In the end, it was the similarities between the two sides which resulted in such an open encounter. Which is strange to say considering past meetings when Arsenal and Chelsea face has been decided by their differences.
The millions pumped in by Roman Abramovich already indicates an uneven playing field and on the playing field the contrast is evident; it’s usually a battle between aesthetes and results, between romanticism and pragmatism. However, this season’s hiring of Andre Villas-Boas – the deviator from Jose Mourinho’s team of brutal perfectionists – indicates that Abramovich wants to change that image. And in Saturday’s encounter at Stamford Bridge, Villas-Boas attempted to go toe-to-toe against Arséne Wenger for attacking football but ended up looking a bit naïve. Here are some observations from the 5-3 win over Chelsea.
1. High line + lack of pressing = recipe for openness
The defending of both sides presented another opportunity to belittle the use of a high-line but it was the combination of that – and not on it’s own – and a lack of pressing which led to a hectic encounter. Put simply, you cannot play a high defensive line without pressing because it invites the opposition to make passes through the backline. Both sides did that constantly and getting the wide men beyond the back four was a common sight but it was Arsenal in the second-half who reacted, getting tighter to stop the passes out wide and playing a bit deeper (see figure 1). Chelsea, on the other hand, continued to allow Arsenal to get through.
<Figure 1>Arsenal allow Chelsea to pass it deep in the first-half with relatively little pressure but that only invites Chelsea to exploit through the channels. In the second period, The Gunners drop deeper and get tighter, blocking the combination play out wide from developing.
The lack of pressing can be displayed by the goals. For the opener, Arsenal dropped off and allowed John Terry to play a diagonal wide to Juan Mata and his resulting cross was met by the unmarked Frank Lampard. He was afforded a free run at goal because Arsenal sat off early on in the build up and when the long ball was played, the midfield was left marking space, ignoring Lampard’s run. In the second-half, The Gunners got much tighter and stopped those runs having any effect. Chelsea, however, didn’t react and the goals they conceded were of a similar vein. They were often too late to close down and Arsenal were able to get runners beyond. Vitor Pereira, Porto’s new coach and Villas-Boas’ number two last season, says he most differs from the Chelsea manager in their philosophies in the defensive; Villas-Boas is more passive while Pereira is much more aggressive at winning the ball back.
AC Milan set the benchmark under Arrigo Sacchi in the late eighties/early nineties playing a high defensive line (even if the offside laws were favourable) because of their structural pressing. Both Arsenal andChelsea may have tried to be compact in their own halves but their relaxed closing down ensured both sides invited each other forward. Nevertheless, it’s a balance that not only they have had trouble with this season; Manchester United have allowed the most shots because they don’t press intensely AND play a deep line, affording space for opponents between midfield and defence. Manchester City have perhaps got this balance most right, having at least five men back at all times.
As The Short Fuse put it so well on Saturday, “playing a high-line without pressure, though, is hazardous at best and defensive suicide at worst.”
2. The new Arsenal arrives
If it wasn’t instantly obvious how Arsenal would adjust after Cesc Fábregas early on in the season because their passing was soporific and not incisive, it was made apparent here. They played with lots of speed when in possession while Gervinho and Theo Walcott were the perfect foils for Robin van Persie. Arséne Wenger is willing to keep his three forwards up the pitch in order to make Arsenal more dynamic and while it may leave them defensively exposed at times, it can make them devastating at times. Chelsea do the same thing but the difference between the two sides were shown; The Blues’ front three are more crafty and creative while Arsenal, with van Persie in particular, can be unpredictable and erratic but were brutally effective.
<Figure 2> Arsenal v Chelsea successful/unsuccessful dribbles
3. Laurent Koscielny shines once again
Another game and another excellent performance by Koscielny. His rise has been remarkable and it seems he has finally adapted to the vagaries and subtleties of the Premier League. On Saturday, he made dominant showing, most impressively making 8 interceptions. His partnership with Per Mertesacker works because they complement each other well as the stopper and the sweeper which allows Koscielny to use his intelligence to get into position. If, as expected, Thomas Vermaelen comes straight back in, Koscielny may have to adapt his game because the two are very similar. They are Arsenal’s two best central defenders but is it the best partnership? (We think so).
<Figure 3> Koscielny interceptions
4. Mikel Arteta gives Arsenal stability
If it wasn’t instantly obvious how Arsenal would adjust after Cesc Fábregas early on in the season because their passing was soporific and not incisive, it is now because of Mikel Arteta. It’s true, he would rather keep it simple than play defence-splitting passes – his pass for van Persie was his first assist – but by keeping the ball moving, he helps Arsenal sustain the pressure. His defensive work can also go understated, by not only helping Arsenal to recycle the ball from the back but also holding his position and allowing Alex Song (for Andre Santos’s goal) to add drive going forward and Aaron Ramsey to revel higher up. The Welshman made his best performance to date and you can’t help but feel it was made possible by Arteta’s presence.
<Figure 4> Mikel Arteta’s pass completion was at 94%.
5. Arsenal keep Mata quiet…sort of
There was much talk about how Johan Djourou would cope with Juan Mata but it turned out to be a team responsibility. In the first-half, he was fantastic, drifting all over the pitch (although he left his team horribly exposed in defence) and in particular, doubling up on the right. However, in the second-half, Arsenal got tighter and stopped him from getting space on the flanks. The Gunners blocked the easy pass to the flanks and Mata’s influence waned. Apart from his brilliant strike to make it 3-3 that is.
<Figure 5> Juan Mata’s involvement in both halves. Notice, in the first-half, how his involvement was purely creative, drifting into pockets to get on the ball. In the second-half, he was more frustrated. He still had his only two chances in the game late on and could have added to his belter has his shot not be cleared off the line.