Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal: Chelsea stronger in the first half, Arsenal better after the break

January 20, 2013

The starting line-ups (Chelsea's three attackers sometimes switched, although they were keen to keep left-sided width)

Chelsea took charge with a commanding start to the game, then held on in the second half.

Rafael Benitez was without Victor Moses and Jon Obi Mikel because of the Africa Cup of Nations, and David Luiz was injured. This meant Ramires and Frank Lampard was the only possible midfield duo, with three creators ahead. Fernando Torres surprisingly started upfront, rather than Demba Ba.

Arsene Wenger was without wide forwards Gervinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski, as well as Mikel Arteta, so he started with the same XI that beat Swansea in the FA Cup in midweek.

The game was all about the tempo of passing – Chelsea moved the ball quicker in the first half and dominated, then this suddenly dropped after half-time, allowing Arsenal back into the game.

Shapes

With various injury problems, both coaches were effectively forced into these starting XIs. Had others been available, it’s likely that Benitez would have been more cautious, probably with Ramires wide-right to stop Kieran Gibbs, while Arsene Wenger might have preferred Theo Walcott as a central striker.

But the surprising thing about the first half was Chelsea’s time and space in midfield. This Arsenal system, with Santi Cazorla wide, would usually be a decent way to get numbers into the centre of midfield, with the Spaniard becoming a fourth passing option. Instead, Chelsea got an incredible amount of license to play easy, short passes and work the ball forward through the centre of the pitch – Arsenal’s level of pressing this season varies significantly from one match to the next, and here they seemed happy to stand off Chelsea, letting them play in the centre of the pitch.

Chelsea left

Chelsea’s three creative players rotated positions at times – particularly Juan Mata and Eden Hazard, but it was particularly notable that they always kept a player very wide on the left in the first half. This was interesting, especially because it’s the natural instinct of all three to drift into central positions, but Chelsea repeatedly stretched the play very obviously on the left, then the central midfielders used their time on the ball to hit diagonals out to that flank. Jack Wilshere, although one of Arsenal’s better performers, didn’t seem sure of his role without the ball, and although he generally got himself goalside, he didn’t pressure the ball in the early stages.

This caused Bacary Sagna all kind of problems, and the Frenchman was clearly Arsenal’s most vulnerable defender in the first half. With space ahead of him, Sagna tried to motor forward and support Theo Walcott, but was often caught out of position when Chelsea attacked – sometimes because the home side’s transitions were quick, direct and effective, but sometimes because Sagna simply jogged back from an advanced position. The opening goal owed much to a brilliant first touch and a clinical finish from Mata, but also to Sagna being out of position, unable to recover in time. That said, with Walcott always trying to make runs in behind, Sagna didn’t get much support. As the below image shows, many of Chelsea’s ‘long’ passes in the first half were into the right-back zone, where Arsenal had to make lots of tackles:

The second goal was scored after typical energetic closing down from Ramires, who was clumsy with his tackles and wasteful with his finishing, but his energy was vital in putting Chelsea on the front foot. His pressing on the halfway line, to win the ball in the lead-up to the penalty, was precisely what Arsenal weren’t doing in the first half.

That said, when Arsenal got the ball into the final third, they actually looked promising. Walcott sent an early ball through to Olivier Giroud for a very fine chance, but the Frenchman missed the target. Later in the first half, Walcott repeatedly got in behind the Chelsea defence, only to be flagged for offside – the timing of his runs was poor, but there was at least penetration.

Second half

The turnaround after half-time was astonishingly dramatic, especially considering the lack of significant tactical switches from both managers. Chelsea were more cautious, although it’s difficult to say whether this was intentional or not, while Arsenal – out on the pitch early after half-time, as if they’d received a rollicking from Wenger – suddenly stepped up their play.

Arsenal’s midfield triangle shifted little, with Coquelin more solidly in the holding role, and Diaby joining Wilshere and helping to press Chelsea’s two midfielders. Arsenal played a little higher up the pitch, closed down in more advanced positions (see below), prompted by Wilshere, and most crucially, passed the ball more crisply. Cazorla, having been a passenger for the first half, suddenly became involved and played a couple of nice passes – he would argue that, playing this role in this formation, he needs his side to dominate possession to influence the game, otherwise he’s simply stranded near the touchline, asked to track a full-back.

Still, he did what he should have done – on paper – from the start. He drifted inside, provided the extra man in midfield, and sent through-balls, allowing Walcott to become, in effect, a second striker. Arsenal’s goal – Cazorla inside, slipping it through the defence for Walcott breaking in behind – was the exact type of goal this system is intended to produce, and from there Arsenal were in the ascendency.

Subs

Arsenal’s problem was the lack of exciting options on the bench. The first change was forced on them – Francis Coquelin, who performed well, had to be replaced by Aaron Ramsey through injury. The Welshman is a more naturally attacking player, but it probably didn’t help the balance of the side, forcing Abou Diaby and Wilshere to become more negative. The other change Wenger made, Andrei Arshavin for Diaby, with Cazorla moving central, rather summed up his lack of reliable options.

Benitez spent the first part of the second half making the hand gesture that became his trademark at Liverpool – arms outstretched, moving his hands together as if playing an imaginary accordion, urging his side to become more compact. It was an incredible role reversal from the first half, a perfect example of how momentum counts for an awful lot in football. Chelsea were now simply giving Arsenal too much time in the midfield zone, and it became obvious that Frank Lampard and Ramires – for all his mobility – isn’t the tightest, most positionally reliable midfield combination.

Benitez introduced Ryan Bertrand for Oscar, in a move that helped protect Chelsea’s back four, but persevered for a frustratingly long period with Torres upfront. He showed one burst of acceleration against Thomas Vermaelen that looked like the Torres of 2008, but Demba Ba was more of an outlet upfront, and helped to relieve the pressure in the last ten minutes, although some good last-ditch defending was needed, particularly from Gary Cahill.

Conclusion

Not so much about positioning and formations (indeed, the managers might have played differently with other options) and more about the speed of passing, and the level of pressing. Chelsea moved the ball nicely in the first period, then Arsenal improved after the break. Ramires was Chelsea’s most effective presser, while Wilshere encouraged Arsenal to be more tenacious in the second half.

However, the most interesting positional aspect was how Chelsea kept a man wide-left in the first half, switching the play wide and causing Sagna difficulties at right-back. That was surely a deliberate policy because it contradicted the natural movement of the Chelsea attackers, and it’s a sad reflection of Sagna’s current form that he was apparently targeted as a weak link.


Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal: Chelsea stronger in the first half, Arsenal better after the break

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