The Gunners still have a chance of finishing in the Top 4 of the Premier League after sinking Chelsea 2-0 on Saturday to pull within 3 points of their London rivals. The Blues enjoyed 64% of ball possession but Arsenal proved the more threatening team in the final third with 5 shots on target to just 1 for the visitors.
Photo credit: Premier League
Emery made 3 changes to the side that lost at West Ham a week ago with Bellerin, Ramsey and Torreira replacing Maitland-Niles, Iwobi and Mustafi in the starting lineup. The Gunners played in a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield when defending and morphed into a 4-3-3 formation when attacking. The difference between those 2 systems was Ramsey’s position. The Wales midfielder man-marked Jorginho when Chelsea tried to play out from the back. But as soon as Arsenal won the ball back, Ramsey joined Aubameyang and Lacazette in a fluid front three.
In one of their best performances this season with the 4-2 win over Spurs, the Gunners did most of the hard work in the first half before spending the second half under siege. Emery shut up shop by switching to a 4-5-1 formation in the 67th minute with Iwobi and Maitland-Niles replacing Lacazette and Ramsey.
Arsenal showed more desire than the Blues, winning 55.4% of the duels according to the club’s website. The Gunners were also helped by Sarri’s questionable tactics: Hazard was toothless in the false nine role, leading all players with 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. Sarri moved Hazard back to the left wing by replacing Willian with Giroud in the 68th but the move came too late to have any impact.
Emeryball at its best
When you look at the way Ramsey, Lacazette and Aubameyang pressed high up the pitch in the first half to force Chelsea turnovers, there’s no way Ozil could play in that Arsenal team. Ramsey, Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win 3 of 3 tackles and make 4 interceptions and 12 recoveries, compared to 2 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 7 recoveries for Hazard, Willian and Pedro, according to the club’s website. Basically, an attacking player at Arsenal made 6.33 key defensive actions compared to 3.66 for an attacking player at Chelsea.
That kind of pressing game didn’t exist under Wenger. Emery also made another significant change in the way the Gunners play out from the back. Under Wenger, they slowly moved the ball forward with safe passes in their own half. Under Emery, the Gunners reach the final third more quickly with two-touch passing or even first-time passes in their own half.
If you look at the screen capture below, you can see an example of Emery’s more ambitious and more risky approach. Sokratis took a pass from Xhaka in the fourth minute and found Bellerin down the right flank. The Spaniard picked out Lacazette who made a low cross for Aubameyang. From 8 yards, Aubameyang somehow missed the target, flicking the ball wide of the far post. On that play, Sokratis, Bellerin and Lacazette only had 2 touches each.
Playing out from the back with very few touches. (Photo credit: BT)
Lacazette broke the deadlock in the 14th minute by controlling a cross from Bellerin before turning Alonso to fire an angled strike into the top corner. The French striker showed great spatial awareness with his back to goal as well as great technique with perfect touches to maneuver in the tiny space between Pedro and Alonso. That was his only scoring chance of the game. Lacazette produced a good all-around performance with 1 goal, 1 key pass, and 3 successful dribbles, tied with Hazard and Pedro for the most by any player according to whoscored.com.
Aubameyang’s 3 tackles
Emery’s game plan was to choke the Blues in their own half. It could only succeed with outstanding work-rate from the attacking players. Aubameyang is the leading scorer at the club but he selflessly worked his socks off, winning 3 of 3 tackles. Willian in the ninth minute and Hazard in the 19th could barely believe it when they saw Aubameyang tackling them.
Contributing defensively doesn’t mean that you can’t attack. Aubameyang had 3 scoring chances. He should have found the net with his flick in the fourth minute. Then Aubameyang created a chance on his own in the 17th, dispossessing Azpilicueta before testing Kepa with an angled effort. He also connected with a cross from Kolasinac in the 37th for an overhead kick that sailed wide of the far post.
Ramsey was the key cog in Emery’s pressing plan. Defensively, he made 1 interception and 6 recoveries. Offensively, he made 1 key pass and stung Kepa’s gloves with a long-range strike in the 29th. His movement created problems for the Chelsea defense. The free kick that led to Arsenal’s second goal came from Luiz’s nasty lunge on Ramsey in the 37th.
The Wales midfielder’s performance makes Arsenal’s decision to let him go even more mind-boggling. The Gunners have 4 attacking midfielders: Ramsey, Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. From a football viewpoint, the decision to release Ramsey makes no sense at all. Ozil and Iwobi can’t match Ramsey’s work-rate while Mkhitaryan can’t match Ramsey’s end product.
And from a business viewpoint, it’s a highly questionable decision. At £180,000 per week for 4 years, Ramsey’s contract offer would have cost £37.44 million. Now let’s assume that the club finds a replacement for £50,000 a week. Arsenal would then have to agree a signing fee below £27 million to make the replacement cheaper than extending Ramsey’s contract. That’s not an easy task when you know that the signing fee was £35 million for Xhaka and £26 million for Torreira. Of course, any new signing would potentially have a higher resale value than Ramsey in 4 years, but there’s also no guarantee that the newbie could perform at Ramsey’s level.
Guendouzi needs to beef up
The Gunners kept a clean sheet in great part because the forwards and the midfielders did an outstanding defensive job. Torreira is slowly getting back to his best level after a drop in form since the end of December. He made 4 recoveries and 0 interception, led all players by winning 6 of 9 tackles and led all starting midfielders by winning 70.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Playing in the same position as Torreira, Chelsea midfielder Kante made 5 recoveries and 3 interceptions but only won 1 of 2 tackles and 33.3% of his duels. There were 2 signs that Torreira wasn’t at 100% yet. First, he had a bout of cramping in the 83rd. And second, his passing accuracy dipped to 61.8% while it’s usually above 80%.
On the left side of the Arsenal midfield, Guendouzi worked hard, making 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries, but he’s still a bit soft. The French teenager won only 1 of 5 tackles and was dribbled past 5 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Guendouzi definitely needs to work on his understanding with Kolasinac, who was frustrated a couple of times not to have an easy passing option around him.
In the No. 6 role, Xhaka displayed good activity, winning 1 of 1 tackle and making 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries. Those stats are nearly similar to Jorginho’s (1 tackle won, 3 interceptions and 12 recoveries). Xhaka always has an error in him but he managed to limit the damage on Saturday. The Switzerland international led all players with 4 fouls and was lucky to avoid a booking for holding back Kante in the fourth minute. Xhaka dallied on the ball and was dispossessed by Willian in the ninth minute. He then made a poor clearance in the 59th. The ball fell to Alonso, who fired wide from the edge of the box.
Bellerin’s knee injury
Bellerin’s season could be over. He twisted his left knee in the 69th and was stretchered off the pitch. It might just be a minor knee sprain but there could be some ligament damage too. Bellerin has been quite unlucky this season. He found the right balance between defense and offense under Emery until a calf strain sidelined him last month. Bellerin is a key player for the way the Gunners play out from the back. The Spanish fullback has also built a good understanding with Lacazette down the right flank. Emery will have to rethink how the team plays on that side of the pitch.
The options at rightback are not mouthwatering. Lichtsteiner’s legs are too rusty to play in the Premier League, Maitland-Niles is still a raw player and Jenkinson is limited technically. Maitland-Niles would seem the logical choice by default. Obviously, Maitland-Niles doesn’t have Bellerin’s technical ability but he has more pace than Lichtsteiner and Jenkinson. Maitland-Niles shifted to the rightback position when Elneny replaced Bellerin in the 72nd.
On the left flank, Kolasinac led Arsenal players with 2 key passes. With better decision-making, Kolasinac should have made a third key pass in the 64th. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Kolasinac was in a good position to slip the ball to an unmarked Torreira or make a teasing cross for Aubameyang at the far post. But Kolasinac drove into the six-yard box and his cross for Aubameyang was cleared by Alonso.
The moment Kolasinac missed a passing opportunity. (Photo credit: BT)
Kolasinac showed good work-rate, winning 4 of 4 tackles and 77.8% of his duels and making 1 interception and 7 recoveries, but his poor defensive awareness nearly cost his team. He was not tight enough to Azpilicueta in the 10th. The Chelsea rightback made a dangerous cross for Hazard, who missed the target from 11 yards. Kolasinac was then completely clueless in the 18th when Luiz hit a ball over the top for Pedro. Standing 3 yards behind Sokratis, Koscielny and Bellerin, the Bosnia-Herzegovina international played Pedro onside. Clean through on goal, Pedro sent his lob wide.
A complementary pairing
Kolasinac also left Pedro unmarked in the 56th. See the screen capture below. Willian outpaced Torreira to cut the ball back for Pedro, who blazed over the bar. I assume Monreal will be the first choice at leftback when he’s completely fit.
Pedro left unmarked by Kolasinac. (Photo credit: BT)
In the heart of the defense, Koscielny and Sokratis formed a complementary partnership. Koscielny had a more pro-active approach based on anticipation while Sokratis preferred a more physical approach based on duels. Sokratis won 2 of 4 tackles and 66.7% of his duels and made 1 interception and 3 recoveries. By contrast, Koscielny won 1 of 1 tackle and 33.3% of his duels and made 1 block, 3 interceptions and 3 recoveries.
Koscielny read the game really well, clearing a lot of dangerous crosses. But the jury’s still out on his level. He looked weak in the air against Southampton and his performance against Chelsea did not clear all the doubts. According to whoscored.com, Koscielny won only 1 of 6 aerial duels. On the stroke of halftime, Koscielny was beaten to the ball by Alonso, whose header crashed against the post. Yet, Koscielny showed again his flair for scoring chances on set pieces. The French defender met a free kick from Torreira in the 13th for a bullet header straight at Kepa. Six minutes before halftime, Koscielny beat the offside trap to redirect a speculative shot from Sokratis into the top corner for a 2-0 lead. It initially looked like a looping header but TV replays showed that the ball bounced off Koscielny’s shoulder.
To a certain extent, Chelsea looked a lot like a Wenger team. Offensively, the Blues lacked penetration. Leno only had 1 save to make -an angled strike from Alonso in the 82nd. Defensively, the Blues were a mess on set pieces. Lacazette’s goal came from a short corner while Koscielny scored on a free kick from Torreira. Sokratis nearly scored from a short corner in the eighth minute but his header bounced wide.
The Gunners next host Manchester United in the FA Cup on Friday before playing Cardiff in the Premier League on Tuesday. Solskjaer will field his best team so I don’t think Emery will rest anybody for that clash. Then Arsenal will need 3 points at home against the Bluebirds to make up ground in the Top 4 race.