Tactics: Chelsea’s fantastic three expose Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1

Tactics: Chelsea’s fantastic three expose Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1

They say that all formations are neutral; it’s their application which decides their failures and success. Both Chelsea and Arsenal essentially played a 4-2-3-1 on Sunday but it was Arsenal’s which was made to look inadequate and it wasn’t until they switched it in the second-half, playing with one holding midfielder, did they improve.

A lot has been made of Chelsea’s flaws; that with the beauty that a triumvirate of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata brings, it can be particularly exposed down the flanks. Arsenal might have sensed the opportunity to exploit that given the way they moved the ball against Swansea City in the FA Cup but they were unable to in the first-half because they just couldn’t get hold of the possession. Chelsea went into half-time with 60% of the play and two goals in front.

There was a bit of controversy about the goals, both involving Ramires. The first came from a foul by the Brazilian which went unnoticed by referee Martin Atkinson and off went Chelsea on the break to open the scoring. The second goal involved two tackles; the crucial one being the one which brought down Ramires although it looked like he might have “cleverly” fallen under the challenge of Wojciech Szczesny. However, it originated from his tackle to on the halfway line to dispossess Abou Diaby and for that while Arsène Wenger was unhappy, he wasn’t entirely indignant. Arsenal simply could have defended them better for both goals with Bacary Sagna’s positioning especially exposed when Chelsea scored through Juan Mata.

Chelsea’s platform for dominance in the first-half can be traced back to the way their fantastic three behind Fernando Torres danced in the puddles between Arsenal’s midfield and defence. But as Rafael Benitez was quick to praise, it wouldn’t have been possible without the splashes made by Torres. “Fernando Torres was great,” said Benitez. “He was fantastic for the team. He was working so hard. We needed his effort, his runs, his movement to create the space for the second line [of Oscar, Hazard and Mata].”

The Spanish striker won’t get the plaudits: his touch was heavy and he showed a lack of composure. Indeed, it’s clear Demba Ba is the superior striker at the moment. But Torres worked for the overall strategy of Chelsea and that was to create space for the three behind him to play. He made sure he constantly occupied the two Arsenal centre-backs, Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen, neither of whom wanted to be left exposed to his pace. As it was, they probably should have taken the risk as Torres clearly lacks belief in himself, and squeezed the space in front because Arsenal’s midfield wasn’t doing it and that allowed Oscar, Mata and Hazard to revel in the between-the-lines.

With Torres playing on the shoulder, Chelsea’s second line of attackers were able to revel in the extra space. Arsenal’s mentality, however, was too passive and that meant Chelsea were all too comfortable in possession.

It wasn’t until a change in mentality and a tactical switch to a 4-1-2-3 with Francis Coquelin as the sole holder and then later Aaron Ramsey, a bit like how Mikel Arteta has excelled as the best defensive midfielder in the league, did Arsenal cede giving Chelsea “too much room.”

The switch probably highlights the flaws of the 4-2-3-1 formation, a system Jonathan Wilson says has started to lose its shine. He writes for The Guardian that “an intelligent wide man, who drops off the full-back, can prosper against a 4–2–3–1, particularly if the opposing winger neglects his defensive work.” Theo Walcott constantly did just that, staying up the pitch which exposed Sagna.

Even though Arsenal dropped deep, they didn’t know how to deal with Chelsea’s magic three who constantly swapped positions, and as such, the intelligent wide men, as Wilson describes, prospered. Playing one holder in the second-half and pushing Diaby up allowed Arsenal to put pressure of their own and if need be, an extra body in midfield.

Suddenly in the second period, Arsenal turned the tables and led an impressive fight-back. They in turn, nearly exposed Chelsea’s inefficiencies when playing the 4-2-3-1 but Chelsea, especially Gary Cahill, stood firm. Indeed, Arsenal’s passing and movement was at times scintillating and were able to turn Chelsea back to front so quickly that it is still a wonder how a team as talented as this could be so easily inhibited as they were in the first-half.

Clearly the subtle alteration to the formation helped Arsenal to move the ball better, with Santi Cazorla increasingly able to combine and interchange positions with Jack Wilshere.

Questions will certainly be asked why Arsenal took half of the match to react, Wenger stating psychological reasons as well as tactical – of which he addressed in the second-half – for the disparity in performances. Certainly, there was a moment just before Chelsea scored their second which I feel summed up the differences between the two sides.

Abou Diaby picked up the ball in the middle of the park and looking forward for options, dwelt on the ball and was eventually forced to pass it back to Per Mertesacker. After he did, he quickly turned back to Theo Walcott and remonstrated that he should have remained in his position wide right so that he could receive the ball. Instead, Walcott drifted towards the edge of the box where play was congested. When Diaby received the ball again, he was still distracted by the inability to make the pass he originally wanted and was easily dispossessed by Ramires who eventually won the penalty.

It wasn’t that Walcott was wrong to keep wanting to get into central areas -indeed, he was Arsenal’s main threat coming in off the flanks – but he needed to be cleverer, more selective with his runs. Actually, Arsenal’s movement as a forward unit needed to be more intelligent. At the same time Jack Wilshere, overwhelmed by Chelsea’s dominance, was seen constantly gesticulating to his team-mates to press harder and at one point, even looked to the bench to ask them to do something about it. In the end, Wenger might have drawn encouragement from the reaction in the second-half but such psychological freezes that we saw in the first-half have become all too frequent.

They were tactically naïve.

Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal: paucity of options a problem again

Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal: paucity of options a problem again

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So, it’s 1 point from 9 in January as a dismal first half, coupled with some dodgy refereeing and a bit of Chelsea cheating, cost us yesterday’s game.

The fact that the level of Arsenal’s performance can fluctuate so wildly from game to game has long been a worry, that it can go from one extreme to the other in the space of 90 minutes even more so. It was apparent against Swansea in midweek when a limp first half was followed by a much better second period, and it was the same yesterday – the key difference being that we kept Swansea at bay, and couldn’t do that against Chelsea.

Arsene Wenger said that Arsenal had a physical problem starting the game after a Wednesday fixture, but it’s worth remembering hat Chelsea too played that night, letting a two goal lead slip against Southampton. And our start to the game was good enough to fashion a fantastic chance for Olivier Giroud. On his favoured left foot, at a nice angle, the Frenchman should have scored, instead he fizzed his shot wide. Misses like that against top quality opposition are usually costly, and inside 60 seconds Chelsea were ahead.

Martin Atkinson missed a clear foul on Coquelin in midfield, Sagna was caught moving up field, and when Chelsea played a long ball over the top he was caught out of position and couldn’t get back quickly enough to prevent Mata from making it 1-0. I also wonder if Wojciech Szczesny might have done a bit better but credit to the Spaniard, it was a fine finish. It was frustrating to see replays of the Ramires foul, which merited a yellow card at least, but playing to the whistle is one of the first things any footballer is taught and Arsenal were caught napping.

Similarly, the second goal was a piece of rank gamesmanship from Ramires, thrusting his leg into Szczesny as he tried to sidestep him, but it really was only with the benefit of slow motion that it was obvious. It’s as clever a dive as I’ve seen in a long time, but you also have to ask questions of Arsenal’s defending to allow that position to develop. Diaby gave the ball away, didn’t seem that interested in getting it back, and when the ball came to the Brazilian in the box he had no Arsenal defender anywhere near him. Lampard made no mistake with the penalty.

Chelsea could have scored more with Ramires and Torres missing good chances, while at the other end Arsenal did little of note. Our players were back out early for the second half, clearly something had been said during the break, and whatever it was, it worked. We were quicker and stronger, more involved and on top of the game for the long periods of the half. Walcott pulled one back, his run and finish was excellent after Cazorla’s through-ball cut the Chelsea defence open, but as much as we huffed and puffed the second goal wouldn’t come.

They could have gone further ahead a number of times, thankfully Torres couldn’t match the quality of his runs (which twice left Vermaelen trailing) with a finish, while the captain did brilliantly to prevent Demba Ba from scoring after Szczesny went full Almunia. The Belgian fired a free kick wide, Giroud headed just over late on after a series of Arsenal corners, but we lacked the quality on the pitch, and particularly on the bench, to get another.

This was highlighted by the fact that Arsenal Football Club went to Stamford Bridge and the only attacker we had on the bench was Andrei Arshavin – an out of shape, disinterested player whose Arsenal career has essentially been over for at least a year at this stage. While it’s easy to be critical of a player who seems content to coast along, go to training and pick up his money, it’s not as if the Russian’s lack of fitness/sharpness is a surprise to anyone, least of all Arsene Wenger who has steadfastly refused to use him for most of the season.

It’s not as if we’ve suffered an injury crisis either, it took illness to Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain to strip the squad of attacking options from the bench, and frankly it’s just not good enough. The frustration is made more acute by the fact that Arsenal’s second half performance was pretty decent, and you wonder what might have been if we’d had another striker or a winger to throw on.

The refusal – and that is the only word I can use this morning – of the manager to improve his squad in January is costing us points. I know we’re dealing in hypotheticals to a certain extent but it’s impossible to look at yesterday’s game and not see how a couple of new players might have improved us. Similarly, would those new players have prevented us from needing an FA Cup replay thus going into this game fresher and without the burden of a midweek fixture before it? It’s all a big pile of ‘what if’ though because those players haven’t arrived and we saw the stark effect of that yesterday. You need to get back into a game, a game you desperately need something from, and what are your options? A clutch of defenders and midfielders and an overweight Arshavin. It’s not right.

We can break out the clichés about ‘super quality’ or ‘exceptional’ players till the cows come home, but the bottom line is you cannot look at that Arsenal bench yesterday and not feel anything but huge frustration when Arsene talks about how it’s difficult to find players better than the ones we have. I’d suggest that if you can’t find better than what Arsenal had yesterday then you’re either not looking hard enough or you’re not looking at all, and my fear is that it’s the latter situation which has seen Arsenal’s powder kept dry in this window.

I simply don’t believe that between Arsene Wenger, his scouting team, and the rest of his staff, that none of them have come up with a name which could improve this squad. It’s just not possible. Every single one of us could do it, which isn’t to say we’re experts or better at managing a football club, but we’re not scratching around for diamonds in the rough here, we’re a club with money at our disposal and a manager who just won’t use it.

Even if we do make signings now, you can’t convince me they’re part of a plan or strategy of some kind. If so, the groundwork would have been done before January and the signings made as soon as the window opened. Three Premier League games later (D-L-L) isn’t the time to give your squad what it needs. I mean, the need is even more pressing now but it’s a question of whether or not you trust the manager to spend the money when up until now he’s refused to do so.

He says he’s worried about making the top four, he should be. I know we’ve come from further back in the past but a quick look at the table shows us 22 points behind the league leaders, we are the very essence of a mid-table team this season. We’re a football club with one striker, a guy who I like but who is clearly limited, and a manager who won’t do anything about it. When there’s the chance to sign a player like Demba Ba he says he’s too similar to Giroud, but imagine the second half yesterday with Giroud and Ba side by side. I think it’s fair to suggest we’d have had a much better chance of getting something from the game.

Arsene keeps talking about the quality of his squad, and while to some extent I think we’re capable of better results than we’ve been seeing, the true measure of quality is results, not how we perceive the players we have or how we look on paper. If we continue making mistakes, continue conceding silly goals, continue missing chances, and continue losing games and dropping points, that’s how you judge the quality of the team, and we’re being found wanting far too often.

It’s a huge worry that it’s taking a half-time rocket to get them going, it makes you think something’s wrong with the preparation and motivation of the team. That’s coming from the manager. And while I’m very much of the opinion that shopping now will be reactionary and a bit of a nab and grab as desperate times call for desperate measures, these are desperate times.

We have to give everything we have to secure a top four finish. There would be nothing good at all about the club finishing outside the Champions League places. Regardless of how much you want change, for the club itself it would be disastrous. And this goes beyond Arsene Wenger to the board, to Ivan Gazidis and to the man who owns the club, Stan Kroenke – there has to be a collective desire and effort to make Arsenal Football Club as good as if it can be, and at this moment in time they’re failing, badly.

Till tomorrow.