Going into the clash at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, few if any pundits gave Arsenal a chance to take even one point from the game. However, through a combination of astute tactical awareness and sublime team selection, Arsene Wenger’s men proved them wrong. The Gunners grind one out to win a point away at Stamford Bridge.
While the team didn’t get the result fans so desperately thirsted for, like at the Cup Final at Wembley, the performance shows that there is more than meets the eye with this squad. So here are five factors that decided Sunday’s 0-0 draw between Chelsea and Arsenal.
Gunners Grind One Out at the Bridge
Aside from the two games against Chelsea, Arsenal have looked weak with a back three. One need only remember the 5-0 thrashing at Anfield for proof.
So, going into this game, many fans were hoping for a full tactical regression back to the traditional back four. Hearts may have been heavy after seeing the starting XI, but none of the defensive fragility plaguing the Gunners this year materialized.
On Thursday Rob Holding and Per Mertesacker looked as if they hadn’t ever played together, and bottom-of-the-Bundesliga FC Cologne took advantage, leading by 1-0 at halftime.
On Sunday Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi joined the resolute Nacho Monreal in defense. The club captain especially made the system look better than it has all year.
They made important interventions at the back and didn’t get caught in possession the way Holding was apt to in the Europa League. There was no defensive midfielder for Arsenal in the match.
With Francis Coquelin injured and Mohamed Elneny out of favor for League matches, it was the Xhaka-Ramsey duo who got the call in the center of the pitch. However, unlike against Stoke, neither got caught pressing too high up the field, despite playing a ‘Gegenpress’ style of play.
In fact, this pressing made life uncomfortable for Chelsea, who found it difficult to get their passing game going. Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi not only kept a high line but also dropped back to help defend when necessary.
Kolasinac and Bellerin took the initiative on the flanks as well, stifling Conte’s wing-backs.
This rivalry has been nearly defined by the schoolyard-like bullying that the Blues have subjected Arsenal too in recent seasons. From Michael Essien bossing play for Mourinho, to Gary Cahill shutting opposition out to Marcus Alonso clobbering Hector Bellerin in the air, Chelsea are certainly Wenger’s tormentors.
On Sunday, however, that pattern has begun to change. Victor Moses looked almost shocked when he collided with Alexandre Lacazette in the first half, leading to treatment.
David Luiz, right at the end of the first 45, also required the trainers after being forced out of play after a ball. While his knock wasn’t directly as a result of an Arsenal man, that certainly didn’t make him feel good about it.
Then, of course, there was the late incident where Sead Kolasinac challenged the Brazilian’s charging run down the wing. The defender simply couldn’t contain his frustrations as he clobbered the Bosnian, drawing a straight red.
Likely it was less the fact Kolasinac was closing him down and more the fact that Luiz was frustrated by the stoic defense the visitors put up.
Although this physical determination is admirable, fans will be the question ‘where was this effort before?’
Blessing in Disguise
Mesut Ozil is no doubt one of Arsenal’s best, and his statistics prove it. Year after year he is among the League leaders in creativity and passing, yet his defensive deficiencies are well-documented.
So, when the news broke that he was injured, Antonio Conte was probably licking his lips. The conservative game plan that Wenger brought to the Bridge doesn’t suit Ozil’s game at all.
Having both Iwobi and Welbeck to press tirelessly and defend when needed may have made the difference. After all how many times have fans watched on as the little German simply stops running when the team loses possession?
I am not advocating eliminating Ozil for Arsenal’s plan altogether, but in a match where defensive stability is key the team has more suitable options available.
Certainly, it was the home team that got more frustrated by the game, as evidenced by David Luiz’s late red. It was the third straight game in which Chelsea drew a red against Arsenal, perhaps indicative of the rigid defensive shape of the Gunners when facing their London rivals.
In the FA Cup Final it was Victor Moses who lost his cool, while in the Community Shield Pedro was instead sent off. While three games may not prove much, perhaps it suggests that the old dog, Arsene Wenger, can learn some new tricks.
Normally against a solid defense the team loses their concentration when their attacking advances are rejected. If they can replicate the disciplined defending they showed today, there is no reason they can’t take full points from other defensively sound teams, like Stoke City.
Hopefully the club can internalize the lessons they have learned from the Blues.
Man of the Match
No goals to report, so the attackers, despite pressing very well, can’t really be considered for the honor. While Petr Cech organized his defense well, and made a few saves, Chelsea only really challenged him once, the attempted chip by Pedro.
So I’m choosing the club captain, Laurent Koscielny for the honor today!
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