Premier League 2019/20: Arsenal vs Chelsea – tactical analysis
In Mikel Arteta’s first match as head coach of Arsenal, they secured a draw against Bournemouth. Three days later, they returned to the Emirates Stadium and welcomed Chelsea for a London Derby.
Chelsea have lost five in their last seven games in the Premier League, Frank Lampard looked to produce some positives results by beating their rivals. Before the match, they were just a point ahead of Manchester United, barely staying in the top four.
Despite playing in a tight schedule, Arteta did not rotate his squad much. There were just a few changes from the last game. Granit Xhaka missed the game due to illness; Sokratis Papastathopoulos also missed out as he was suffering a concussion from the previous game. Calum Chambers returned from a match ban and partnered David Luiz at the centre of the defence.
For Chelsea, Lampard continued to play with a 3-4-3 formation after their victory against Tottenham Hotspur. Reece James had an ankle problem and was unavailable for this game. Marcos Alonso was not fully fit for the game and he did not get into the match squad.
Chelsea fail to play out from the back
In this game, both teams recorded a high number of passes (387 for Arsenal; 552 for Chelsea), the figures hinted both teams tried to play out from the back. First, we investigate how Chelsea’s build-up failed to break the press of Arsenal.
For the first 30 minutes, Chelsea played with a back-three, moving their ball deep in their pitch. Roughly speaking, their structure was a 3-2-3-2 or 3-2-4-1. Both wingbacks, Emerson and César Azpilicueta pushed themselves high and wide. The pivots, N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić provided the second layers as vertical options.
Arsenal’s press was organized with a principle: protecting the centre by maintaining their block compact. In general, their defensive shape was a 4-2-3-1, and they placed their block at the centre of the pitch, with Reiss Nelson and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang staying close to Mesut Özil. Lucas Torreira and Mattéo Guendouzi pushed higher to make the block vertically compact. The most important was to contain both Chelsea pivots, prevent them from receiving a vertical pass.
The above image demonstrated the battle between two teams. Kurt Zouma received the ball from Kepa Arrizabalaga. Although the Frenchman tried to progress the ball through Kovačić, the Croatian had to return the ball first time due to the instant pressure of Özil from his back. At the same time, Alexandre Lacazette pressed the return ball, they ensured the build-up phase of Chelsea was under pressure in the first half.
Below is the pass map of Emerson. Chelsea failed to progress the ball through the Italian. Since passing distances to the wingbacks were long, Arsenal full-backs could step forward to press the wingbacks early. They disallowed the Emerson or Azpilicueta to turn or find the midfielders.
Chelsea tried to play long to find the wide wingbacks or Tammy Abraham. On average, the Blues played 23 long passes in the first half, but this figure increased to 34 in the derby, only 19 of them were successful. Also, Abraham failed to fulfil the duties of a target man, he failed both aerial duels and merely won one ground duels from 10 attempts.
With these tactics, Arsenal restricted the attack of Chelsea. In the first half, the Blues only obtained an xG of 0.12.
Press of Chelsea
Chelsea also pressed high, but their press was from perfect. An old problem of their defence, which the spacing between their players still occurred in this game. Chelsea kept their back-five deeper, while the other five positioned themselves very high to disrupt the build-up of Arsenal. Usually, it was Abraham to lead the line, and he signalled his teammates to join the press.
However, they did not have a solution to deal with the extra man of Arsenal, Özil. It was reflected in the following scene. We supposed Mason Mount pressed Luiz while shutting the passing lane to Bukayo Saka; Abraham and Kanté controlled both pivots of Arsenal. The problem was Kovačić could only mark Ainsley Maitland-Niles or Özil.
In this match, Arsenal players were quick and accurate enough to break the press of Chelsea. Luiz was a good ball-playing defender who could play the diagonal pass to Maitland-Niles under pressure. When Kovačić closed off the Arsenal right-back, the No.10 of Gunners was a free player to receive the header of his teammates. This situation required a centre-back to step up, but Tomori was too far to reach the German from the defensive line.
The build-up of Arsenal
For the first phase of Arsenal’s attack, Maitland-Niles did not play as an inverted right-back. Instead, Arsenal tried to stretch the block of Chelsea to give their players more spaces.
The build-up of Arsenal outnumbered Chelsea, it involved six players to play against their five-man block. As illustrated in this scene, both Maitland-Niles and Saka stayed wide. This increased the distance between Willian and Mount, hence, allowed Torreira to receive the ball from Chambers, then progressed the ball.
When Chelsea committed the pivots to press, then, Özil positioned himself between the lines. However, Özil could drop as well, and this possibly brought a centre-back with him. This was the moment which Arsenal could harm Chelsea.
This was a perfect example. In this Arsenal build-up play, Özil dropped deep and took Tomori out of position. Chelsea did not mark their opponents tightly, hence, allowed Maitland-Niles to receive the ball out wide. In that instant, Chelsea’s backline was exposed, the situation was three red shirts against three blue shirts. Nelson ran through the huge gap between Zouma and Emerson (should have been covered by Tomori), exploited the huge spaces behind the defenders.
As the attack continued, Antonio Rüdiger had to come inside. Therefore, Aubameyang was the free player to receive the cross from Nelson at the far post. Once again, their quality in the final third let them down, the cross bounced and Aubameyang could not hit it the first time, Arsenal failed to convert it into a shot.
Another outlet of Arsenal’s build-up was Lacazette. The Frenchman played as a ‘false-9’. Below is his heat map, it reflected the presence of Lacazette was not restrict in the centre-forward position. He also dropped into the middle third to provide himself as a passing option.
This was a situation demonstrating the function of Lacazette, he took away a defender and create space for his teammates. Luiz, as mentioned, an exceptional ball-playing defender who could play vertical penetrating passes, found the Frenchman. He dropped from the defensive line, brought Rüdiger with him. This triggered the movements of some players.
First, despite starting as a winger, Aubameyang quickly recognized the spaces behind Rüdiger and exploited this with a diagonal run. Tomori came inside to track the Gabonese. This opened the wide corridor for Arsenal left-back, Saka.
Lacazette quickly played the ball to the left-back. Saka also released Aubameyang, this created a shooting chance for Arsenal.
Defensive contribution of Aubameyang
A point worth to mention was the hard work of Aubameyang defensively. He won four of his nine defensive duels; intercepted the ball 11 times; he also obtained three clearances. He eased the burden of Saka.
Some of his defensive contributions were not quantifiable, such as this case. Abraham, Mount and Kanté positioned themselves high up on the field, hence, forced Arsenal’s defenders to stay narrow. Zouma tried to hit the right flank by a diagonal pass, where he saw Willian was running into. Despite it was in the first-half stoppage time, as a skipper, Aubameyang was willing to track back and he intercepted the pass.
Effects after the shift of formation
After an unfavourable start, Lampard did not hesitate to make a change. He substituted Jorginho on to replace Emerson in the 34th minute. Then, Chelsea shifted into a 4-3-3 formation with some positive impacts. First, this change improved the quality of their press.
The following graph showed all 13 recoveries of Jorginho after he came on. 10 of his recoveries were made in opposition’s half, more than any other players on the pitch. This graph reflected the Italian came high to join the press, which we are going to explain in the coming sections.
The introduction of Jorginho increased one more Chelsea player in the midfield, therefore, Chelsea could press with six players. The presence of the Chelsea No.5 was a pressing trap, only on occasions, he marked his target tightly. Instead, he chose to keep a distance with his target, let Arsenal passed to that ‘free player’, then he came from behind and intercepted the ball.
In some stages of the game, the PPDA of Chelsea ranged from 2.8 to 4.4, they pressed intensively. We used the following example to demonstrate the importance of Jorginho to Chelsea’s press.
This was a goal kick-off Arsenal, Leno passed to Shkodran Mustafi, who was pressed by Mount. With the lateral run of Abraham, the 22-year-old forward could first shut the passing lane to Guendouzi, then, covered Torreira. Willian was on Luiz’s side, so Mustafi did not play the ball back.
Since Kovačić was closing off to Maitland-Niles, Mustafi could not pass to the right-back. The German found an option, he was Özil, who was dropping deep to receive the ball. At this moment, the sixth man of Chelsea’s press appeared at the back of Arsenal’s no.10. Jorginho prevented Özil from receiving the ball, then, the ball went to Zouma’s feet.
On other occasions, Jorginho also showed relentless efforts to press the free player, who was going to receive the ball. He helped Chelsea to quickly regain possession, this was one of the reasons that Chelsea’s possession reached 65% after the break.
In the attack, Jorginho either stepped in front of the centre-backs or dropped between them. His presence allowed Chelsea to play out from the back easier, though this could be attributed to the lower defensive line of Arsenal as well. Another point of making the substitution was to release Kanté.
After Chelsea changed to a 4-3-3 formation, they had to attack midfielders to match Guendouzi and Torreira. This created one of the best chances of Chelsea, the xG was 0.26 in this scenario. Since Kanté operating higher on the pitch, he took Guendouzi far from Torreira, hence, created plenty of spaces within the Arsenal players. Willian also positioned himself wide, which dragged away Saka.
The debutant Tariq Lamptey was brave to dribble into the spaces within Arsenal players. Meanwhile, Abraham read the space behind Saka and started his diagonal run. The right-back picked Abraham, if not Luiz’s block, Chelsea may have scored an equalizer earlier.
On other occasions, Kanté appeared on the right side of the pitch, occupying the half-spaces or cooperating with Willian or Lamptey. However, given to the hard work of Aubameyang, Arsenal did not totally lose their right flank to Chelsea.
Arsenal ruined their transitions
In the second half, Arsenal did not play out from the back as in the first half. Nonetheless, they still had some offensive transitions to create chances. However, their players seemed to dribble too much, neglecting some better options. The Gunners had five counter-attacks in the game, but none of them was converted into a shooting chance.
This was an example that Arsenal ruined their transition. Just five minutes after the break, Arsenal had a chance to double their lead. Nelson retrieved the ball from the edge of Arsenal’s box, dribbled past Jorginho. At that moment, Zouma was in front of him, Rüdiger was left alone. At the centre of the pitch, Torreira was following up, Lacazette was there as well. The best (and easier) option of Nelson was to pass the ball to Torreira, let the Uruguayan and Lacazette progressed the attack in a two v one situation against Rüdiger.
Nelson did not do that, he kept his head down, insisted on carrying the ball, tried to take on Zouma, but failed. This could have been a good chance for Arsenal to score a goal, at least, they should have created a shot.
When defending transitions, in the first half, Torreira showed relentless efforts to press the ball or close off the free player. However, in the second half, when Arsenal pushed high for another goal, they left their centre-backs against Abraham.
Luiz was able to deal with Abraham in duels. Abraham found himself more comfortable to play against Mustafi. The German made a weird decision that led to Chelsea’s winner. When he had his chance to press Abraham high up on the field, he decided to back off and let Chelsea continued their transitions.
This was a huge blow for Arsenal, in this match, they prepared something for Chelsea. Once again, the defensive contributions of Aubameyang should be appreciated. Maybe, they spent too much energy in the intensive first 35 minutes, hence, forced to defend deeper in the second half. When Lampard changed his tactics, Arteta seemed to fail to react. The quality of some individuals was still under questions, and maybe, Nicolas Pépé is going to have his chance soon. They will learn from this game and try to grab all three points against United.
For Lampard’s team, maybe, they were fortunate to have Jorginho playing until the last kick and scored the equalizer. Lampard’s showed his quick reaction to deal with unfavourable situations. Two days later, they are going to face their next challenge, Brighton.
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