Wenger though as he obviously had some stern words for his side at half-time. Their 4-3-2-1 was now clearer and it took 12 minutes for the shape to pay off. This time, a pass to Torres was picked off, dropped to Cazorla and with the first real bit of Arsenal quality, the Spaniard found Walcott who burst through on goal to equalise. Cole’s reluctance to track Walcott’s run was poor, but the forward deserves plaudits for what followed.
Chelsea’s tempo dropped. Torres linked up just five times with his midfielders and Wilshere, Cazorla and Coquelin all made more passes in the attacking third by the 70th minute than they had done the whole first half. The Chelsea threat on the counter attack was always there and Arsenal, despite losing two goals to it, always looked susceptible. Ba’s 79th minute introduction only heightened that.
Arsenal’s main problem was their over commitment in attack and Ba had more than one opportunity to exploit the space between each full-back and the centre of defence, especially Sagna to Mertesacker.
A late Arsenal rally was impressive, but Chelsea never really looked like losing an equalising goal. A lunging clearance from Cahill before a Giroud header over the bar proved it wasn’t to be the away side’s day. Chelsea ended up with a wholly efficient performance and if they’d lost to such a Jekyll and Hyde display from Arsenal then it would have been very unfair..
Although unfairly lamenting the officials and the significance of an early Giroud chance, Arsene Wenger got the main reason for the result post-match: “First half, we didn’t play at our usual pace and were in between two – do we attack do we defend and we gave them too much room to play.”
Chelsea made the most of early mistakes and no-one is to blame but Arsenal. Benitez, as always, came with a clear game plan and stifling their opponents before countering with their attacking quality will win them plenty more points over the remainder of the season.
For Wenger it’s back to North London to lick his wounds over yet another defeat on a not-so Super Sunday at Stamford Bridge for Arsenal.Tagged in: Arsenal, chelsea, football, Tactics Talk
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