How Arsenal dispatched Chelsea
In great need of three points, Arsenal hosted Chelsea at the Emirates, for the first time since the 2-1 FA Cup victory, back in August.
Goals from Lacazette, Xhaka and Saka, saw Arsenal grab all three points, despite Abraham’s consolation and Jorginho’s penalty miss.
This report will analyse and break down the key moments and tactics used in the match.
Mikel Arteta found himself without Gabriel, Luiz and Willian, due to Covid-19 related issues. This forced Arteta to give chances to some of Arsenal’s young guns, as he deployed Arsenal in a 4-2-3-1. Leno, Tierney, Mari, Holding and captain Bellerin formed the back four. Ahead of them, a double pivot of Elneny and Xhaka supported a youthful attack of Martinelli, Smith-Rowe, Saka and Lacazette.
Frank Lampard opted for a 4-3-3, with Mendy, James, Zouma, Silva and Chilwell in the back four. Kovačić, Kante and Mount were the midfield three, with Werner, Abraham and Pulisic ahead of them. Chelsea’s record signing, Havertz was on the bench, with Arsenal old boy, Giroud.
When building-up long, Arsenal looked to split both centre backs, attracting Werner and Pulisic in Chelsea’s high press. Abraham was tasked with blocking any pass into Elneny and Xhaka, as Chelsea attempted to force Arsenal long towards the aerially dominant Zouma and Silva.
Arsenal easily bypassed Chelsea’s press, looking to play to one of Tierney or Bellerin who were free and touchline tight. It was the job of one of the Chelsea midfield three to press them upon receiving, initiating a shift across to the touchline. However, the Chelsea midfield could only leave their position upon the ball being played, otherwise, they would leave exploitable space centrally. This gave Arsenal enough time to play quick combinations, between the fullback and winger or to play laterally inside to one of the midfielders, allowing a switch of play and maximising the shift of Chelsea’s midfield to one side. Saka and Martinelli were fundamental in pinning the Chelsea fullbacks, dragging them narrow in the process, opening up the vertical channel for the fullback.
When Arsenal wanted to build-up short, Elneny would create a back three, allowing the fullbacks to move higher. Whilst this allowed Arsenal to stretch Chelsea, it also meant that Xhaka was isolated in midfield. This has been a problem for Arsenal all season, however against Chelsea, the success out in the wide channels, balanced out the lack of any central progression. The only real risk was defending the attack to defence transition, with Xhaka potentially being overwhelmed. Thankfully, this happened rarely in the match and is something Thomas’ athleticism could neutralise in the future.
Ultimately, this game was won and lost in the wide areas, in particular down Arsenal’s left. Arteta knew that the Chelsea wingers (Pulisic and Werner) were less than apt at tracking back. This emphasised the workload of the midfield three to shuffle across and provide support. As already mentioned, Mikel Arteta nullified this, ensuring that Arsenal could occupy Chelsea narrow, with Smith-Rowe, Lacazette, Saka and Martinelli, thus opening up the width for the Tierney and Bellerin. This looked almost like a 4-2-2-2.
Tierney and Bellerin would advance from deep to receive on the burst in space. By receiving on the burst, the Chelsea fullbacks had to come out from a narrow position and take on the Arsenal fullback. This made it easier for Tierney and Bellerin, who could maximise the off-balance body positioning of James or Chilwell. This was incredibly evident down Arsenal’s left (Chelsea’s right). Martinelli regularly dragged James narrow before deftly passing the ball out to Tierney, who on the burst, could beat James with ease. In fact, 41% of Arsenal’s attacks came down the left and 33% down the right. Smith-Rowe also played a big role in the wide progressions, constantly dropping into space in the half-spaces, offering an option. He also ensured that when Martinelli moved central, that Arsenal had cover and someone who could attack the cutbacks.
In this image, as Martinelli receives the ball, Arsenal have numbers central. Tierney proceeds to run forward from deep, receiving a flick from Martinelli on the burst. James was always going to struggle to get out to deal with Tierney and he had no help from the wingers. Furthermore, due to Arsenal’s central overload, Chelsea’s midfielders couldn’t help. Tierney could then either cross or drive into the penalty area, just as he did for the penalty. Moreover, due to the extensive shift by Chelsea’s midfield, Arsenal had plenty of players on the far side of the pitch, ready for the switch of play.
When Chelsea looked to build-up short, Martinelli and Saka would press the two centre backs, whilst an angled press by Lacazette would force Mendy out to one of the flanks, where Arsenal could create a strongside. Arsenal would have a 3v3 in central midfield, leaving the Chelsea fullbacks free for the pass from Mendy. The recovery of the wingers was essential to prevent James and Chilwell having a 2v1 against the Arsenal fullbacks. As the game wore on, Chelsea did get more success through this avenue and particularly James could get a lot of crosses into the box.
When pressing in a midblock, Arsenal reverted to a 4-5-1/4-4-1-1. Lacazette and Smith-Rowe alternated positions, with one pressing the ball side centre back, whilst the other marked Kante. This helped prevent any central progression. Chelsea tried to beat this, with Kovačić dropping alongside Kante and creating a double pivot. Arsenal dealt with this, with one of the midfielders tracking him all the way. The wingers in a wider position could then prioritise Chelsea’s fullbacks. This allowed Tierney and Bellerin to mark Werner and Pulisic, who came more narrow the closer Chelsea got to goal. Moreover, in the first half, Tierney and Bellerin could pass Werner and Pulisic onto Xhaka and Elneny, and press the Chelsea fullbacks.
As for a word on Chelsea, Lampard’s side struggled to create clear chances and the dynamics of the side looked off. Arsenal easily bypassed the press and created chances at will. Lampard likes for his side to press and as a by-product, leave space in behind. This is an idealised scenario for Arsenal, who are always looking for these situations.
Given the quality and quantity of crosses Chelsea played, it’s strange that Giroud did not feature. Abraham is quick, strong and a decent finisher, but wants to run in behind, and Chelsea didn’t need this. It would have been far more beneficial for Chelsea to attract the Arsenal press high and play into the feet or chest of Giroud. He could then link play. Maybe Lampard preferred the energy and speed of Abraham in the press and transition, but that didn’t really come to fruition anyway.
The real detriment to Chelsea was the lack of work ethic from the wingers. They left their respective fullback exposed and in dangerous 1v1’s and 2v1’s. Furthermore, they didn’t even show that much hunger in the press, or in attempting to shut passes off. The wingers staying higher might have been a risk worth taking, had Arteta not deployed Xhaka and Elneny in ‘false fullback’ positions, protecting Tierney and Bellerin when they went forward, but Arteta did and Chelsea suffered.
In conclusion, despite a late scare, Arsenal magnificently dispatched Chelsea in a much-needed confidence booster. The young players came in with a point to prove and they dually delivered. Discipline, energy and bravery, meant that Arsenal could end their losing run and hopefully, this is a turning point.
Whilst both Xhaka and Saka’s goals were spectacular, simpler chances were created and elements of Arsenal’s play were very encouraging. By no means is this a performance which ends any need for January reinforcements and the need for a creative catalyst, but it did show what Xhaka can do at his best and the plethora of young talent at Arteta’s disposal. Next up for Arsenal is Brighton, a very tricky team, but one which plays very open. Hopefully, a confident Arsenal can match these heroics again, with another standout performance.