Arsenal 0-3 Chelsea – because Wenger didn’t seek to nullify Ashley Cole

December 1, 2009

It’s hard to believe you’ll see two such similar goals in such quick succession all this season. First, an Ashley Cole cross from the left was turned into the opposite corner by Didier Drogba. Three minutes later, an Ashley Cole cross from the left was turned into the opposite top corner by Thomas Vermaelen, who unfortunately got there ahead of Drogba. If such basic goals are conceded twice in one game – never mind four minutes apart – it’s fair to say there’s something quite obviously wrong with how the conceding side set out defensively.

This article is only going to focus on one thing – Arsenal’s lack of preparation for dealing with Ashley Cole’s surging runs from left-back. Anyone who is vaguely familiar with modern football is well aware of the importance placed on full-backs, especially when they are as good on the ball as Cole is.

Therefore, it’s hard to make a case for Arsene Wenger playing Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri either side of Eduardo, when one of the two (who swapped throughout the first half) would have a strong responsibility in tracking Cole’s runs. A far better option would be to have played Emmanuel Eboue – nominally a right-back – on the right-hand side, who would have coped much better with Cole, and at least has some defensive awareness, which, frankly, neither Arshavin or Nasri have whatsoever.

It’s easy to retrospectively analyse the game and criticise a manager for a single error in choosing personnel. But the reason why Wenger’s tactical error was so disappointing is that there were two previous games this season that demonstrate why Eboue would have been so useful up against Cole.

Firstly, only three weeks ago, Manchester United demonstrated the terrific value of having a player in the side solely to pick up Ashley Cole, when Antonio Valencia was widely praised for his excellent job against him at Stamford Bridge.

Pete Gill at Football365 said ‘Having confessed to his tactical culpability for his side being ‘too open’ against CSKA Moscow in midweek, Sir Ferguson redeemed himself in westLondon. With Valencia effectively man-marking Ashley Cole and Ryan Giggs pushing in from the left to nullify the anonymous Michael Ballack, Chelsea struggled to exert any authority.’ Sam Lyon for BBC Sport said, ‘With Rooney floating and Antonio Valencia pushed up against left back Ashley Cole, United stifled their opponents’ rhythm.’ Simon Burnton for the Guardian said, ‘Valencia v Cole on the right flank seems the key battle. At the moment it’s looking easier for Valencia to escape from Cole than the other way round (the Ecuadorian is doing a pretty good marking job when Chelsea attack).I said, ‘Valencia’s advanced, wide positioning was particularly frustrating for Ashley Cole.’

This wasn’t some obscure feature of the game picked up on this site alone, this was the key feature of the game – in the only game all season up to that point where Chelsea were outplayed. They play a diamond midfield, with two upfront. They’re desperate for width from their full-backs, and with Ivanovic quite average (although improving) on the ball, Cole is the only outlet. You have to close him down, and if you don’t, you’re asking for trouble.

Secondly, Wenger had already done pretty much the same thing away at Manchester United earlier in the season, when Eboue was pushed up high against Patrice Evra, the only other left-back in the world on the same planet as Ashley Cole, and it worked pretty well (Arsenal conceded from stupid mistakes rather than because they were outplayed). For the record, Eboue has also played in the front three this season against Celtic, AZ and West Ham, so it’s hardly as if Wenger thinks he’s completely out of position there. So why, in this, the one opponent you really need a defensive-minded player on the right, did Wenger go with Arshavin and Nasri, both of whom did absolutely nothing for the two goals that were conceded whilst the game was still a contest?

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