It wasn’t fun to play the Blues in the past two years. Arsenal’s vulnerability on the fast break was exposed in a 6-0 loss at Stamford Bridge two years ago. Then, Costa acted like kryptonite by having Paulista and Mertesacker sent off in the two defeats of last season. Guess what? The Gunners chased away the ghosts of the past by dismantling Chelsea 3-0 in the Premier League. On Saturday, no Gunner was booked while Costa received a yellow card for dissent. Arsenal also gave the visitors a taste of their own poison by capitalizing on counterattacks to score two goals.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Wenger made no change to the team that routed Hull 4-1 the previous weekend. The Gunners and the Blues had pretty much the same stats for passes (529 vs. 538) and ball possession (49.5% vs. 50.5%), according to the club’s website. What really made the difference was penetration. Arsenal had 5 shots on target and 9 corners compared to just 2 shots on target and 1 corner for Chelsea.
Defensively, the Gunners looked a bit more compact while the Blues seemed to lack support quite a few times. One example of Arsenal’s solidarity was a play in the 35th minute. Costa managed to skip past Xhaka and Mustafi, but Monreal rescued his teammates and dispossessed the Chelsea striker. The midfielders and forwards must get some credit for Arsenal’s clean sheet. Xhaka, Cazorla, Ozil, Iwobi, Walcott and Sanchez combined to win 10 tackles compared to 9 for Kante, Matic, Fabregas, Willian, Hazard and Costa.
Tactically, Conte realized a bit late that his defenders couldn’t cope with Arsenal’s attacking threat and replaced Fabregas with Alonso in the 55th to switch to a 3-4-3 system. Ivanovic joined Cahill and Luiz in the heart of the Chelsea defense while Azpilicueta and Alonso played like wingbacks. To contain Azpilicueta’s runs down our left flank, Wenger sent on Gibbs for Iwobi in the 69th.
Verticality in 3 passes
As the old saying goes, great players win you the big games. Sanchez was involved in all three goals while Ozil scored the third. Both players have struck a fantastic understanding on the pitch. Their complicity was obvious in the 3-1 win over Watford in August and it showed again in the last goal against the Blues. Ozil took a pass from Koscielny in the 40th and rolled away from Kante. The Germany playmaker then ran 50 yards to feed Sanchez, who gave the Chelsea defense no time to regroup by making a first-time cross. Ozil connected with the cross to hit a bouncing volley inside the far post.
That third goal tells you everything you need to know about understanding and verticality. You need a great understanding to blindly find your teammate in a 2v2 situation. Ozil perfectly timed his pass for Sanchez, who perfectly timed his run between Luiz and Cahill to beat the offside trap. Then Sanchez lifted his head up and saw that Ozil wanted the ball at the far post. It only took three passes to move the ball from the Arsenal box to the Chelsea box. That’s verticality. It doesn’t have to look like a straight line on the pitch, but the ball needs to move forward and you usually beat players with a pass or a run. See the screen captures below.
Koscielny beating 2 Blues with a pass (photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
Ozil beating 3 Blues with a run (photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
Ozil beating 2 Blues with a pass (photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
Sanchez beating 2 Blues with a cross (photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
In the previous encounters between the two teams, Fabregas often outshone Ozil by working his socks off and by dropping back to have more maneuvering room. Ozil clearly increased his work-rate on Saturday as he won 58.3% of his duels. Only Kante had a better percentage among the midfielders with 66.7%. Ozil finished the match with 3 shot assists and 3 successful dribbles, respectively tied with Willian and Costa for the most by any player.
Beating the offside trap with a triangle
Sanchez was my Man of the Match for setting the tone by the 11th when he intercepted Cahill’s underhit back pass to chip Courtois for the opening goal. The Chile striker was also involved in the second goal as he made a run to create space for Iwobi in the 14th. Iwobi released Bellerin down the right flank and the Spaniard made a first-time cross for Walcott, who tapped home.
Arsenal benefited from Hazard’s poor defensive work on that play as Bellerin had plenty of time to take the pass and make the cross. Bellerin plays pretty much like a wingback. That’s why Paris Saint-Germain started Matuidi, a defensive midfielder, on the left wing in their Champions League game. Bellerin’s role was crucial in beating the offside trap with a triangular play. When Iwobi released the ball, Walcott was offside but Bellerin was not. Walcott took advantage of his offside position to ghost past Azpilicueta and Luiz before meeting Bellerin’s cross in an onside position. See the screen captures below.
Walcott is offside but Bellerin is not (photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
Walcott is not offside anymore (photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
The Gunners could have won by a bigger margin with better decision-making or a better final ball. Wenger probably thought about that chance in the19th when he said the first half “was nearly perfect.” When Iwobi charged down a clearance from Ivanovic, the ball fell to Ozil, who found Sanchez on the edge of the box. Sanchez had an unmarked Walcott to his right in a better position, but he preferred to run into traffic and dragged his shot wide.
Arsenal wasted a couple of good chances in the second half. Ivanovic cut out Bellerin’s low cross in the 57th while Ozil overhit his pass for Walcott in the 59th. Ozil also lacked spontaneity in the 56th. Leading a counterattack, Sanchez picked out Walcott, who set up Ozil for a shot from 18 yards. But Ozil was reluctant to pull the trigger and the chance was gone.
Walcott is back on the right wing this season after toying with the idea of playing as a centerforward. The past two seasons showed that such a project was too ambitious for Walcott, whose link-up play and ability to hold the ball up are too limited for a centerforward. From the right wing, Walcott can still produce those smart runs that can carve open any defense. The big difference this season is that he has added some aggression to his game. Walcott lost the ball to Matic in the 42nd but he immediately harried the Chelsea midfielder and won a foul.
A few years ago, Sagna often had to deal with two opponents on the right flank because Walcott wouldn’t track back. Hopefully, that poor teamwork is a distant memory. Walcott scored the second goal and could have made it 4-0 in the 69th. Iwobi fed Walcott, who skipped past Alonso to fire an angled strike that Courtois saved with his leg.
Iwobi had a decent game although his inexperience was quite telling a couple of times. One of his turnovers led to a dangerous fast break in the fourth minute. I thought Iwobi could have read the game much quicker in the 36th when the Gunners capitalized on a Chelsea turnover to create a half-chance. Bellerin crossed the ball, but Iwobi made his run too late at the far post and Courtois was able to clear the danger.
Coquelin’s knee injury
In the past few weeks, Bellerin has performed inconsistently. Does that have something to do with rumors linking him with a move to Barcelona? Bellerin is tied to Arsenal until 2019, so it’s not a concern in the short term. However, we need to have Bellerin focused on the current season because neither Debuchy nor Jenkinson can perform at his level. The Spaniard was not tight enough to Hazard in the 21st. Hazard slipped the ball to Willian, who fired wide from a tight angle. Bellerin was dispossessed 3 times, tied with Xhaka for the most by any player, according to whoscored.com.
The only negative from Saturday’s game was the knee injury picked up by Coquelin. The Frenchman was replaced in the 32nd by Xhaka, who slotted in seamlessly alongside Cazorla. The crowd often urged Xhaka to shoot when he had the ball, but the Switzerland international could only muster an off-target drive in the 77th. In stoppage time, Xhaka slipped a through ball to Giroud, who was too slow and Courtois was able to gather.
Our options are now limited in midfield. Ramsey won’t return before mid-October and we don’t know yet how serious is Coquelin’s injury. Elneny is our only defensive midfielder left and he doesn’t have Coquelin’s tackling skills. Xhaka and Cazorla looked like a complementary pair in the pre-season friendlies. However, my main concern is whether Xhaka can break counterattacks like Coquelin, who has more pace. On the other hand, Xhaka has better passing skills and is more likely to help us crack average sides parking the bus.
Improving the Koscielny-Mustafi partnership
Another concern is the partnership between Koscielny and Mustafi. At first sight, Koscielny and Mustafi had a good game, making 4 interceptions each, winning 2 of 3 tackles each as well as 72.7% and 50% respectively of their duels. But a more thorough analysis of their performance shows that they had a couple of mix-ups that could have hurt Arsenal.
Koscielny had a shaky start, fouling Costa twice in the opening minutes and forcing Cech to clear the danger after his pass was intercepted in the 16th. Somehow, Koscielny grew into the game, blocking a goal attempt from Costa in the 39th and bullying the Spain striker in the 83rd. Costa is usually very good at winding up defenders but he never managed to get under Mustafi’s skin. Mustafi was fouled by Costa in the 50th before winning a duel against the Chelsea striker two minutes later.
A misunderstanding between Koscielny and Mustafi in the 73rd allowed Pedro to bear down on goal. However, Bellerin made a last-ditch tackle to dispossess the Chelsea substitute. A Giroud turnover led to another opportunity for the Blues in the 80th. Alonso made a cross for Costa but Gibbs perfectly read the play and kicked the ball into touch. On that play, Mustafi and Koscielny were both marking Costa. Koscielny should have covered Bellerin instead and closed down Alonso on the right flank.
The sweeper’s role
The Blues had their best chance in the 84th when Luiz sent a long ball to Batshuayi, who was denied by Cech. It all started with Giroud failing to pressure Luiz. Then Mustafi should have dropped off to cover Monreal, who was on the wrong side of Batshuayi. Because Bellerin and Koscielny were already busy with Pedro and Costa, Mustafi was the natural sweeper on that play. See the screen captures below.
How Mustafi should have dropped off (photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
Mustafi is in a too advanced position to stop Batshuayi (photo credit: http://www.arsenal)
Mustafi joined the club only a month ago but he quickly needs to improve his understanding with Koscielny. Giroud replaced Sanchez in the 79th and really did a poor defensive job on Chelsea’s last two chances.
That victory was pretty similar to the 3-0 win over Manchester United last season. In both games, the Gunners enjoyed a three-goal lead at halftime. However, we shouldn’t too hastily draw conclusions. First, the Blues are still a team in transition and their manager is slowly getting familiar with the Premier League. And second, the Gunners haven’t played Tottenham and the two Manchester clubs yet and they still trail the Citizens by five points in the standings.
Arsenal will host Swiss club Basel in the Champions League on Wednesday before visiting Burnley on Sunday. Those are the only two games before the international break. The Gunners have no choice but to win those games. A victory over Basel is a necessity to keep alive our chances of finishing first in that group, and three points at Burnley would help us make up ground on Manchester City.