Thoughts on Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal

“I wanted to go from A to B and somebody confronted me,” said Arsene Wenger after the game which, if he was talking about the match, would have been a fairly accurate description; instead he was talking about the touchline kerfuffle with Jose Mourinho which added an unsavoury side story to a well-contested, if a little scrappy encounter.

Chelsea won 2-0 thanks to goals from Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, providing two moments of, well, moments if not outstanding quality in a largely even match-up. Yet Chelsea have that extra edge, that killer instinct that Arsenal perhaps do not possess. Or if they do, was not utilised properly. And that, in a sense, was the main source chagrin for Arsenal fans.

Whenever these two sides play, talk is always of the gameplans and here, no side wanted to give anything away (though Arsenal did when Laurent Koscielny felled Hazard for the penalty). Yet Chelsea’s discipline was encased in a system they understand. Positional changes are minimal, most likely counter-specific, and the strategy coherent. Arsene Wenger chose again with their big-game 4-1-4-1 which is not incorrect in its thinking, but can be undermined by where he selects the player.

Here, he wasn’t far off the correct balance – feasibly, all he had to do was switch Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez around. As a result, with both players playing on their “opposite” side, Arsenal’s play was often too central. Of course, this is how Arsenal often play, looking to create overloads and then quickly switch play with a quick, penetrate burst across the line or from deep – though in this case there was nobody to make those runs. Wilshere actually got through a couple of times through neat interplay – and nearly did again but Santi Cazorla shot – but his touch let him down. Danny Welbeck, on the other hand, played curiously more deep-lying than he did against Galatasary, often picking up the ball in the gap just off the two Chelsea centre-backs.

The difference in performance (forgetting opponent quality for a moment) showed how dependent instinct players, nay creative ones too, are on the energy and quickness of thought of those around them. In the aforementioned match, Arsenal had Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stretching the pitch on one side and Ozil’s lateral movement, starting behind Welbeck, making Arsenal fluid. With Ozil starting wide right against Chelsea but never sticking there, it changed the dynamic of how he creates, instead of going inside-to-out; he was going the other direction without any real opposite movement. By switching Alexis to the right, perhaps Arsenal could have had that vertical pentration they sorely needed. In any case, despite his creative performance against Galatasaray, Alexis’s best position is probably on the right where he can burst behind as he’s not really the dribbler that he’s made out to be playing on the left.

The lack of runners exacerbated the issue of the 4-1-4-1 because while Arsenal passed the ball neatly at times, it felt like cautiousness in possession for the sake of it. The joy with Arsenal is how the ball gets from A to B, often by getting off at stops C, D E and Z in the process: the new system, however, seems have a stifling effect on how well Arsenal move the ball – almost as much as Chelsea’s systematic fouling in this match. Nevertheless, Arsenal can still remain optimistic about this season – or more appropriately rather, this team – it just needs the right configuration, because there is an exciting blend in this side. The Gunners attempted 50 take-ons, a staggering amount considering that it was against Chelsea, a side known for their eagerness to close down spaces quickly. Perhaps, the extra dribbles Arsenal attempted were as a result of Chelsea’s tight marking, but at the same time, it shows a daring on the ball that Arsenal have lacked in the recent past.

Looking at the other end of the pitch, the difference between Arsenal and Chelsea might have been summed up by Cesc Fabregas. Not because of the sumptuous pass he provided for Diego Costa for the 2nd goal, but because he delivered what was probably his most disciplined performance in any shirt – annoying it just happened to be for Jose Mourinho and significantly, against his former club. In front of him, Oscar and Diego Costa worked extremely hard in a pressing structure which was more coherent than Arsenal. Jack Wilshere talked about the “5-second rule” Arsenal have when they lose the ball or force the defenders back towards their own goal, though it was visibly evident that whenever he or Alexis pressed up the pitch, the other players didn’t follow – or at least not with the required intensity. On the whole, Arsenal moved up and down the pitch well last season, largely because they played 10metres or so deeper therefore it didn’t require as much fine-tuning.

For Chelsea’s first goal, Arsenal seemed to be stuck a little in between whether to press or stand-off. Granted, The Gunners had just lost possession through Alexis thus they didn’t have enough time to recover but a more coherent strategy would have seen Arsenal get tighter and shuffle across. If it was a hard goal to deal with because Chelsea reacted quickly and Hazard is majestic in this form sort of form, jinxing away from defenders, it showed also how wingers can profit from space in between the full-backs and to the side of the holding midfielder (usually called the half-space). Ozil often exploits this space brilliantly when he plays as a no.10 by drifting wide and then combining quickly with the winger. Arsenal lost that with him starting out wide and he often had to come to the other side to combine. In the moments Arsenal got through, Jack Wilshere was the one who became the spare man and at times, overwhelmed Nemanja Matic.

It didn’t happen enough however; Chelsea snuffed out the space well, especially the Serbian holding midfielder, who didn’t really impose himself due to his sheer physicality but by just “being there.” He has an almost OCDish quality about his defending, a preoccupation with the orderly which is a bit like “shall I go there? Of course I must go there; otherwise our structure won’t make a perfect 4-2-3-1.” Flamini was more eye-catching and busy but while his best work is usually around the edge of the box, he can be a bit standoffish when the ball is in midfield. Arteta, on the other hand, when he plays, is great when he gets tight and presses the opponents in the centre of the pitch, but not so good going backwards and forced to use his pace. It goes without saying, a modern, dynamic midfielder is one which would improve Arsenal massively. If that sounds a little demanding – because who is out there that fits the profile? – that’s the margins Arsenal are judged on in the top matches. And it was margins that made the difference between Chelsea and Arsenal. With only two shots on target posted in the whole match, Chelsea scored with both of them.


Arsenal and Chelsea confide in their similarities

After years of feeling like two distinctly different teams, Chelsea and Arsenal finally have something in common. Chelsea, usually known for their brutal efficiency, against Arsenal, serial underachievers and progenitors of a style that was starting to become their downfall; whenever they faced each other, it always seemed much more than just a match between two title and city rivals – a battle between two ideologues even; foreign investment vs self-sustenance; results vs aesthetics; pragmatism vs romanticism.

This time, though, both sides can confide in what makes them similar and that should make for an intriguing match-up at The Emirates. Both teams pass it well and are filled with exciting, technical midfielders but what’s ominous about Arsenal is that they are doing it better than they have in a long time. Santi Cazorla’s the key; he glides across the final third with freedom, not playing as a playmaker, but as a second-striker, making him harder to mark. He has stoked up a fantastic partnership with Lukas Podolski on the left and two have often combined for Arsenal’s best moments. They play in a curious front four which is without a defined striker; Gervinho has assumed that role most recently and the aim is to get the Ivorian or Podolski through with runs between the full-back and the centre-back. Even when Olivier Giroud plays, his role has been most effective when acting as a decoy rather than a focal point. It’s hoped he can add that part to his game over time although it might have to be far quicker than Arsene Wenger envisaged. He initially had pencilled in Lukas Podolski to play as the number 9 when he signed over the summer but has since had to revise those plans.

Behind them, Mikel Arteta acts as the reference for Arsenal’s passing game but this season, there’s a whole lot more reason for his importance to the side than just giving continuity in possession. Because it’s his positional play which has probably made the biggest difference. Much has been made of the Steve Bould influence and it’s true that the extra work done on the training ground on the team’s defensive shape and discipline has been immeasurable. But Arsenal’s problem in recent seasons has as much been the synchronicity between the midfield and defence; shots outside the box and runners beyond were too readily relinquished to the opposition. We even saw that as recent as in pre-season and Mikel Arteta was not playing in the role he is now. As such, Neil Banfield deserves much of the credit too. Indeed, Steve Bould went out of his way to praise his colleague after the win against Montpelier in which he took charge of.

While Arsenal look more of a cohesive unit than Chelsea, both are still very much works in progress. Chelsea’s transformation into a possession side this season has seen them assemble over the summer, a cast of gifted, small playmakers but at the same time, stripped themselves of the very depth in central midfield that was the basis of their surprise cup triumphs. That was ruthlessly exposed in their Super Cup defeat to Atletico Madrid where they were picked off on the break to lose 4-1 and they then relinquished a two-goal lead against Juventus to draw.

Roberto Di Matteo has chopped and changed certain members of his line-up week-by-week but there’s a particular template that’s remained consistent throughout. Eden Hazard and Juan Mata are the star players, often interchanging between phases of attack while on the other side, Di Matteo usually selects a “defensive winger” to balance out the team. Their transition from defence to attack, like Arsenal’s, has been a joy to watch. At lunchtime on Saturday, though, it will be a battle of who can do it better.

Arsenal out to prove Chelsea’s diamond can’t last forever

The Premiership’s two free-flowing clubs are set to collide with Arsenal looking to come out on top against Chelsea’s diamond midfield.

They say diamonds are a central midfielders best friend. Or at least the saying should be, as in an increasingly bureaucratic game it’s the greatest indication the coach is ready to play to your strengths. Carlo Ancelotti may not have made much changes to the personnel but he has introduced a new system looking to get the best out of his sides central strength.

While Chelsea’s diamond system was born out of goal of getting the best of the players at their disposal, the origin of the formation or its variants,  is less explicit. However due to their obsession with the enganche (playmaker), the set-up is more prevalent in Argentina and in a bid to cater such a player, it seems the diamond ensured a self-conscious symmetry in which to build their play around. And indeed it is at the tip of this diamond where Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Feguson feels this current Chelsea team lacks.

“Chelsea use the same system that Ancelotti operated in Milan,’ said Sir Alex. ‘The difference is he had Kaka there. Kaka made a hell of a difference to how well the system worked, and Chelsea are still looking for someone in a forward role to balance their team better. They tried Lampard there, they tried Deco. They have even tried Florent Malouda and now they’ve brought Joe Cole back in. It’s not the finished article at the moment, though they have the experience to cope with it.”

Although, Ferguson’s United side ultimately fell to defeat earlier this month, they successfully stifled the threat of Deco behind the two forwards.  The midfield pairing of Carrick and Fletcher were quick to close down the Portueguese midfielder denying  any room to manoeuvre. Indeed the consequences of Holland in ’74 continues to ripple through South American football – the pressure the Dutch put on the ball, depriving the enganche any time and space to choose his options – mean some feel the position can have a dangerous effect on those who use it. “The word Enganche is dangerous,” says former Argentina midfielder Diego Simeone. “But, I like enganche, although with some variations. More like the playing style of Zidane, call it a prototype of enganche? That evolved into the enganche roles today of Kaká, Totti, Pirlo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. I believe enganche today must come from another sector, there must be wider variety of options.”

But done well and the role could be of great damage. Much like the system, much depends on the movement of the players which was part of the reason why Deco was nullified. Only when Anelka dropped deeper, towards the end of the first half from his forward position and double up did Deco move more around the pitch to cause greater unpredictability and drag the opposition out of position. In fact, movement is a necessity in the system. The biggest flaw, the lack of width must be manufactured either by players taking up vacant space or the full backs bombing forward.

Ancelotti has played Malouda to the left of the diamond and that could create width although it may become predictable if starting inside then going out. But that has not been a problem for Chelsea, who have been particularly devastating with their movement and along with the marauding full-backs, posed grave problems to their opposition. “They were a bit predictable when they were 4-3-3 but Chelsea’s new diamond formation is very difficult to play against,” said Sunderland manager Steve Bruce. “It’s hard for opponents to work out who to pick up when. The system makes life very difficult for opposing full-backs as, a lot of the time, they’re not sure exactly what to do. Chelsea are the real deal.”

The carrileros (shuttlers or to use a more exact definition, lanes) arguably have the most important of roles as a double function, both providing an option to the left or right and also defending the zones they operate. “The system is good because we have more possession and have the ball all the time,” said Deco. “We have four in midfield and we can play better than when we had the three. When we defend it’s more difficult because we have to go both sides. All the time we have one more player in [central] midfield than the other team.”

And so on to the big game, with Arsenal looking to make up ground on their rivals. The Gunners big test will be whether they can cope with the movement of Chelsea because while they have produce great approach play, have inevitably left gaps open to exploit and at times have looked suspect in dealing with sustained pressure. Because of this, Arsene Wenger is likely to start Denilson, who should offer more balance and protection alongside Song. On the right of Chelsea’s diamond, Ballack likes to tuck in and allow Bosingwa and Anelka to profit from the space afforded so with Denilson slightly elongated to the left, will look to counter that threat.

Wenger’s biggest tactical choices will be who to start at left back and who to play right-wing. Silvestre offers height advantage against Traore (jump and aggression in air) while his cautiousness should be an able shield for such late threat Chelsea provide. On the right-wing, Samir Nasri had a strong game against Standard Liege and his cutting inside freed up space for right back Emmanuel Eboue to bomb forward although it is likely Sagna is set to be recalled. Theo Walcott is also an option as his directness could pin back the opposing full backs, similarly on the left with Arshavin.

The Gunners have conceded possession more recently in big games which could be to their advantage also; whilst it theoretically means more to defend it could also allow the team to play more direct and be a threat on the counter. Nevertheless, the combinations with Eduardo will be key. If the Croatian drops and roams around the pitch, it will mean Arsenal can match Chelsea in the middle and can pin back the full backs due to the higher presence of the wingers. Expect Arshavin to assume the central role in some moments of the match and his low centre of gravity and dynamism could prove a strong weapon on the break.

Predicted teams:
Arsenal (4-3-3): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Silvestre; Song, Denilson, Fabregas(c); Arshavin, Nasri, Eduardo. Subs: Fabianski, Eboue, Traore, Senderos, Ramsey, Walcott, Rosicky, Vela.

Chelsea (4-4-2 diamond): Cech; Ivanovic, Carvalho, Terry, A. Cole; Essien, Ballack, Malouda, Deco; Drogba, Anelka. Subs: Hilario, Belleti, Alex, Mikel, Kalou, J. Cole, Zhirkov, Lampard.