Desperately chasing back for the ball, Francis Coquelin felt the full force of Eden Hazard’s “back”. He groped for Hazard’s shirt not twice but three times, and on the final attempt, was comically sent spiralling to the ground. Hazard knew he was there, he always knows he is there, but Coquelin simply came too close and was bounced off like a bullet rebounding off Superman’s chest. You don’t get close to Hazard. Not if you want to get the ball.
That’s what he said in an enlightening interview with Sky Sports before Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat to Chelsea where Hazard scored a stunning solo goal.
Thierry Henry: You’re telling me you like contact. If I had the chance to turn quickly I wanted to face my opponents. I didn’t want to be like that. I didn’t want him to be able to grab me. You like that, which is weird because I didn’t like to be grabbed. You do it totally different.
Eden Hazard: Most of the time I am quicker than the defender and I like to turn. Most of the time I like the contact.
Thierry Henry: You like to be kicked?
Eden Hazard: Not be kicked… but I like contact.
If football matches are a matter of details then it’s that sort of attention to the minutiae that lost Arsenal the game on Saturday. Of course, that’s not really provable; the Gunners were second best throughout anyway, but for Antonio Conte, nothing is left to chance. In that same interview, Eden Hazard reveals insight into the way the Conte puts the team through repetitive drills on the training ground so come match day, the players are able to carry out their functions almost automatically.
That edge that Chelsea had was palpable on the day with Hazard typifying the team’s performance not just with the ball but without it. He elaborated on his role within the team’s tactics after the game:
The manager asks a lot of me. When we don’t have the ball, he wants me to defend, to close inside and be ready to chase the diagonal [pass], and when we do have it I have to counter-attack and be free, always trying to do some ‘magic’ like I did here.
Attention is paid to the end product – and rightly so – a wonderful slaloming run which saw Hazard besting Laurent Koscielny not even once, but the goal actually originated from an interception which he made, by getting a toe on a pass from Coquelin. It’s the positioning he takes up, though, which is crucial, abandoning the flanks so that he can seize on passes like that to hit the opponent on the counter-attack. See GIF here.
Further example of the tactic can be seen by the video below where clearly, you can see a 5-4-1 shape in defensive phase, with the two wingers tucking in to try and intercept the pass. When the ball is played to the flanks, they then furiously rush to the side to offer a more orthodox position. But of course, they play alongside two of the hardest working midfielders around, N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, who shuffle excellently from side-to-side, so any potential to exploit the flanks was minimised.
Hazard/Pedro defending the flanks narrowly, waiting to pounce so that they can exploit Arsenal on the break (commentary is good for this) pic.twitter.com/uFDYIlGYY1
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) February 5, 2017
Indeed, that’s where Laurent Koscielny said Arsenal could have exploited Chelsea had they got their passing game going, saying: “I think we’d have had a lot of chances if we’d played quickly with our passing, on the flank we had to combine to have some opportunities. We did it in the first half.”
Certainly, there was potential to exploit the space on the sides, but by Chelsea positioning those wide players inside, it made it harder then for Arsenal to come back infield. As such, passing tended to follow a u-shape across the pitch (Monreal to Iwobi was the highest pass combination). And even when Arsenal thought they had penetrated, as the example above shows, they had two or three opportunities that could have led to promising moments, Chelsea were quick to snuff out the danger.
At the same time, a number of Arsenal players were not at the races, most notably Alexis Sanchez. His positioning, as the number 9 who drops off to essentially make to number 10s for Arsenal, was rarely a factor as he was unable to get into spaces to turn. Perhaps Arsenal moving to a 4-3-3 had an effect because he wasn’t able to bring others into the game with Ozil playing a tad deep. Indeed, Ozil began the game on the left, and whilst Arsenal improved after he was moved centrally, after Chelsea scored their first goal, the pair couldn’t really get close enough to each other to combine.
The tilted triangle in the middle, though, expected to offer extra protection to an unfamiliar midfield combination, had a disastrous effect on one player in particular: Francis Coquelin.
Accustomed to pressing high up the pitch, Coquelin struggled to cope with extra space at the base of the midfield. The new role demanded him to adjust his game because now, he was expected to shut down space, not with the laser-like tackles he is renowned for, but through astute positioning. However, old habits die hard, and for the second-goal, he was seen haring forward for the ball after initially losing with a flick and thus, exposing the centre-backs to a two on two. Had he not charged ahead for the ball, he might have been there to challenge Diego Costa for the flick-on that saw Hazard racing onto the ball.
Indeed, it was Coquelin who also gave the ball away for the first goal, and while it didn’t expose the team to the same type of counter-attack, Arsenal were slow to close down the space. Essentially, the team is like Coquelin as they like to defend with the play in front of them (as good as Koscielny and Mustafi are nipping ahead of the striker for the ball). However, they leave a lot to be desired when filtering back into a block in their own half.
In any case, Chelsea’s first goal, scored by Marcos Alonso, shows the unique threat their system poses on opposition defences and why it’s hard to apportion too much blame to Theo Walcott. Yes, he saw Alonso advancing into the box and yes, he should have tracked him like any situation he normally faces against opposition the full-back.
However, Chelsea’s 3-4-3 allows the wing-backs to take risks and join the attack because they’re not primarily tasked with pinning the opposition full-back back. Instead, unlike other traditional wing-back formations (say for example the 3-5-2, which is the most preferred), they have a winger in front of them to do that for them.
That’s why, as Michael Cox writes for the Guardian, it’s almost as if Chelsea play with a front five at times. So it’s not just Coquelin who might have felt as if he was chasing shadows at times.