Chelsea defeated Arsenal, 2-0, at Stamford Bridge to remain unbeaten and atop the English Premier League. In a match of few clear cut chances, the match swung on a collection of key moments, with Eden Hazard putting in one of his better performances of the season. Going forward, the path for Chelsea seems clear. Arsenal’s path seems more uncertain, though there is the potential for substantial growth as the season progresses.
A Tight Battle in Midfield
With Chelsea in a 4-2-3-1 formation and with Arsenal in a 4-1-4-1, both teams seemed set up to neutralize one another in central midfield. Chelsea opted to press Arsenal’s midfielders when the team did not have the defensive shape it desired. However, if Arsenal did move deeper into Chelsea territory, Chelsea had no problem sitting in their defensive shape, looking to contain Arsenal in areas 25 meters or further from their goal. Surprisingly, Cesc Fabregas executed his tactically disciplined role quite well, something that has rarely, if ever, during his career. This helped to disrupt Arsenal’s build-up play and led to Arsenal attempts and completing quite a few dribbles, in an effort to move the ball into more dangerous positions. So while this defensive performance did not have the intensity or create the big moments of Chelsea’s aggressive pressing in last year’s fixture, it proved remarkably effective at keeping Arsenal from scoring.
With Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere looking to close down Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas, while Mathieu Flamini looked to contain Oscar, Arsenal looked to make it difficult for Chelsea to control the flow of play through the center of the pitch. In that sense, the 4-1-4-1 that Arsene Wenger has opted for this season, partly in an effort to improve Arsenal’s midfield solidity in big matches, accomplished its goal. And last season, against a Chelsea side that struggled to dominate games when they had to play proactively instead of reactively, this type of set-up could have gotten Arsenal a point or even a win, rather than the 6-0 defeat they suffered in this fixture last season. However, this Chelsea side, due to in no small part to the addition of Cesc Fabregas, seemed content to play short passes and build their play in the a slower fashion. This patience served them well as it allowed Chelsea to move the ball into the wide areas and exploit Arsenal there.
With the midfield trios for both teams occupied with each other, the potential for space between the midfield and the back line could be successfully exploited by the advanced wide players in the match. Looking at Chelsea’s attack vs. Arsenal’s defense, this left Kieran Gibbs matched up with Andre Schurrle and Calum Chambers with Eden Hazard. Gibbs dealt with Schurrle well, but Chambers had difficulty containing Hazard. With the Belgian on top of his game, Chambers struggled to deal with Hazard’s dribbling ability. In fact, Hazard’s proficient dribbling led to the penalty that Chelsea scored to take a 1-0 lead. Often, Hazard found himself with plenty of space to drive into and the lack of Arsenal defenders around him the man for Chelsea to play through. That was where the space was. Had Chelsea been less patient or less able to keep possession, then the risks that both Hazard and Schurrle took with their positioning could have hurt Chelsea. If Arsenal’s fullbacks had made more of an effort to push up against Chelsea’s advanced wide players, maybe they could have limited Chelsea’s effectiveness in exploiting wide areas. In that sense, it may have been that Arsenal’s more cautious approach to this match lead to Eden Hazard putting in a man of the match performance.
Arsenal’s Left-Sided Bias in Attack
According to Whoscored.com’s Match Report, Arsenal attacked down the left-side on 44% of all their attacks. Compare this to attacking 25% of the time down the right, and Arsenal had an obvious asymmetry in their play. It could have been that Arsenal wanted to focus their play down the left side so to pin Chelsea fullback, Branislav Ivanovic in his own half. Keeping players close to one another in the attacking third also allows for a greater ability to stifle the opponent’s counterattacks. Once possession is lost, the narrow attacking team can more easily cut off passing lanes and look to win the ball, allowing them to better prevent the opponent from moving the ball into an advanced position, efficiently. However, this narrowness on the left led to quite a bit of congestion. With Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, and Mesut Ozil joined by one or both of Cazorla and Wilshere, Arsenal needed to execute their passes, touches, and dribbles with a high degree of precision in such tight areas. However, depending on having such a high degree of precision seems like an unwise strategy.
It seems that Arsenal had half of a solution to the problem of creating changes against Chelsea. They had plenty of players on the left side of the pitch, but they lacked a player on the right side of the pitch to make that wide-to-center run. That play could have served as a target for diagonal passes, or incisive passes from the left side. This could have allowed Arsenal to exploit Chelsea’s attention being drawn to the defending Arsenal on the left. It could have caused Chelsea to defend with more width, helping to give Arsenal more freedom on the left side. Specifically, it could have opened up spaces for Arsenal’s dribbles forward, making them more potent. So while Arsenal failed to create a single shot on target, it seems that a lack of an advanced player on the right, to make those diagonal runs, played a larger role than the performances of Arsenal’s attackers on the day.
Chelsea continue their march towards the title with this win. Last season’s version picked up 16 points against the Top 4, but failed to win the title by dropping points against significantly inferior opposition. They seem to have solved this problem by finding two players who slot into the roles where Chelsea had little quality in the 2013-14 season. Given the holes in Chelsea’s squad last season, both Cesc Fabregas’ and Diego Costa’s marginal value added to Chelsea is greater than their potential value added to any other club in football. Given the magnitude of the upgrade and how close they came to the title last season, it seems like this title is Chelsea’s to lose.
Arsenal are a more interesting team going forward. They clearly have the players to make them an exciting and effective team. There have been glimpses of a team that thrives on high-pressing and a direct style of play. So while ten points from seven games is far from an ideal points haul, there is plenty of room for growth. One key factor could be the return of Theo Walcott, depending on how much Walcott has recovered from his injury. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain not starting consistently for Arsenal on the right, Arsenal lack that vertical threat on the right side of the pitch to balance their attack. A fully fit Theo Walcott would be an ideal solution to their problem, as a wide forward on the right side. Therefore, even though Arsenal have every reason to be displeased about their start to the season, they do have a relatively clear path they can take to reach their attacking potential. While this may not have much value this season’s title race, their development as a side is crucial. With the number of signings, a change of system, and a World Cup preventing Arsenal from having a proper pre-season, 2014-15 always represented a season of adaptation. This season will serve as a learning experience. They need to stay in the Top 4 so they can maximize their ability to attract the one or two signings they need to complete the squad. More importantly, a sufficient level of growth this season could set them up for a period of consistent title contention, starting with the 2015-16 season.