There’s been much talk about how this season’s title race is the most open in recent history. Having said that, Arsenal had maintained a healthy lead at the summit for large portions of the season that is until a couple of weeks back. They’d hit a mini blip in form with a draw against Everton followed by a loss against fellow challengers City and of course a loss against Napoli in between. This allowed the chasing pack, one which Mourinho’s Blues are prominently present in, to catch up. Last night’s game presented an opportunity to both Arsenal and Chelsea to further press their claims of Champion-in-waiting.
Arsenal: Sczcesny; Sagna; Mertesacker; Vermaelen; Gibbs; Arteta; Ramsey; Walcott; Ozil; Rosicky; Giroud.
Chelsea: Cech; Ivanovic; Cahill; Terry; Azpilicueta; Mikel; Ramires; Lampard; Willian (Oscar, 77); Torres (D. Luiz, 87); Hazard (Schurrle, 73)
Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea
Arsenal’s positional fluidity in the first half
It wouldn’t be a tactical analysis of an Arsenal game on Outside of the Boot, without mentioning the fluidity that is so regularly shown by Arsene Wenger’s charges. Yesterday’s variety was a bit different though. Aaron Ramsey is the Gunners’ top scorer thus far this season with the red-hot Welshman embarrassing his vocal critics from last season. Thus, although on paper he started alongside Arteta in the 2 man pivot preferred by so many sides these days, it was a common sight to see him pushing forward and playing as a second striker on numerous occasions. This meant that one of the attacking midfielders had to step into a deeper role to provide support to Arteta and help to build attacks. This was crucial as they were faced with a stubborn Chelsea defence who were happy to stay narrow and let Arsenal play in front of them. In the 1st half it was Mesut Ozil who was tasked with playing this role.
Half time though saw a rejig with Walcott starting the 2nd half on the left and Ozil playing further up the pitch. This meant that when in possession it was Rosicky who came deep more often than not and tried to initiate attacks. Walcott’s positional switch was a temporary one with him switching back on to the right early in the 2nd half. Thus Ramsey, Rosicky and Ozil all had revolving roles with constant interchange between the 3 a marked feature of the game. As admirable as the fluidity was, at the end of the day it was futile as they couldn’t play their way through a packed defence.
Chelsea’s Defensive Positional Discipline
Mourinho’s tactics of drawing the big away games while winning the home fixtures was the mind frame behind the way the Chelsea squad were set up.
Arsenal have exhibited some exquisite football down the middle channel this season and Mourinho saw it fit best that he block the Arsenal attack from the middle and be more than happy to let them play wide. Lampard and Mikel were deployed right in front of the Chelsea back four to provide cover. The inexhaustible Ramires was positioned such that he would be able to provide a massive defensive shift to help out in the middle of the park as well as being available on the counters. With this tight 3 man cover for the back four, Arsenal were unable to play their hallmark passing game down the central channel. Throughout the game, the Arsenal midfield hit a wall of Blue was they tried to probe into the Chelsea penalty area, unable to play their triangles and get the passes going.
With Arsenal having the ball out wide more often than not, it forced them to cross the ball which proved unsuccessful (4 successful crosses out of 24 attempted). Another testimony to the way Arsenal were unable to slip through the Chelsea defence was that Arsenal barely had a decent shot on target until Giroud’s chance very late in the game.
Chelsea Pressure High Up Field
With their defensive organisation already mentioned above, Mourinho’s men took it one step further as a safety measure to close down Arsenal’s attack very high up the pitch. Tactically, this was ingenious by Mourinho. If Arsenal’s attack were to be nullified high up the pitch, this would put less pressure on the defensive four and in addition to this, if they were able to retrieve the ball that far up the pitch, the Blues would be able to commit a lot more men to their attack. From a defensive standpoint, this incessant pressure high up the field behaved as a security measure. If, by chance, Chelsea were to let Arsenal slip past them, they would still have a good amount of ground to recover before the Arsenal players were anywhere near their goal. Had it been such that the pressure was applied in their own third, it would take all but a second’s lapse in concentration for Arsenal to be within striking distance of Chelsea’s goal.
Arsenal’s overlapping fullbacks
Arsenal’s left flank was left bare with both Ozil and Rosicky occupying more central roles as enumerated above. This meant that Gibbs saw a lot of the ball on that flank in an attacking capacity. In contrast to his teammates, Walcott had more of a fixed role on the right (except for his brief stint on the left). Although the role he played was far from a traditional right winger. Instead he played in the right channel trying to exploit space between the centre half and left back while using his pace to try and get behind the defence with well timed diagonal runs in-field. This meant that like Gibbs, Sagna had space to run into and join the attack. However, neither could affect the game enough to manufacture an opening on the night.
Arsenal’s susceptibility to the counter
Chelsea were set up to play on the counter and did just that on numerous occasions. In Lampard and Ramires they had willing runners from deep who could join in with the attack. From an Arsenal point of view, we’ve seen that both full backs pushed high up on the pitch. Couple this with the fact that one of Rosicky or Ozil occupied deep positions when Ramsey bypassed them. Ozil and Rosicky are wonderful players but defensive nous is not one of their fortes. This left Arteta with too much to do when Chelsea transitoned quickly. With either full back up front, Arsenal’s defence as a unit was stretched on multiple occasions. Arteta then had to contend with multiple runners from deep, an imposing task even for Spaniard. Arsenal will be thankful for the Chelsea attack’s seasonal goodwill which let them off the hook.
Although Arsenal would have loved to be on top of the Barclays Premier League on Christmas Day, this result shouldn’t be disheartening to them. Currently level on points with Liverpool, Arsenal fans have every right to believe that this season could be theirs for the taking. On a contrasting note, this draw also spells 4 games without a win for Wenger’s men, something that would not do the confidence any good.
As for Chelsea, this was yet another game where an out and out striker had failed to score in an away fixture. Chelsea proved that they can be extremely well organised defensively, a tactic that won them the Champions League but in the Premier League, they need to make sure the goals start coming, strong and steady.
This article was written by Arnab Ray and Razim Refai
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