Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal: Chelsea’s high line ripped to shreds in amazingly open game

October 29, 2011

The starting line-ups

Chelsea had a clear weakness coming into the game – their defence plays high up the pitch and are prone to pace in behind – and Arsenal exploited it to great effect.

Andre Villas-Boas brought Branislav Ivanovic into the side for David Luiz, who was poor at QPR. Jon Obi Mikel played rather than Raul Meireles in the holding role – the rest of the side was as expected.

Arsene Wenger continued with Johan Djourou at right-back and Thomas Vermaelen was fit only for the bench.

This was a game with plenty of chances and some terrible defending – Arsenal were better at exploiting the weaknesses of their opponent.

Change in roles

The most interesting feature of the game was the difference in pattern from the usual matches between these two. For the last two or three seasons, the storyline was predictable: Arsenal dominated possession and Chelsea sat back, then played on the break (and often won).

Here, the roles were reversed. Chelsea had the majority of the ball, Arsenal were more direct. Wenger admitted in his pre-game interview that Chelsea had ‘a little more creativity’ than his side due to the presence of Juan Mata, which would have been unthinkable at any point over the last few years. Villas-Boas has clearly changed how Chelsea play.

High line

That brings us to the second point, and the key factor in the scoreline – Chelsea’s high defensive line, which ZM looked at in midweek.

This was always going to be a problem – Arsenal exploited this continually throughout the match, and whilst it wasn’t responsible for all five goals, Arsenal could have had five goals based solely upon knocking the ball in behind and using the pace of Theo Walcott and/or Gervinho. The Ivorian’s first half miss at 0-0, for example, was shocking.

It was a a continual problem – the first goal came with Gervinho slipping through unchecked, Walcott’s came when he had space to exploit by bursting through. Individual mistakes contributed to the second goal (Daniel Sturridge not tracking Andre Santos) and the fourth (Florent Malouda’s poor pass and John Terry’s stumble), whilst Villas-Boas wrote off the fifth one, saying that his side were pushing forward to get a fourth game and therefore were always going to concede space at the back, a plausible explanation.

Still, it can’t be refuted that the majority of Arsenal’s chances came by exploiting space in behind, and working a one-on-one with Petr Cech. There is, really, no further analysis needed of such an obvious issue in the match, and something that was covered in great depth in midweek.

Chelsea movement

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Chelsea created a lot themselves – in addition to the three goals, they wasted other chances – particularly at 0-0. It would appear that Villas-Boas knew the threat of Arsenal’s pace from their wingers, but rather than deciding to defend deeper (more on why he didn’t do that later), he instead tried to aggressively push Gervinho and Walcott back.

A key feature of the matches between these two in recent years has been Ashley Cole tearing past Arsenal’s right-winger to stretch the play and provide crosses. It happened twice in the first five minutes – Djourou looked lost at full-back, Walcott switched off and two Cole cut-backs were intercepted by Arsenal centre-backs.

by Guardian Chalkboards

There was a further subtlety to pushing the full-backs forward, though – Jon Obi Mikel often dropped into the defence to form a back three, allowing the full-backs higher up. To as not to lose the 3 v 3 in midfield, Juan Mata moved inside. On the other wing, Daniel Sturridge moved higher up and got in behind Arsenal – Andre Santos’ positioning is very suspect, and Sturridge had two good chances. Santos was also at fault for Frank Lampard’s goal, being beaten too easily by Mata when the Spaniard moved to that flank. In fact, it’s difficult to say that any of the full-backs got the better of their respective winger – the Arsenal full-backs were poor positionally, Chelsea’s were outpaced.

The midfield battle wasn’t particularly crucial in getting the upper hand. As already mentioned, Chelsea had more possession but lost the game.

Progression of the game

How did the game change over time? From 0-0 to 2-3, not much. Part of the reason for the openness was the relentless speed at which the game was played – only when Arsenal were ahead (and even then only in brief spells) did Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta put their foot on the ball and try and control the tempo. The rest of play was frantic, direct and goal-hungry.

The situation did change at 2-3, though – the longest the game remained at any particular scoreline. Villas-Boas made three positive substitutions and Chelsea moved the ball a little quicker. How much did the changes actually impact the match? Looking purely at the way the goals went in, hugely: Chelsea got back in it, yet made themselves susceptible to Arsenal breaks.

Yet in reality, Chelsea didn’t create much at 2-3 until Mata’s long-range effort – and Arsenal only scored their crucial fourth due to an individual mistake, at a time when removing Walcott for Tomas Rosicky looked like they may have lost their attacking thrust and consigned them to getting men behind the ball. Amongst all the tactical problems and substitutions, Malouda’s misplaced pass was crucial.


Arsenal’s defensive problems are still evident. They conceded three goals and this is still an issue that must be addressed. But they won, and they won intelligently. Pace was going to be a factor, they played direct football and created plenty of excellent openings, enough to win any game of football.

This is potentially a very important win for Arsenal, because of the nature of the goals they’ve scored. So far this season there hasn’t been the obvious, logical move towards a more direct style of football that should come when you go from being based around passers like Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, to quick wide forwards like Walcott and Gervinho.

Too often in 2010/11, even when they have won, Arsenal have built up play too slowly and been rescued by van Persie. This is surely the answer – a cohesive, quick style of play that suits all their forwards. A return to more of a tiki-taka approach in the next game would be a disappointment (although of course, most sides will play much more negatively against them, and it may not be possible to be so counter-attacking).

by Guardian Chalkboards

Villas-Boas will defend his high line. On the basis of this game, it’s a ludicrous decision. But consider his long-term goal at Chelsea – to bring in a more positive, proactive, aggressive style of football – and he’ll argue, with some justification, that such an overarching change in ideology is not compatible with suddenly switching to a more defensive mindset for a one-off occasion. Chelsea have suffered from short-termism in recent years and lacked finesse. Villas-Boas wants to give them more of an identity, and for that he should be praised.

That said, one has to question whether the individuals in his backline can cope with this strategy. A side cannot be so amazingly prone to one particular approach that it’s possible to accurately identify where they’ll lose in the days before the game. Villas-Boas has a great vision for Chelsea, but he can’t be blind to his players’ failings.

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