The Gunners produced their best performance of the season on Sunday to split the points with Chelsea in a goalless draw. Given Arsenal’s poor record at Stamford Bridge in the past few seasons, it’s definitely a good point. Very little separated both teams in a highly tactical match. Chelsea and Arsenal had 8 chances each. The Blues enjoyed 51% of ball possession and mustered 13 shots to 11 for the visitors. But the Gunners showed a bit more commitment by winning 20 tackles to 13 and making 20 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Wenger has often been maligned for his poor record against Mourinho, the former Chelsea manager. Yet, he slightly outfoxed Conte in Sunday’s encounter. Both teams started with a 3-4-3 formation. But the duo formed by Ramsey and Xhaka got the better of Kante and Fabregas in midfield. At halftime, Conte decided to beef up his midfield by replacing Pedro with Bakayoko, switching to a 3-5-2 system.
Conte has a more defensive approach to the 3-4-3 formation than Wenger. The Italian manager mostly uses it as a counterattacking device. The Blues pounced on a sloppy pass from Bellerin in the third minute to hit Arsenal on the fast break. However, the Gunners quickly retreated and Pedro could only fire a 25-yard drive straight at Cech.
Making the most of a disequilibrium
The problem with Conte’s approach is that it puts a strong emphasis on defensive discipline. Chelsea coped well with such an austere system last season. But we can see the limits of this demanding approach as the Blues have already received 3 red cards in 5 league games this season. Luiz got booked in the 52nd for hitting Koscielny’s head with an overhead kick in a crowded area. In the closing minutes, Luiz overran the ball and fouled Kolasinac with a studs-up challenge. The referee made the right call by giving Luiz a straight red card. As you can see on the screen capture below, the Brazilian defender’s block attempt was a potential leg-breaker.
Luiz’s studs land on Kolasinac’s shin. (Photo credit: Sky)
By contrast, Wenger’s approach is more messy. His switch to the 3-4-3 formation was not a deliberate choice but a decision by default. He realized his midfield could not control the game. Because his midfield had become a weakness, Wenger tacitly accepted the lack of balance in his team by adopting a system that made the most of such a disequilibrium. You therefore often see the team split in two because the 3-4-3 formation optimizes what happens at both ends of the pitch. Defensively, the Gunners are never outnumbered. Offensively, they are at least 4 or 5 on a counterattack.
Wenger made just one change to the side that routed Bournemouth 3-0 the previous weekend with Iwobi replacing an injured Ozil in the starting lineup. However, there were 8 changes to the team that defeated Cologne 3-1 on Thursday with only Bellerin, Monreal and Iwobi retaining their starting spots. That rotation was crucial to have enough freshness against Chelsea.
Mustafi as the weak link
The Gunners earned their second straight clean sheet in the Premier League. Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi seem our best options for the back three. Chambers and Holding are still too naive while Mertesacker’s lack of pace is a liability for a high defensive line. Mustafi proved the weak link at the back on Sunday. The Germany international had 3 turnovers, made 2 interceptions and 0 block and won only 46.7% of his duels, compared to 1 turnover, 4 interceptions, 2 blocks and 88.9% duels won for Koscielny and 0 turnover, 4 interceptions, 2 blocks and 70% duels won for Monreal, according to Squawka and the club’s website.
Chelsea’s only clear-cut chance came from Mustafi’s poor positional play in the 21st. Monreal and Koscielny both played a high defensive line but Mustafi was caught napping four yards behind them, playing Pedro and Morata onside. See the screen capture below. Fabregas slipped a through ball to Pedro, who was clean through on goal but was denied by Cech.
Mustafi, circled, is 4 yards behind the potential offside line as Pedro makes a run in behind. (Photo credit: Sky)
Mustafi also misjudged the flight of Cahill’s long ball for Morata on the stroke of halftime. Morata was about to bear down on goal but Monreal rushed back to beat Morata to the ball and divert it into Cech’s path. Mustafi could have been the hero by heading in Xhaka’s free kick in the 75th but his goal was disallowed for offside.
Ramsey’s mazy run
In midfield, Ramsey ran the show with 3 interceptions, 2 blocks, 3 of 6 tackles won and 4 successful dribbles out of 4. Arsenal’s best scoring chance came from Ramsey’s mazy run in the 41st. Ramsey slalomed through the Chelsea defense only to hit the far post with a toe poke. Sanchez was so excited in the stands that he slapped Ospina’s back a couple of times. The Blues simply couldn’t cope with Ramsey’s movement.
The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka outperformed the duo formed by Kante and Fabregas. Ramsey and Xhaka combined to make 14 tackles, 5 interceptions and 4 blocks, compared to 10 tackles, 3 interceptions and 4 blocks for Kante and Fabregas, according to Squawka. In the first half, Ramsey and Xhaka got the better of Kante and Fabregas with a mix of zonal marking and man-marking. They had more defensive work in the second half when Bakayoko joined Kante and Fabregas in midfield. Wenger tried to steady the midfield by sending on Elneny for Iwobi in the 80th.
On the wings, Kolasinac was more busy defensively than Bellerin. Kolasinac won 4 of 6 tackles, had 5 turnovers and made 2 interceptions, 2 blocks and 0 key pass while Bellerin won 1 of 1 tackle, had 1 turnover and made 0 interception, 5 blocks and 2 key passes. Kolasinac was signed as an upgrade over Gibbs and Monreal at leftback. Yet, the Gunners still struggle to stop crosses from their left flank. In the 23rd, Kolasinac couldn’t block Moses’ cross for Morata, who headed wide.
Welbeck’s groin injury
Despite his defensive workload, Kolasinac managed to test Courtois with a long-range strike in the 20th and had a shot blocked by Azpilicueta in the 62nd. Bellerin proved an attacking threat down the right wing in the first half but faded after the break. The Spaniard was one of the three Gunners who also started in the Europa League game against Cologne.
Wenger can have regrets about the front three, which underperformed compared to the rest of the team. Iwobi started on the right wing because Ozil had not recovered from a minor injury. The Nigeria international led Arsenal with 3 key passes but also 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. I thought Iwobi’s work-rate was not good enough. He made no tackle, no interception and no block while Welbeck made 2 interceptions and 1 block and Lacazette made 3 tackles and 1 block. Iwobi also needs to improve his spatial awareness. He is not as good as Ozil in finding pockets of space, which explains why his movement is not good enough.
While Welbeck played as a centerforward in the FA Cup final, the manager decided to play him on the left wing on Sunday. Welbeck should have caught the frame from 7 yards in the 16th but he inexplicably headed Bellerin’s cross wide. He also wasted a good situation in the 57th by overhitting his final ball for Ramsey. Welbeck suffered more bad luck by picking up a groin injury in the 72nd. His injury could become an issue because he’s the only forward in the squad who is both pacey and strong in the air.
Worst start since 2011
Lacazette struggled in the centerforward role. His passing accuracy dropped to 53.3% while his teammates preferred to rely on Welbeck as an outlet for high balls. He had two chances in the first half. Bellerin cut the ball back for Lacazette in the 17th. Tightly marked by Luiz, the France international could only hit a first-time effort straight at Courtois. Then Lacazette had a better opportunity in the 41st when Ramsey’s toe poke hit the post. The rebound fell to Lacazette, who volleyed wide from 6 yards with his weaker left foot. Sanchez replaced Lacazette in the 66th but had no real impact in the final third.
The Gunners produced a great performance but I still don’t see them as serious contenders for the simple reason that their options at centerback and in midfield are limited. If Koscielny gets injured, would you trust Mertesacker and Holding to step up? Likewise, if Ramsey is sidelined for a few weeks, which midfielder could be an attacking force while performing defensive duties? Cazorla and Wilshere are the only players matching that profile, but Cazorla is out for most of the season while Wilshere has a dreadful injury record.
With just 7 points from the first 5 league games, the Gunners are having their worst start to the season since 2011 when they collected only 4 points. In the past two seasons, Arsenal enjoyed a decent start with 10 points. Those results mean that the Gunners desperately need a victory over West Brom next weekend. I therefore expect the manager to rest key players in Wednesday’s League Cup game against Doncaster Rovers.