The Premier League title race was all but over coming into this match but the fact that it is a rivalry meant that there was nothing missing for anyone watching. Bragging rights were at stake, and Arsenal, led by Arsene Wenger, were hungry to end the 12 match undefeated streak that Jose Mourinho had against them.
Coming into the game, Chelsea struggled a little in the striker department. With Didier Drogba, Diego Costa, and Loic Remy all injured, many expected the youngster Dom Solanke to start, but instead, Chelsea began the game with 6 midfielders, with Hazard expected to play as a forward. Arsenal had no real problems coming into the game, and started at full strength. In fact, it was one of the rare occasions we might be able to say that Arsenal’s bench looked more star studded than their rich opponents’.
Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea
Arsenal: 13. Ospina; 39. Bellerin; 4. Mertesacker; 6. Koscielny; 18. Monreal; 34. Coquelin; 19. Cazorla; 11. Ozil; 16. Ramsey; 17. Alexis; 12. Giroud.
Chelsea: 13. Courtois; 2. Ivanovic; 24. Cahill; 26. Terry; 28. Azpilicueta; 21. Matic; 7. Ramires; 4. Cesc; 22. Willian; 8. Oscar; 10. Hazard.
With the lack of a true striker available to Chelsea, because of the various injuries that struck the trio of Costa, Remy, and Drogba down, the talk in the press was about how Hazard might just start as a False 9. A lot of speculation went into the specifics of Chelsea’s predicted formation, and where the personnel would line up. Unfortunately for a lot of neutrals, Chelsea lined up in exactly the same way they always do. The 4-2-3-1 was unchanged, with Oscar starting up front as the striker. The athleticism of the player, coupled with his work rate made him the choice starter there. Another, slightly less surprising, decision was Ramires starting on the right wing, with Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic forming the pivot.
Blocking the middle
As they did against Liverpool, Arsenal were quite keen to stop Chelsea playing through the middle. Generally, Arsenal are looked at as a slightly poor side defensively but they’ve really improved themselves of late. Perhaps Steve Bould has to be credited for this, and of course the spirit of the Arsenal players, for having the determination to set this right.
As you can see in the image above, there isn’t a single pass that Chelsea have managed to play straight into midfield. In fact, passing out from the back in general was very difficult for Chelsea. Too often, they were relying on Thibaut Courtois kicking it out, and this made it very easy for Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny at times.
The image above shows how the Arsenal forwards made it difficult for Chelsea to get the ball to their ‘No. 10’. Even if Willian does manage to reach the ball in this case, it’s nearly impossible for him to retain it, as there are 2 players there to put pressure on him immediately.
Higher up the pitch, Arsenal were looking to stop Chelsea getting the ball through the middle of the pitch. They did so by having their forward players push up, and block the inside passing lanes. A front 4 of sorts, worked to cover the passes that could potentially be made to the likes of Matic and Fabregas. As a result, Matic’s primary contribution on the night was defensive. He made just 49 passes, at 75%, and defensively, had 3 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 6 blocks. Fabregas did roam around and look for space but very rarely did he manage to make his influence felt. While he did get in behind the initial Arsenal press, he hardly received the ball in ideal positions. When he did, there was a touch of ‘deer in the headlights’ about his play, as he was unable to pick out the correct pass on a number of occasions. Too often, one found him shooting, or turning into traffic when a better option was quite clearly available.
In the back of the midfield, the one man engine room, ‘Le Coq’ was doing very well. The midfielder did an excellent job of breaking up play, with more than one good foul conceded. He was also a monster on the second ball, with the likes of Willian, Hazard and Oscar never having a sniff of anything. 5 interceptions over the time he had on the pitch is a great job. While Hazard (the key man according to Wenger’s pre-match words) was neutralised on the left by the pacy Bellerin, he couldn’t really hurt Arsenal in the middle either, thanks largely to the good work from Coquelin and Koscielny.
Chelsea playing it in behind
With Arsenal doing so well to neutralise the Chelsea attacking threat, thanks to the pressing, and the absence of a genuine striker, Chelsea were a bit bereft of options and ideas at the sharp end of the pitch. Usually, the Blues look to Eden Hazard for a touch of magic but the Belgian was tied down quite effectively by Hector Bellerin as mentioned before.
Still, there was no denying the pace in the Chelsea forward line. None of Oscar, Willian, Ramires, or Hazard is a slouch, and all possess the ability to run in behind the opposition defence. That’s exactly what they did as well. Most of the good play from Chelsea came when they had one of these players running in behind, chasing a through ball. The Oscar penalty shout, that left the Brazilian injured, was one such chance. Even the chance that fell to Ramires, came after a quick exchange of passes, and an intelligent run from the Brazilian. All in all though, Chelsea may have had more shots on target, but except for one Ramires opportunity, they never really looked like scoring.
What’s interesting is that Chelsea managed a lot more ball possession than last week, and many more passes in the attacking third as well, but looked far less threatening. There are two possible reasons for this. Firstly, Chelsea didn’t really come to score. The full backs stayed firmly behind their wingers, and never even tried to overlap. The second reason could possibly be the size of the ground. The pitch at the Emirates is a full 239 square metres larger than that at Stamford Bridge. This means that teams who sit deep will find it much harder to get higher up the pitch here, than at the Bridge. There is a lot more space for the counter attacking side to cover, and long passes become much harder to make. While it may not be a direct contributor to the lack of sting in Chelsea’s attack, it possibly played a part.
Monreal dominating the left flank
On Sunday night, Eden Hazard was crowned player of the year, and it is a well deserved accolade. But one of the players who can stake a claim to challenging the Belgian is Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean star, part artist, part street fighter, has been a revelation this season. His tenacity, coupled with his speed and skill have made him a nightmare for defenders. Accordingly, Chelsea took measures to keep that threat at bay.
The Alexis-Giroud axis, at the heart of a lot of the good things that Arsenal were doing, needed to be shut down. To do so, the Chelsea players made a very conscious effort to stay narrow, especially on the right side. Sanchez’s natural movement with the ball is to cut inside, and he can do a lot of damage this way. Therefore, Ramires, a midfielder often used on the right wing to execute defensive jobs, and Ivanovic, were both much narrower than usual. Of course, this meant that the outside left channel was completely empty, and ripe for exploiting by a willing runner, and Arsenal found just that in Nacho Monreal. The Spanish full back had a large number of opportunities to cross the ball, and he found space easily running in from the deep. He had the chance to swing in 5 crosses, and from an Arsenal perspective, it’s a pity that not one of them was successful.
The left side proved to be problematic for Chelsea throughout the game. The best Arsenal chances came from that side, with 40% of their attacks coming from there. Even the chance right at the end, which could’ve been scored by either Welbeck or Ozil, came after good work on the left hand side. Chelsea almost paid the price for being too vary of Sanchez.
What would we have done?
The onus to win this game was on Arsenal, and one has to give them full credit for their approach. They attacked Chelsea from the word go, and it’s difficult to criticize Wenger on any of his decisions really. The space on the left was well exploited by Arsenal, but they really struggled to make an impact with their crossing. Still, if there is a way to break down this Chelsea team, it is by crossing the ball. In that respect, it might have been wise to keep Olivier Giroud on the field for a while longer. The Frenchman has the ability to win headers regularly, and can attract defenders towards himself. Another point is the inclusion of Mesut Ozil. The German is undoubtedly a world class player but tends to struggle against physical treatment. With this in mind, having a pacy, yet powerful player, like Oxlade-Chamberlain play might have been a good move. Especially as it would allow Aaron Ramsey to play through the middle, and make runs into the space behind Giroud (if he kept a deeper starting position, alongside Cazorla). Maybe a 4-3-3 formation would have brought them more rewards, as it would allow them more runners, having runners coming from deep is one way of breaking defences like the one Chelsea put up.
Where does this leave them?
Quite simply, in first and second. While there is now no doubt at all about the identity of the next Premier League champion, Arsenal have made a strong case for themselves as the number two in England. City limped to a win, and United got thrashed. Of the contenders for that spot, Arsenal went toe to toe with the leaders, and left them more than just out of breath. Chelsea were quite solid, but it wasn’t comfortable at all. Refreshingly for Arsenal fans, the team seems to be learning from its mistakes. Coquelin played his role perfectly, and more than 1 Arsenal player picked up yellow cards for good professional fouls. While there was talk of United being a challenger next season, don’t be surprised if Arsenal mount a serious offensive.
Written by Vishal Patel
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