Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal: Arsenal suffer from Cole-Drogba combination yet again

October 3, 2010

The starting line-ups

You saw this one coming – Arsenal dominated possession, but Chelsea were more clinical.

Chelsea’s side was unchanged from last week’s defeat to Manchester City – Yuri Zkirjov had replaced Ramires in midweek for the win over Marseille, but dropped back to the bench.

Arsenal fielded the expected line-up, with Lukasz Fabianski starting in Manuel Almunia’s absence, and Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci at the back.

The major surprise was not in terms of selection, but in terms of positioning. Abou Diaby played very high up the pitch, and Jack Wilshere was deeper in central midfield.

This appeared to be part of an Arsenal tactic to press intensely in midfield, and they made the start of the game a fast-paced, frantic scrap as Chelsea struggled to work the ball through midfield up to the strikers. Chelsea were standing off slightly more, and Arsenal had the better of the opening game, their midfielders seeming more confident and composed on the ball.

Left-backs vital

Full-backs were always going to be important here, with such a congested midfield zone and a set of wingers who don’t defend particularly well. Gael Clichy was the man who got forward the most early on, as Nicolas Anelka happily let him drift forward. Andrei Arshavin wasn’t so keen to use him, however, and came inside and looked for goal, bringing a fine save out of Petr Cech midway through the half.

It was Clichy’s predecessor Ashley Cole who made the vital dash forward from full-back, however. His assist must have been hugely frustrating for Arsenal fans, not merely because it was Cole putting the ball across, but because it was so similar in nature to the two goals Arsenal conceded to Chelsea at the Emirates last season. Samir Nasri simply switched off and let Cole wander past him, and Cole’s low cross to Drogba found the net. Here’s a Chalkboard showing that similarity:


by Guardian Chalkboards

Defensive weaknesses

Cole actually had one of his more reserved days in terms of getting forward from full-back, but is intelligent enough to time his runs perfectly to make the difference when it really counts. Chelsea struggled to open up Arsenal in open play other than when he got forward – in the second half he had the ball in the net but was flagged offside. The decision was marginal (and probably right) but the point remains that Arsenal didn’t deal with him effectively. This (as discussed here) was surely a day for Arsenal to use Emmanuel Eboue on the right specifically to track Cole’s runs.

It’s also worth considering the differences between Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 and Chelsea’s 4-3-3 in tracking full-backs – the wide players of Chelsea were no better at tracking full-backs than Arsenal’s were, but then they have slightly less responsibility to do so. At Milan and Chelsea Carlo Ancelotti has generally defended with a three ahead of a four (in a 4-3-1-2, a 4-3-2-1 or a 4-3-3) which means the three can spread across the pitch and the outside central midfielders can close down in wide areas. With Arsenal using only two holding players (Diaby was also playing, of course, but stayed high up the pitch and had few defensive responsibilities) there is less scope for this.

One of the first-ever articles on this site highlighted how Arsenal struggled with Cole, and it’s amazing that Wenger still hasn’t learnt his lesson.

Second half

The game progressed as predicted – Arsenal dominated possession but weren’t clinical enough, whilst Chelsea sat back and defended inside their own penalty area. One interesting factor was how often Arsenal crossed the ball, though the 4/22 completion rate is far from impressive. Still, the arrival of Marouane Chamkh has made them more of a danger in the air (and he should have scored with a late header when the score was still 1-0), though doubts remain about the crossing ability of the full-backs – Clichy, for example, failed with all five attempted crosses.

Arsene Wenger introduced Tomas Rosicky to try and get at Branislav Ivanovic, but Ancelotti immediately brought on Paolo Ferreira in Ivanovic’s place, and though Rosicky provided some good touches on the ball and a couple of efforts on goal, the general pattern of the game remained.

Alex’s thunderbolt wrapped up the game late on, and Arsenal were tempting fate by conceding five free-kicks in their own half within the last five minutes – indeed, last season’s 0-3 defeat to Chelsea was sealed by a Drogba free-kick from similar range. When Arsenal push forward they are liable to being caught out at the back and giving away cheap fouls – though it’s rare someone will take advantage as conclusively as Alex.

Conclusion

A stereotypical performance from both – the game was entertaining, but remarkable only for its predictability. Drogba scoring was inevitable, and his dominance in these games has been evident as long ago as the 2005 Community Shield match.

Interestingly, the last time Chelsea won a game when Drogba was in the side but neither scored nor assisted a goal was last November, away at Porto. That is a rather clunky statistic but does demonstrate how much Chelsea rely on him to come up with crucial contributions  - they can play without him, as the vital victory at Old Trafford in the spring shows - but when on the pitch, he needs to play well for Chelsea to have success.

An equally bizarre stat is that Arsenal’s first eight defeats (from nine) last season all came in ‘pairs’, and this is another, following last weekend’s shock defeat to West Brom. Wenger showed more tactical flexibility than usual by using Diaby high up the pitch, and by pressing much more obviously than usual. Still, failure to cope with Cole and Drogba cost them, and for as long as that problem isn’t addressed, they’ll probably always fail to beat Chelsea regardless of what happens in midfield.

Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal: Arsenal suffer from Cole-Drogba combination yet again

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