Arsenal vs. Chelsea: Defensive frailties exposed in 1-0 loss as Gunners slip to 3rd

Two points from the last three matches. That’s not really the stuff of champions. Arsenal slipped to third place in the Premier League after losing 1-0 to Chelsea on Sunday. That game showed that the Gunners are only contenders by default. The Blues of last season would have been running away with the title by now but they self-destructed under Mourinho. Likewise, Manchester City should be the natural leader but injuries to key players have hampered the Citizens’ title bid. Somehow, the Gunners are just three points behind Leicester despite flaws in their squad and a poor run of form.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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Chelsea dominated the game with 6 shots on target compared to 1 for Arsenal. If you look at the statistics, the Gunners clearly lost the midfield battle. According to Arsenal’s website, Fabregas won 5 of 6 tackles, Matic 2 of 3, Willian 2 of 2, Mikel 2 of 2 and Oscar 1 of 1. Our most hardworking midfielder was Ramsey, who won 4 of 5 tackles, followed by Campbell with 2 of 3, while Ozil, Flamini and Walcott made no tackle at all.

The percentages for duels won also reflect the greater focus and commitment shown by the Blues: Fabregas 71%, Matic 50%, Willian 50%, Mikel 44%, Oscar 22%, Campbell 73%, Ramsey 52%, Ozil 25%, Walcott 25%, Flamini 17%. Only Oscar had a low percentage among the Chelsea midfielders whereas three Arsenal midfielders performed poorly in duels.

Our defense looked decent this season as long as it was protected by Coquelin and Cazorla. But now that Flamini and Ramsey are in charge, the defense has become more vulnerable. The main issue at the back is that we have no world-class centerback. Mertesacker’s lack of pace is a too big liability in one-on-one situations while Koscielny and Paulista have their dodgy moments.

Mertesacker’s red card

Koscielny won 3 of 4 tackles, tied with Azpilicueta for the most by a defender, but was also let down by some poor decision-making. Instead of clearing the ball in the second minute, Koscielny attempted a risky pass for Bellerin that was intercepted by Oscar. The Brazilian midfielder fired a low strike that Cech turned around the post. Then Koscielny showed poor judgement on the play that led to Mertesacker’s sending off. Willian initiated a counterattack in the 18th and slipped a through ball to Costa, played onside by Koscielny. Clean through on goal, Costa was brought down by Mertesacker. It was a scoring chance and Mertesacker was the last defender, so the referee had to give the German defender a red card.

Let’s analyze that play in detail. First, Monreal should have tracked Willian instead of diving in. Then Arsenal had the opportunity to play Costa offside but Koscielny was watching Willian instead of keeping an eye on Costa. By the time Koscielny wanted to execute the offside trap, it was already too late. Willian only had two passing options: Costa down the middle and Oscar to his left. Since Bellerin was marking Oscar, Koscielny should have covered Mertesacker instead of leaving his teammate on his own with Costa.

Mertesacker is a key player in the dressing room but every time the Gunners play a high defensive line, they take the risk of exposing his lack of pace. Arteta was also an important player on the pitch until injuries and Coquelin’s emergence led the manager to choose a younger and faster holding midfielder. Mertesacker reads the game better than Koscielny and Paulista but his sluggishness simply makes our high defensive line too vulnerable. Will Wenger bench Mertesacker against speedy strikers like Mourinho did with Terry or will he wait for a world-class signing this summer?

Koscielny’s reckless bump

Monreal is having a good season but I thought he should have done better on a couple of plays. He was not tight enough to Willian in the 15th when the Brazilian winger met a cross from Azpilicueta for a volley that Mertesacker blocked. Willian beat Monreal to the second ball only to shoot straight at Cech. Then Monreal failed to stop the cross that led to the goal in the 23rd. Paulista came off the bench to replace Giroud in the 22nd and was not alert enough to prevent Costa from converting Ivanovic’s cross. At the top level, it’s all about winning duels and both Monreal and Paulista lost their duels on that play.

Chelsea nearly added a second goal before halftime. Ivanovic outjumped Koscielny to meet a corner in the 43rd but Monreal cleared Ivanovic’s header off the line. A reckless Koscielny was lucky not to concede a penalty in the 56th for an obstruction on Fabregas.

Wenger made only one change to the side that drew 0-0 at Stoke the previous weekend with Ozil replacing Oxlade-Chamberlain in the starting lineup. Ozil had little impact offensively and his poor work-rate hurt the Arsenal defense. Fabregas had plenty of freedom to pull the strings in the first half because whenever he dropped back Ozil was not marking him. That’s OK against the weak sides because Flamini and Ramsey can cope with the workload but that becomes deadly against the good teams. The Gunners have no chance against Barcelona in the Champions League if Iniesta gets so much freedom.

A lesson in work-rate

Ozil is having a much better season than Fabregas but on Sunday the Spaniard was definitely the better player. Fabregas also gave Ozil a lesson in work-rate by winning 71% of his duels and 5 of 6 tackles compared to 25% and no tackle for Ozil. The Germany playmaker had a nighmarish game with a lot of misplaced passes and three turnovers. Ozil had a good passing option with Ramsey to his left in the 41st but he tried to dribble his way out of trouble and lost possession to Oscar. A minute later, Costa capitalized on another Ozil turnover to fire an angled strike that Cech palmed out. In stoppage time, Hazard bullied Ozil off the ball for a fast break but Sanchez tracked back to dispossess Remy.

I’m assuming that Ozil has recovered from the foot inflammation that kept him out of the Stoke game, but if that’s not the case then the manager should better rest him for a couple of weeks because a diminished Ozil is simply useless.

In theory, Flamini is the ballwinner while Ramsey is the all-rounder. Unfortunately, Flamini wanted to be everywhere on the pitch and his erratic positional play sometimes led Ramsey to swap positions with the Frenchman, explaining why Ramsey made five tackles and Flamini none. Flamini’s behavior on the goal was so bizarre. He ran past Koscielny and Paulista across goal while he should have been patrolling between the penalty spot and the edge of the box. Flamini then poorly marked Fabregas, who ran 30 yards unchallenged in the 32nd for a goal attempt that was blocked.

Sanchez’s return

Ramsey gets sometimes mocked for ending up in the striker role but that’s exactly what Flamini did on Sunday. Campbell played a one-two with Giroud in the 10th to pick out Flamini, who slipped while attempting to set up Ozil. On the stroke of halftime, Flamini made a run between Terry and Azpilicueta to meet a cross from Ramsey only to send the ball over the bar with a kung-fu kick from seven yards. A left-footed volley or a diving header was the better option on that play. In the closing minutes, Ox made poor contact with Bellerin’s cross, but Flamini pounced on the loose ball for a backheel flick that Courtois saved. As a fan, you can’t help but think that Ramsey would have done better with the first two chances.

The only positive from the game was Sanchez’s return from injury. Sanchez replaced Campbell in the 57th and obviously lacked a bit of match fitness. When the ball fell to Sanchez in the 63rd after a goalmouth scramble, he could only miskick it into Walcott. Sanchez still managed to strike fear into the Chelsea defense as Matic and Mikel got booked for obstructions on the Chile forward, respectively in the 60th and 72nd.

The Gunners next face Burnley in the FA Cup before hosting Southampton and traveling to Bournemouth in the Premier League. Six points from those two league games is a necessity if they want to stay in the title race.