Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal: Pace rips home side apart

Starting formations and lineups

Chelsea fell to a shock 3-5 home defeat against Arsenal to upset the odds in astounding fashion. Arsenal, the team regularly described as ‘in crisis’, tore apart a Chelsea team in transition, led by the lethal Robin Van Persie. The home side retained the formation that has been their hallmark for the past five or so years, a 4-3-3, though it was far from a regular formation – more on that later. Arsenal opted for their now-regular 4-3-3ish shape, with Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey the creative axis.

Arsenal’s shape was, to a certain extent at least, reactive: instead of ignoring the opposition’s positioning and playing their own game, Alex Song ended up playing right-of-centre to mark Juan Mata, and Mikel Arteta dropped into the empty space to dictate from deep and turn Arsenal into more of a 4-2-3-1. The central midfield battle was therefore mostly null, and it was only when Mata started drifting out of Song’s comfort zone that it really began to have an effect on the game.

Chelsea’s evolving style and shape

A major part of the game was just how Chelsea and Arsenal’s systems worked when placed up against each other. Andre Villas-Boas has spoken publically about developing a new style of play, which undeniably takes time. Back in the Mourinho days, Chelsea were masters of the counter, using a miserly defence and the class of Claude Makelele patrolling in front of it to soak up pressure, sitting deep inside their own half. When the ball was finally won back, they broke through their wingers on the flanks and the energy of Frank Lampard in the centre, utilising the hold-up play of strong strikers like Didier Drogba and Eidur Gudjohnsen. Since then, they have struggled to shake off the influence of Mourinho, still sitting deep in their own half and still playing their 4-3-3.

Now, under Villas-Boas, they finally have a chance to throw off that guise and play in a different way. Where managers like Carlo Ancelotti and Luiz Felipe Scolari failed, Villas-Boas’ age may indicate that the notoriously impatient Roman Abramovich is willing to build for the future. Villas-Boas, therefore, is trying to mould Chelsea into his image. He has started by renovating their deep defensive line, forcing the team to play higher up the pitch and press more proactively. Another feature is their willingness to retain the ball and attempt to dominate possession, playing progressive football.

They are still, admittedly, playing a 4-3-3, but it had a few notable revisions. Firstly, John Obi Mikel played deep in front of the defence, occasionally dropping in to allow the full-backs forward. Secondly, there were asymmetrical wings: Daniel Sturridge stayed wide on the right, whereas Juan Mata came inside to allow Ashley Cole up the wing and also to help redress the numerical disadvantage in midfield Chelsea found themselves in when Mikel dropped into defence. From this central position, he was also able to dictate play and orchestrate Chelsea’s attacking moves, bagging himself a goal and an assist.

As a whole, Chelsea’s new style had somewhat mixed success. On the plus side, Mata’s shuttling meant that Chelsea were never outnumbered in midfield, and allowed them passing fluidity and a playmaking focal point that brings the best out of Fernando Torres. On the other hand…

Arsenal play to their strengths on the field

Arsenal were on good form prior to this match, contrary to what the majority of the press say, having won four out of their last five matches. They seem to have finally settled into the new (old?) 4-3-3 shape and are playing more comfortably. Moreover, Arsene Wenger remains a wily manager with a good deal of tactical nous, and his decisions helped Arsenal immeasurably.

First off, Wenger had been observing Villas-Boas’ attempts to make Chelsea play higher up the field, and knew that the pace he could bring to bear in his frontline was far superior to the comparatively slow partnership Branislav Ivanovic and in particular John Terry. As such, he fielded Theo Walcott and Gervinho high up the pitch, nearly level with Robin Van Persie. From there, Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta could chip simple balls over the top for them to chase and test the opposition centre-backs for pace.

Robin Van Persie was also vital. The captain and talisman of Arsenal is on stellar form, and his experience and intelligence was invaluable. Chelsea’s defence seemed to have no idea who was picking him up: Obi Mikel was the holding midfielder and thus the man who could track Van Persie the best when he moved deep, but he either did the job too well, following Van Persie even when he moved back level with the Chelsea defence, or tried to maintain his position and mark zonally, allowing him to go free. This was, in other words, a near-flawless demonstration of the virtues of a ‘nine and a half’ by the Dutchman today, and at times he was near-unplayable.

The end result of all of this was that for all of Arsenal’s poor individual defensive displays – Andre Santos, Per Mertesacker and an out of position Johan Djourou all had bad games – they were rescued by their natural advantages in attack. Time and again Van Persie would pull a centre-back out of position, and Arteta or Ramsey would play a ball in behind them for Gervinho or Walcott to run onto.

This diagram shows how thoroughly Robin Van Persie got the better of the Chelsea defence. Instead of just dropping in when Chelsea had the ball in order to allow the full-backs up the field, John Obi Mikel was forced there by the movement of Van Persie. It was a difficult situation for Mikel: either he let Van Persie go free and wreak havoc creatively, or attempt to shackle him and let the midfield go undermanned. In this case, we see the latter. With no holding midfielder, Aaron Ramsey is free with space and time to pick a pass to one of his three forwards, all of which have a huge edge in pace over the slow defenders and Mikel.

Conclusion

A mad, exciting game. Both sides wasted good chances, and it could have gone either way, but ultimately Arsenal played more intelligently and deserved their win. There were good signs for Chelsea, with Frank Lampard proving his worth with a goal and assist and Juan Mata continuing to add a touch of class to their play, but it was largely overshadowed by how hapless their defence seemed outside of the reach of the safety of their 18-yard box. Terry and Ivanovic looked immobile and slow compared to the Arsenal forwards, who buzzed around them like flies. Whilst the same could be said of Mertesacker at the other end, Laurent Koscielny had yet another quietly impressive game, marshalling Fernando Torres well.

All in all though, in the same way Chelsea’s blend of power and pace has been perfect for beating Arsenal in recent seasons, this year’s Chelsea were an easy target for the pace of Arsenal’s wingers and the guile and composure of Robin Van Persie.

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