Arsenal 1-2 Chelsea: both sides vulnerable down their left
Chelsea stay at the top of the table after scoring two goals from free-kicks.
Arsene Wenger went with the pace of Gervinho rather than the physicality of Olivier Giroud upfront, and continued with Aaron Ramsey on the right – although he had to shuffle into the middle after Abou Diaby’s injury.
Roberto Di Matteo left out Frank Lampard and continued with the front four that failed to click against Stoke last weekend, with three versatile playmakers behind Fernando Torres.
This wasn’t an inspiring game – none of the playmakers were on top form, and neither side played good football.
The sides set up as expected, roughly 4-2-3-1 against 4-2-3-1. A clear issue was the lack of natural width high up the pitch – when Chelsea play Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard together (rather than using Ramires or Ryan Bertrand as a runner on one flank) their play becomes too congested.
Arsenal’s problem with width was different – Ramsey naturally played narrow on the right, although he did get the beating of Ashley Cole a couple of times early on. On the other flank, Lukas Podolski tended to attack directly towards goal rather than staying wide. Both sides also defended narrow without the ball too, which opened up space on the flanks for the full-backs to advance.
The midfield battle was relatively uninteresting. Ramires played a disciplined role alongside Jon Obi Mikel, with those two forming a secure shield in front of the back four. Arsenal’s system was more fluid, with Mikel Arteta and Diaby taking it in turns to stay deep while the other pressed.
The key feature in this zone was the role of Oscar, who troubled Arteta with his high positioning – a couple of times Arteta became so deep that he ended up leaving the Brazilian to the centre-backs, and Oscar should also be praised for his defensive work. He got booked for a late tackle, but Arteta’s influence upon the game was considerably less than usual, and after a similarly fine performance against Andrea Pirlo, it’s clear that Oscar is a disciplined player as well as a creator.
The key feature was both sides’ vulnerability in their left-back zone.
Arsenal’s problem on that side is a long-standing issue – ZM has written on the impetuousness of Thomas Vermaelen many times before, but when paired on that side of the defence by Kieran Gibbs (or Andre Santos, for that matter), both left-sided defenders are very keen to come towards the ball. Gibbs, shares his predecessor Gael Clichy’s habit of trying to steam in front of opponents to win the ball cleanly.
Neither player’s style is an issue in isolation, but when combined it means Arsenal can be opened up too easily down that side, especially with Podolski offering little support. Oscar tended to drift that way too, and Chelsea created a couple of half-chances with neat but simple interplay to get in behind the defence – an early cross across the face of the goal showed this danger.
This was also a problem area for the goals, as both free-kicks were conceded by unnecessary Vermaelen challenges. It’s fair to blame others (particularly Laurent Koscielny, who defended poorly at both) but Chelsea’s interplay was rightly focused down their right against that part of the Arsenal back four.
At the other end, Ashley Cole received very little protection throughout the game – Hazard was generally on that side, although the rotating nature of that band of three means other players were often guilty of staying too high up the pitch.
Cole was beaten by both Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and space also opened up on the flank for Carl Jenkinson to cross. A lot of Arsenal’s early deliveries from that wing were low, cleared and greeted with groans from the home crowd – but it’s difficult to know what the crosser was supposed to do when regularly faced with Gervinho and Santi Cazorla up against John Terry, David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic in the middle – aerial crosses are unlikely to be successful. In the end, the equaliser came from an Oxlade-Chamberlain low cross to Gervinho when Terry and Luiz both towards the six-yard box, leaving Gervinho free for a pull-back.
It was a surprise that Di Matteo waited so long before introducing Bertrand down the left to give Cole protection. For the second consecutive weekend, Victor Moses looked decent simply by offering natural width down the right.
Arsenal’s substitutions (Walcott for Ramsey with Oxlade-Chamberlain into the middle, and Giroud for Podolski with Gervinho wide) didn’t have a significant impact on the game. It was a shame to break up Podolski’s relationship with Gibbs going forward, which looked better in the second half, and Walcott had little influence after Bertrand’s arrival. Giroud should have scored late on after rounding Petr Cech.
More problematic was Arsenal’s lack of urgency without the ball when 2-1 down. After the substitutions, the front four stayed high up the pitch when the ball was played past them, but the other six players stayed deep – Arsenal were neither pressing as a unit, nor staying deep and compact. Chelsea often played past the first wave of pressure than had plenty of space to keep the ball in midfield, and slowed the tempo effectively for much of the second half.
Chelsea’s two goals were very similar – coming from free-kicks, conceded by Vermaelen, played to the far post where Koscielny defended poorly. The obvious conclusion is that Arsenal aren’t defending set-pieces effectively, especially having conceded from a corner against Manchester City last weekend.
Overall the main pattern was both sides being vulnerable in the left-back zones – neither Cole nor Gibbs received enough protection from ahead, while Vermaelen’s fouls furthered the problem for Arsenal down that side.