Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal: Chelsea’s pressing wins the game within 20 minutes

March 25, 2014

The starting line-ups

Jose Mourinho recorded his biggest league victory as Chelsea manager with a crushing win over Arsenal.

Mourinho continued with Samuel Eto’o upfront rather than Fernando Torres – Eto’o only lasted 10 minutes, but scored the opener. In midfield, Mourinho was without Ramires and Willian, both suspended – he left out Frank Lampard and played David Luiz in the centre of midfield alongside Nemanja Matic.

Arsene Wenger named the same side that defeated Tottenham the previous weekend.

This game was done and dusted within the first quarter – Chelsea were 3-0 up, Arsenal were one man down, and the rest of the game was simply a question how how many Chelsea would score.

Chelsea pressing

The key feature of the game was Chelsea’s brilliantly effective midfield pressure, and while the game was reminiscent of Liverpool’s 5-1 thrashing of Arsenal earlier this year, Chelsea actually pressed in higher positions, causing Arsenal’s centre-backs and holding midfielder problems, as well as the more advanced players. Time and time again, Chelsea won possession in central zones and immediately turned this into a quick counter-attack, and often a promising goalscoring opportunity.

The man who started the pressing was Oscar, one of the most tactically disciplined number tens you’ll find in Europe. Although his role wasn’t as spectacular as that of other Chelsea players, because Mikel Arteta isn’t particularly mobile and therefore Oscar didn’t have to work particularly hard to shut him down, denying Arteta time on the ball harmed Arsenal’s passing, and was one of the main reasons they couldn’t work the ball through midfield.

The more energetic pressing came from deeper positions, where Luiz and Matic were fielded as dual defensive midfielders, but played extremely proactive roles, pushing forward and closing down Santi Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain repeatedly. Mourinho’s second era at Chelsea is based on more technical players, but this was reminiscent of the way his old Chelsea side played – bullying the opposition with sheer physicality in midfield, denying the Arsenal players time to impose their technical quality on the game. Matic, in particular, was superb.

Also interesting was the role played by Andre Schurrle on the right. Pressing is often thought of as pushing ‘up’ the pitch to deny opponents the ability to move forward, but Schurrle was crucial in pressing ‘inwards’, too – something Pedro Rodriguez does very nicely at Barcelona. When Oscar pushed forward to help Eto’o press the centre-backs, Schurrle moved inside to prevent Arsenal’s midfielders having a numerical advantage in this zone, and maintained the midfield pressure. It meant Kieran Gibbs was left unattended and scampered forward a couple of times to cross, but Chelsea were comfortable with this – Arsenal were too hurried to continually switch play out towards him.

The only major danger for Chelsea was Tomas Rosicky moving inside from the right flank to create a 4 v 3 in midfield. That meant Chelsea’s pressing could be bypassed, and the Czech created Arsenal’s only serious opportunity when the match was still ‘live’, for Olivier Giroud’s scuffed shot shortly before Eto’o opened the scoring.

A few incidents summed up Chelsea’s pressing:

  • Oscar fouled Arteta in the first 20 seconds, underlining the ‘advanced destroyer’ role he was set to play
  • Schurrle intercepted a Koscielny pass towards Gibbs within the first five minutes, nearly slipping in Eto’o for a chance
  • Schurrle darted inside to close down Arteta, preventing him from receiving a Bacary Sagna throw and winning the aerial dual
  • Matic charged into Cazorla in midfield, prevented him from turning, won the ball and slipped in Schurrle for the second goal
  • Oscar won possession from Arteta and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the centre circle, in the lead up to the penalty incident for 3-0 (and the mistaken identity red card)

This was Chelsea’s best display of pressing this season, maybe their best display of pressing ever. It underlines what Mourinho wants from his players, why he’s sold certain players and bought others, and was particularly impressive given that Ramires and Willian, arguably Chelsea’s best two pressers, were absent. Their ruthless finishing was also vital.

Arsenal approach

The other side of the coin, of course, is that Arsenal played into Chelsea’s hands with their overall approach. Being so vulnerable to Chelsea’s pressing was as much a technical problem as a tactical issue – at their best, Arsenal would have been able to pass around the pressure and exposed the lack of protection for Chelsea’s backline.

The peculiar thing was the overall shape of the side. Last weekend Arsenal produced one of their most defensive (but successful) displays for years in the 1-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur – they conceded space in front of the defence, but sat deep and prevented through-balls from being played in behind.

It seemed logical they’d continue with a cautious approach, if not quite so defensive, against a side that depends upon breaking into space. Chelsea have often struggled against a parked bus this season, partly because they love playing on the counter-attack, and partly because they lack a true, in-form penalty box poacher who will thrive on crosses, and hold up the ball. Eto’o and Torres aren’t as quick as five years ago, but they still naturally make good runs.

Instead, Arsenal played a high defensive line, and were fortunate not to concede more goals. Schurrle ran through twice in the opening 20 minutes – once he was flagged offside in a very marginal decision, once he was unable to bring the ball under control. With the centre-backs pushing up and Arsenal trying to expand the active playing area to make Chelsea work harder when pressing, the full-backs also took up very advanced positions.

Like in the defeat to Liverpool, this left the centre-backs repeatedly exposed and Chelsea were able to attack into the channels quickly. At quick turnovers, Chelsea often broke 3 v 3 and Arsenal simply didn’t have enough players in defensive positions to prevent them from darting through on goal.

The final hour was barely a contest.

Conclusion

This was as devastating a display of pressing as you’ll find this year – Chelsea put themselves in charge by commanding the centre of the pitch with that pressure. Arsenal’s lost the game within the first 20 minutes – the downside of pressing, of course, is that it’s tiring and difficult to sustain for long periods. Had Arsenal remained in the contest, they probably would have dominated the second half as Chelsea tired, and they needed to be more pragmatic and cautious within the opening period, to weather the storm.

Matic and Luiz applied the most forceful pressure, but Oscar’s more subtle role was crucial and Schurrle was arguably Chelsea’s most involved player – pressing ‘in’ intelligently, slipping the ball through the defence, and making runs in behind.

For Arsenal, it’s the third heavy defeat away in the three away games against title contenders. There are familiar themes – particularly the inability to cope with, or react to, being closed down in midfield. It’s tempting to question the contribution of the attackers, too, but when Arsenal are unable to work the ball up the pitch towards them in the first place, they’re hardly the main problem.


Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal: Chelsea’s pressing wins the game within 20 minutes

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