Arsenal’s 2-0 loss at Stamford Bridge on Sunday showed what a lot of us already knew. First, Chelsea is the overwhelming favorite to win the Premier League title this season while the Gunners are no contenders. Second, Hazard is a match-winner while Ozil goes missing in the big games. And third, Mourinho’s teams are sound defensively while the heart of the Arsenal defense is vulnerable.
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Wenger fielded the same team that thrashed Galatasaray 4-1 in the Champions League on Wednesday with the exception of Wilshere who replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain in the starting lineup. While the Turkish club gave the Gunners plenty of space by opting for a high defensive line, Mourinho did not make the same tactical mistake. With a low defensive line, the Blues forced Welbeck to play back to goal or drift to the wing and gave Sanchez less room for getting in behind the back four.
Arsenal enjoyed 53 percent of ball possession and had 10 shots to five for Chelsea, but those stats are misleading. The Blues were much more efficient in the final third with three shots on target to none for the Gunners. And they prevented Arsenal from hitting them on the fast break with cynical fouls.
Chelsea’s tight defense
Sanchez had a bit of space in the opening minutes. The Chile international led a counterattack in the third minute and fired a speculative shot from 30 yards instead of keeping the play alive. Then Chelsea poorly executed the offside trap in the 10th as Sanchez chased a long ball from Wilshere. Sanchez was clean through on goal but missed his first touch, allowing Courtois to collect the ball before colliding with the goalkeeper.
Those first 10 minutes were the only period when the Chelsea defense was a bit lax. Once Mourinho told them to tighten up, it became very difficult to find space. Schurrle and Oscar made numerous professional fouls to stop counterattacks but were booked only in the second half.
Ozil fans will say that the Germany playmaker performed poorly because the manager played him out of position. Well, that’s not entirely true. Ozil started on the right wing, Sanchez on the left wing and Cazorla in midfield. But Ozil often swapped positions with Cazorla in the first half, playing more than 10 minutes in midfield. And when Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Cazorla in the 69th, Ozil played the last 25 minutes behind Welbeck. That’s at least 35 minutes in a central position throughout the game.
Ozil’s poor work rate
If you are a die-hard Ozil fan, you will claim that he needs to play the entire match in midfield. The trouble is that Ozil’s work rate in that part of the field is not good enough. Hazard easily outmuscled Ozil on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 56th although he is much shorter than the Germany playmaker.
The Premiership is a very physical league with a lot of duels in midfield. If Ozil can’t toughen up and win tackles, then it doesn’t make sense to play him in the hole. When you compare Ozil with Fabregas and Oscar, there is a massive gap in attitude. Fabregas won a tackle against Chambers on the stroke of halftime while Oscar stole the ball from Gibbs in the 75th. Fabregas and Oscar are creative players but they also work their socks off defensively.
Ozil left Chambers on his own in the first 30 minutes while Sanchez made the effort to track Ivanovic and help Gibbs on the opposite wing. It’s only when Chelsea opened the scoring and Chambers was on the verge of collecting a second yellow card at the end of the first half that Ozil started giving Chambers a hand. Ozil did very little offensively. Before halftime, Ozil was twice in the final third and had decent passing options for half-chances, but each time he dallied on the ball and lost possession. He faded in the second half despite enjoying more time in midfield.
Ozil’s mental weakness
I think Ozil is too soft for the Premier League. If he were a rugby player, he’d rather dance around the defense to pass the ball than run into a defender before offloading. Pires was a bit soft too when he joined Arsenal in 2000. But Wenger helped him toughen up and the French midfielder went on to score 84 goals in 284 games for Arsenal, according to the club’s stats.
Can Ozil put himself into question and change his game to become a better player? If he can’t, then the club will have to cut its losses by selling him next summer. When I saw Ozil at the 2010 World Cup, I thought he had tremendous potential. Unfortunately, talent is irrelevant at the top level without a mental edge. The clock is ticking. It’s hard to believe that a player as smart as Ozil still hasn’t figured out what he needs to improve in his game after spending an entire season in the Premier League.
Ozil is a confidence player and it’s obvious that the manager has overprotected him. Otherwise, how would you explain Sunday’s substitutions? I guess most fans expected Wenger to pull Ozil out and send Chambo on. But the manager replaced Cazorla with Chambo in the 69th before substituting Podolski for Sanchez in the 79th and Rosicky for Wilshere in the 83rd.
A toothless attack
Let’s be honest, Cazorla, Sanchez and Wilshere performed better than Ozil. I can understand why the manager pulled Sanchez out. The two goals came from Sanchez turnovers. But the Chile forward worked harder and provided more penetration than Ozil, whose passes went sideways or backward most of the time.
Wilshere kept Fabregas quiet in the first half with some tight marking and also made some deep runs that troubled the Chelsea defense. In the 30th minute, Cazorla played Wilshere in but a poor first touch from the England midfielder allowed Cech to gather the ball. In the 60th, Welbeck met a low cross from Gibbs and teed up Wilshere for a drive that deflected off Fabregas’ arm. The referee waved off Arsenal’s penalty claim to only award a corner.
Cazorla was apparently disappointed to leave the field. He took a pass from Sanchez in the 50th but dragged his shot wide from the edge of the box. Arsenal’s attack was pretty much toothless on Sunday. The only save Cech had to make came in the 90th when he denied Podolski from a tight angle.
Chambers’ yellow card
Chambers showed his inexperience on Sunday. Hazard led a counterattack in the 22nd but was cornered along the touchline by Chambers and Wilshere. Chambers’ poor judgment led him to trip Hazard and earn a yellow card that played a key role in Chelsea’s opening goal. Five minutes later, Hazard dribbled past Cazorla and Chambers before Koscielny brought him down with a clumsy tackle. Hazard sent Szczesny the wrong way to convert the subsequent penalty.
If Chambers had not been booked earlier, you can bet he would have stopped Hazard’s mazy run: Hazard was still outside the area, so in the worst-case scenario it would have been a yellow card and a free kick. The threat of a second yellow card prevented the England international from challenging Hazard quite a few times. Hazard outpaced him in the 58th to make a cross that took a deflection off Flamini. Szczesny’s hands were quick enough to divert the ball onto the near post. Chambers definitely needs to work on his decision-making and know when he has to make a tackle or not.
On the other hand, it may be too late for Koscielny to improve in that area. We know his two major weaknesses: decision-making and positional play. Koscielny was lucky to receive only a yellow card for his poorly timed challenge on Hazard. Every season, the French defender has this propensity to concede penalties. Obviously, Koscielny should have refrained from attempting such a risky tackle and let Szczesny get the chance to make a save.
Costa dribbled past Mertesacker in the 76th and found Hazard, who got ahead of Koscielny inside the box but missed the target from a tight angle. Two minutes later, Costa was played onside by Koscielny and ghosted past the Frenchman to collect a long ball from Fabregas and chip Szczesny for a 2-0 lead.
Koscielny was a good value signing in 2010 when the club had limited financial resources. But I really think we need better centerbacks than Mertesacker and Koscielny to contend for the title next season. Mertesacker’s positional play and decision-making are outstanding but his lack of pace is a liability when the Gunners want to press high up the pitch and play with a high defensive line.
A poor start to the season
Arsenal has only 10 points and trails leader Chelsea by nine points after seven rounds in the Premier League. That’s a really poor start to the season. Of course, we had a tough schedule with matches against contenders like Chelsea and Manchester City, but I still believe we shouldn’t have dropped points against Leicester and Tottenham.
The Gunners have the eighth tightest defense in the league with nine goals conceded and the fifth most prolific offense with 11 goals scored. Our defensive woes have resulted from the club’s inability to sign a world-class centerback and a top holding midfielder this summer. There’s nothing we can do on that front until the next transfer window.
Injuries to Ramsey and Giroud help explain our offensive struggles. They were the club’s two most prolific scorers last season. Ramsey won’t come back before November while Giroud is sidelined until the end of December. We must quickly find a different way to score goals. We have a relatively soft schedule until our match against Manchester United in late November. That’s a great opportunity to make up ground in the standings and we shouldn’t waste it.