Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea: Arsenal’s poor run against title contenders comes to an end

December 27, 2010

Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott scored the goals as Arsenal stormed to victory.

The starting line-ups

Arsene Wenger chose Robin van Persie rather than Marouane Chamakh, with Theo Walcott in for Andrei Arshavin, and Samir Nasri moving to the left. Lukasz Fabianski returned in goal.

Carlo Ancelotti lost Nicolas Anelka shortly before kick-off, with Saloman Kalou replacing him. The rest of the side was as expected.

The game started at a fast pace, and a familiar pattern for games involving these two sides. The home side had 63% of possession in the first half, as Ancelotti continued with his usual tactics against Arsenal – sit deep, narrow and get men behind the ball.

Walcott vital as Arsenal press

Probably the most surprising selection – Walcott over Arshavin – turned out to be key. He was disciplined defensively and dangerous when he got the ball (even if his touch let him down a couple of times) and gave Ashley Cole far more to think about than in the previous fixtures between these sides, when the left-back was a constant threat on the overlap.

The defensive job was not all about tracking runs into deep areas, however. The most important feature of Arsenal’s game today was not what they did with the ball, but how well they pressed Chelsea when they lost it. Walcott was important in this respect – compared to Arshavin’s lethargy, his energy and willingness to chase non-stop typified Arsenal’s approach as a whole. And ‘as a whole’ is the most important part there – Arsenal pressed cohesively, as a unit, rather than in ones and twos.

The difference between the two sides without the ball is demonstrated well by the different positions of their interceptions:

by Guardian Chalkboards

The natural result was that Arsenal played high up the pitch, and therefore Chelsea’s main (only?) tactic with the ball was to knock passes over the top of the Arsenal defence for their forwards to chase. There was little understanding between the runners and the passers, however, and frequently Chelsea were caught offside. More credit is due to Arsenal for working as a unit without the ball, but it’s also worth considering whether Anelka’s pace would have made a difference here, especially Kalou had a very poor game.

Arsenal keep ball

The use of van Persie provided Arsenal with another passing option when in possession, as he played as a false nine and dropped deep between the lines. (Consequently, Arsenal kept the ball very well – the whole side ended the game with impressive pass completion ratios; Alex Song on 93% and Samir Nasri on 91% lead the way in midfield.) Arsenal weren’t able to use this option to directly create clear cut chances in the first half, however – Fabregas likes to exploit the space created by van Persie’s movement, but Jon Obi Mikel played very deep, even for him, and stayed goalside of the Spaniard, forcing him into deeper positions in midfield.

The first goal was always going to be crucial – it came when Alex Song broke forward into the penalty area to finish nicely. It was Song’s fourth goal of the season, the clearest advantage of his newer role in recent months (rotating the holding position with Jack Wilshere, rather than being the sole holding player).

Second half

Ancelotti’s half-time switch, to remove Mikel for Ramires and put Essien at the base of the midfield, did little to help Chelsea stamp their mark on the game, and gave Fabregas more space, free of the close attention of Mikel. He took advantage of that freedom to storm past Chelsea’s midfield and defence to tap in Walcott’s cross, and then when Walcott harried Malouda (typical of the approach outlined above), Fabregas slipped a return pass and Walcott produced his standard finish – low across the goalkeeper into the far corner.

At 3-0 it should have been game over, but Arsenal wobbled slightly after Branislav Ivanovic’s header got Chelsea back in it. It was an incredibly simple goal – a header from a long-distance, centralish free-kick played in behind the defence, and similar in nature to Andy Carroll and Younes Kaboul’s respective winners in previous games at the Emirates this season. It was, however, the only shot on target that Chelsea managed.

by Guardian Chalkboards

The removal of Walcott resulted in Arsenal coming under pressure – his replacement, Abou Diaby, played very centrally which allowed Ashley Cole space on the left. This was a strange change considering the threat of Cole, and was eventually rectified when Tomas Rosicky came on for the final few minutes on the right, with Arsenal moving to a simple 4-5-1 to see out the game.


Arsenal were better both with and without the ball. They passed neatly and pressed efficiently, but most importantly were clinical in front of goal.

Chelsea were awful. Their approach was similar to in Ancelotti’s previous successes against Arsenal, but individual errors were too frequent, and there was not enough creativity or invention on the ball to simply get Chelsea up the pitch in order to relieve pressure, let alone to manufacture goalscoring chances.

After going behind they didn’t manage to turn the game around, finding it difficult to come forward from their deep, cautious opening, and set-pieces were their only route back into the game.

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