Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal: Home side finish their chances
Chelsea nicked a win against London rivals Arsenal in an entertaining game.
Rafa Benitez made two straight swaps to the team that drew at home to Southampton on Wednesday, in the same 4-2-3-1 formation he prefers. At the back, Branislav Ivanovic came in for David Luiz, and at the other end of the pitch Fernando Torres replaced Demba Ba. The rest of the team was as expected. Cesar Azpilicueta offered width on the right, with Ashley Cole more reserved on the left, and Oscar and Eden Hazard switched flanks around trequartista Juan Mata.
Arsenal fielded a somewhat different side to the one that lost a madcap game against Manchester City. Laurent Koscielny was banned after his red card in said game, so Per Mertesacker returned to the side alongside Thomas Vermaelen. Jack Wilshere was pushed forward from the pivot into attacking midfield, with Francis Coquelin filling his vacant spot, Santi Cazorla moving to a narrow left-sided position and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dropping out of the matchday squad entirely. Theo Walcott moved back to the right wing as Lukas Podolski was replaced by Olivier Giroud, who played up front. With Wilshere close to Giroud and Walcott and Cazorla both in advanced positions, Arsenal’s formation often looked more like a 4-4-2 or even a 4-2-4 in extreme cases.
Both sides play up their right
As covered last week, Chelsea have begun relying on their right-back Cesar Azpilicueta for width recently. Today, whilst Chelsea were nowhere near as stiflingly narrow as last week, their primary wide outlet was still their Spanish right-back. With the right-sided midfielder – usually Eden Hazard, though all three of the Chelsea attacking midfield trio could find themselves anywhere across the attacking band – generally taking up a narrow playmaking position, it was Azpilicueta’s job to get forward and try and push on down the flank. His job was made easier by compatriot Santi Cazorla staying very narrow for Arsenal; he’s capable out wide, but almost always comes inside to a more natural, central playmaker position. Had Lukas Podolski, a not particularly diligent tracker but a very dangerous counterattacking player, retained his place from last week on the left it is doubtful Azpilicueta would have had the freedom to get forward as often as he did. As it was, Azpilicueta offered the majority of Chelsea’s width, playing two key passes, getting an assist and making five tackles.
On the other side of the pitch, Ashley Cole continued his relatively reserved role, but of real interest was the positioning of Bacary Sagna. Like Azpilicueta, he positioned himself high up the pitch, but even higher than the Spaniard. With Ashley Cole preoccupied by the presence of the pace and movement of the in-form Theo Walcott – who put Giroud through with a perfect pass early on, only for the Frenchman to shoot narrowly wide – and none of the Chelsea trio particularly concerned with defending, Sagna had plenty of space to get into. However, his impact on the game in an attacking sense left of a lot to be desired: with only four fewer touches than his opposite number Azpilicueta, he produced no successful dribbles and no key passes, though he did put in three accurate crosses. In defence he wasn’t much better despite his six tackles, but more on that later.
Chelsea take their chances, and Arsenal resurgence
The first half was almost all Chelsea. Arsenal looked lethargic and uncomfortable with the structure of their side. Francis Coquelin and Abou Diaby should in theory be a decent pairing with a good balance, but both of them are short of game time this season and both looked off the pace. The first goal came as a direct result of Chelsea exploiting the one area of the pitch Arsenal looked weakest in: right-back. With Sagna high up the pitch and Chelsea on the counter, Mata slipped into the free space left behind him. Azpilicueta charged forward and found him with an excellent ball, and Mata produced a wonderful two-touch finish high over Wojciech Szczesny. Chelsea had their opener, but it was an illustration of just where the weak points of Chelsea and, in particular, Arsenal were. Playing up the right-hand side meant that whilst Arsenal could get at the home side’s left-back, the adventurous nature required to play Sagna’s role meant that they were constantly threatened on the counter. Chelsea then doubled their advantage from that zone again: Juan Mata beat two Arsenal defenders and threaded the ball through to a completely unmarked Ramires, who had made a run from deep and had ended up in the zone Sagna would normally cover if he wasn’t about 15 yards further up the pitch. Szczesny brought down Ramires (whether it was a penalty or not is debatable, but unimportant tactically) and Lampard beat him from the spot.
At home and with a two goal advantage, Chelsea were content to knock it around in midfield, racking up nearly 70% possession in the first half. Ramires was particularly impressive, buzzing around and breaking up play, making nine (!) tackles and three interceptions over the course of the match. The Chelsea midfield as a whole was much more structured than against Southampton, with Lampard and Ramires actually looking less like a pivot and more like a pair with specific roles. Ramires used his energy to link defence and attack when in possession and harry opposition defenders when out of it, whereas Lampard played a more reserved role, attempting to play vertically with long balls with mixed success. Defensively he also helped out, making four tackles and helping shield Ashley Cole against an overload.
Arsenal’s improvement in the second half was as much to do with just a general improvement in play as tactical changes. Arsene Wenger pushed Walcott higher, trying to get him to test the slow Chelsea defence for pace, but Arsenal as a whole passed, moved and pressed much better during the second half than the first. They eventually broke through after Walcott made an outside-to-in run from the right and Cazorla found him with a slide-rule pass, vindicating Wenger’s decision to use him higher. The rest of the half was mostly a tale of Chelsea hanging on and trying to play on the break against a dominant Arsenal side. Wenger removed his central midfield duo, possibly due to lack of fitness, and put on Ramsey and Arshavin. Wilshere dropped back into the pivot, and Arsenal had four playmakers on the pitch. Walcott grew into the game more and more with a greater number of players able to pick him out, and although Benitez made the right move bringing on Ryan Bertrand for Oscar to shore up the left, he got a little lucky that Arsenal didn’t punish him from that position before the sub was made. The other subs were inconsequential: Demba Ba came on for Fernando Torres – who had flattered to deceive all game, playing a decent all-round role and then spoiling the display with occasional awful touches – and was denied by an excellent goalline block by Vermaelen after rounding Szczesny, but Marko Marin came on too late to have any impact.
On the balance of play, Chelsea just about deserved their win. Both sides had a half in which they were in undisputed ascendancy, but Chelsea exploited their opponent’s weaknesses better, and defended better when they were ahead. In another game in which full-backs (in this case, mostly the right-backs) were crucial, Cesar Azpilicueta coped far better at both ends of the pitch than Bacary Sagna, and although Wenger’s substitutions were sound, they weren’t enough to get Arsenal a point from two goals down.