EPL: Arsenal v Chelsea Demolition Derby

Highly anticipated London Derby between Arsenal and Chelsea turned out to be a “Demolition Derby” as hosts trash Chelsea with confidence. Although Chelsea went into the match with psychological edge as they won three of last five encounters at Emirates and didn’t lose any, recent form showed Arsenal unbeaten in last six competitive games. Chelsea, on the other hand, lost to Liverpool and needed an extra time to go through next round of League Cup against Leicester in midweek.
In terms of line ups, Arsene Wenger opted for Coquelin and Cazorla in deep midfield roles and left Granit Xhaka on the bench despite some great performances in recent weeks. Since Cazorla was dropped deeper in midfield, Alex Iwobi found his place on left wing and that was pretty much it. On Conte’s side of the pitch, Oscar lost his place and was replaced by Fabregas as center midfielder while rest of the squad was left untouched compared to previous EPL games.

From the beginning of the match Chelsea was set up to defend very deep avoiding any pressure on arsenal midfield trying to force the ball to the wings provoking the crosses to rather small forward line. Seems as Conte’s plan was to invite the opposition deep into attacking third and upon seizing the ball searching for direct balls to Hazard and Costa who would hold onto the ball until rest of the squad arrives if immediate counter attack wasn’t possible.

However, early mistake from Cahill who was caught in possession quickly disturbed greatly the away team. Before they knew it, Arsenal was already two goals up and Chelsea had a mountain to climb after only a quarter of an hour.

arsenal-chelsea-3-0-walcott
Five players in midfield are nice luxury as you can give Hazard a bit of time to rest. However, if you also defend deep and put no pressure on the ball, you essentially invite the opposition to pick their passes and off ball moves. Arsenal is not a team that wouldn’t take those opportunities

Above you see the screenshot of teams few seconds before Walcott scores second goal for Arsenal and can observe all the problems Chelsea has with their defensive plan.

First, defence is sitting very deep above the box, but that wouldn’t be a problem if anyone from the midfield bothered to pressure Cazorla. He has all the time and space to pick his next pass, and above all, he is already facing Chelsea goal.

Besides deep defensive line and no pressure at all on ball carrier, there is another flaw intrinsic to Chelsea game plan. As they basically wait for Arsenal to kindly turn over the ball, Hazard is exempt from defensive duties since he is waiting to burst forward in counter attack leaving Azpilicueta 1 on 1 with Bellerin. Since Chelsea essentially plays with five in midfield Conte can afford himself to spare Hazard some of defensive duties, however, the rest of midfield has to work much harder to get to ball if Conte wants to get away with Hazard’s role.

Few passes later ball indeed comes to Bellerin on right who then assists Walcott and Hazard tries to cover the ground but is too late since his initial position is off and rest of midfield fails to apply pressure on ball carrier.

Maybe even bigger problem Chelsea had taking the ball out of their defensive third and forming their attacks in any sensible way. This was largely due to great team pressing from Arsenal, but again, Chelsea itself, assisted their rivals.

arsenal-chelsea-3-0
Positioning of full backs is crucial for building the possession from the back. Ivanović should stand at least 15 yards up-field to create more space for back three. Chelsea shoots it’s own leg by letting N’Golo Kante to be a man who connects midfield and defence

If you want to play from goalkeeper and gradually move the whole team from defensive to middle third, you need to provide space for your defenders to play around the opposition pressing. However, if you look at above screenshot you see Ivanović and Cahill in 5 yards of space. This allows Iwobi and Oezil to close down three Chelsea players. Ivanović should be at least 10 to 15 yards ahead of his position which would move Iwobi away and give much needed room for Kante, Cahill and Luiz to operate.

It is difficult to understand what was Ivanović thinking, however, it wasn’t an isolated incident but a pattern that went on through whole first half. With Arsenal determined to chase down every ball, this put the defence under a lot of pressure and lost balls in their own defensive third and when Arsenal didn’t get the ball, it only produced rushed clearances that Arsenal had no problems mopping up.

One can’t think that Chelsea or Conte doesn’t know how to position themselves when building up from the back, it is speaking a lot about mental state of Chelsea players as they came on the pitch. Another thing that is completely down to Conte is that Kante was designated player to connect defence and midfield. This was the case in match against Liverpool as well and while Ngolo is great defensive minded player, at the moment, he simply doesn’t seem to be the one who can keep the ball under pressure nor the one who can control it and evade the pressing by dribbling his way out. This makes Chelsea builds up play much worse than it really should be if Oscar, Fabregas or Matić were the ones to fill the role.

In meanwhile Chelsea conceded another goal after losing possession deep in the Arsenal half and Conte finally changes the system to 3-5-2 during the second half. Highly risky endeavour but it is Conte’s preferred way he used with Juventus and Italy. As the game was effectively lost he probably wanted to test what the team has learned in the training ground and it wasn’t worse than the start of the game. However, since he couldn’t get all the players he wanted during the transfer window, there is still a lot of work before we se proper Conte’s Chelsea.

For any Blues fan it has to be hard to see their team struggling especially as they looked very good in the beginning of the season. Match against West Ham went very well and team did play “Conte football”. However, for some reason, Conte replaced Oscar as deep lying playmaker with Kante and this left consequences on the team’s ability to transition from the defensive zone into the middle third.

Although Chelsea was ridden with mistakes and wrong choices throughout the match, it doesn’t really take anything away from the great performance by Wenger’s Arsenal.

They went on aggressively and took everything Chelsea had offered. They closed down their transition and exploited all the mistakes. Iwobi was particularly good with his direct and quick short passing showing that despite tender age he can contribute massively to the Arsenal play style. Another important thing for Wenger will be the way Granit Xhaka has stepped in his role of defensive midfielder offering his passing range and long shots to Wenger and Arsenal team. If they were criticized for weak center back pairing before, it seems that with Mustafi alongside Koscielny, their defence is improving as well.

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