Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea - Wenger gets his tactics spot on

After 13 failed attempts, Arsenal have finally beaten a Chelsea side containing Didier Drogba. Arsene Wenger spoke about the threat posed by the Ivorian before the game, and refreshingly his team selection was geared as much towards nullifying Chelsea as it was towards aiding Arsenal's passing game.

Wenger had several big selection decisions to make and he got all of them spot on:
-Johan Djourou came in for Sebastian Squillaci, adding more physical and aerial presence against Drogba
-A fully-fit Robin van Persie was preferred to Marouane Chamakh and resumed his role as a false 9
-Theo Walcott started on the right to reduce Ashley Cole's influence and provide a threat in behind Chelsea's defence
-Samir Nasri's work rate and economy in possession was preferred on the left with the more lackadaisical Andrey Arshavin dropped to the bench

Arsenal's 4-2-3-1: Song (17) and Wilshere (19) sat behind the front four, covering the right and left flanks respectively.
Van Persie (hidden behind 2) played his usual false 9 role, dropping back into midfield & creating space for Fabregas (4) and Walcott (14) to advance into the box. Koscielny (6) brought the ball out of defence while Djourou (20) stayed back.

In the same fixture last year, Ashley Cole set up two goals from left wing crosses and repeated the feat again at Stamford Bridge this season when he set up Didier Drogba for the opener. In both games Nasri started ahead of Walcott on the right, and the latter goal arose as a direct result of Nasri failing to track Cole's run down the left. Walcott played in the return fixture at Stamford Bridge last season and managed to keep Cole reasonably quiet, so perhaps Wenger had this in mind when deciding to start the young Englishman on the right.

In theory it makes a lot of sense, Walcott has tremendous pace and his diagonal running in behind opposition defences is a major threat - one which requires left backs to play more conservatively. This was the case in the game last night, with Cole barely venturing into the final 3rd of the pitch. Not only did Walcott pin back Cole for the majority of the time he was on the pitch, he also displayed excellent defensive awareness in tracking the runs of the left back (and of Malouda) on the few occasions that space did develop on Chelsea's left side - as this following video shows:

Ashley Cole's passing chalkboard: In the 73 minutes that Walcott was on the pitch, Ashley Cole managed just one (unsuccessful) pass in the attacking 3rd.

Walcott will have got a lot of plaudits for his role in Arsenal's 2nd and 3rd goals but his defensive work was equally excellent. With Cole/Malouda on the left and Ferreira/Kalou on the right, it's clear which side was Chelsea's strongest, and indeed there was a clear passing bias to the left throughout the match.  Walcott's defensive diligence - along with Bakary Sagna and Alex Song's excellent performances - helped to shut down Chelsea's entire left flank.

Arsenal's right-sided dominance: Alex Song (6/6) and Bakary Sagna (5/5)
completed all of their attempted tackles.

Chelsea's left flank shut down: Despite showing a clear preference for passing to the left flank, Chelsea were unable to penetrate into the final 3rd on that side - amazingly not a single pass was played from that zone. They had better luck down the right against the defensively-weaker trio of Clichy-Wilshere-Nasri, but Kalou and Ferreira lacked the ability to take advantage, and their teammates didn't seem to have much faith in them.

Not only did Arsenal defend well in their own half, they also pressed well in Chelsea's. Up until the 3rd goal, Chelsea's keeper and centre backs were put under constant pressure by the closing down of van Persie and Fabregas (and occasionally the 2 wider players), with the fullbacks and deeper midfielders pushing up to close down the gaps in behind. This was a much more co-ordinated form of pressing than has been seen in recent weeks from this Arsenal side, and it paid dividends. Chelsea were unable to build from the back and resorted to numerous long balls forward, which the Arsenal back 4 dealt with fairly comfortably. In addition, Arsenal were able to win back possession several times inside Chelsea's own half, the most prominent example being Walcott's robbing of Malouda in the build-up to Arsenal's 3rd goal.

While the defending was excellent, there was still the small matter of breaking through Chelsea's deep-lying defence. It's been a problem area for Arsenal in recent encounters between the two sides, with Chelsea keeping clean sheets in each of the previous 3 games. But this time it was to be different. In an attempt to break down stubborn defences, Wenger has given Alex Song more license to get forward this season (facilitated by a change in the midfield set-up from a 1-2 to more of a 2-1). The decision paid off against West Ham, and it did again yesterday as the Cameroonian started off an attack from deep, driving into the box before calmly shooting into the far left corner of the net.

In fact, Wenger will have been delighted with all 3 goals yesterday because they were a perfect demonstration of his attacking philosophy, and of the capabilities of Arsenal's 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation:

Overall, a very positive performance for the Gunners. Not only does it keep them in touch with the league leaders, it also provides a tactical blueprint with which to approach future big games. One of my main criticisms of Wenger has been that, while he may be an expert technician, he is not necessarily an expert tactician. On last night's evidence I am beginning to believe he may also be the latter.