Arsenal will welcome Chelsea to the Emirates in this weekend's early kick off, with both sides looking to assert their credentials as one of this season's title challengers. It won't be an easy job for either team, especially as Wenger's side are looking far better-rounded and robust this year, crystallised in the fact that they probably deserved more from a 1-1 draw against Manchester City last Sunday.
Unfortunately, Didier Drogba's not around anymore, the Ivorian having terrorized the Gunners for the most part of his time in England, scoring thirteen goals in ten games against Wenger's side (incredibly, Drogba only ever lost once to Arsenal in his time at Chelsea). In the Didier Drogba era at Chelsea, Arsenal has been through a tumultuous period, having gone from one of Europe's strongest teams to mere top four challengers domestically. Not one single player remains from the day Drogba arrived in the Premier League, but there has been one constant...
Arsene Wenger has been managing Arsenal ever since scientists managed to clone Dolly the Sheep. Arsenal may have appeared a bit sheepish* about some of their business in the more recent years, but early in Wenger's tenure they were a hugely potent sides, with fast quick transitions and a solid backline the key to their successes in the FA Cup, and more significantly, in the Premier League. They went through the entire 2003-04 season unbeaten, a record unmatched in the Premier League era, and at the height of their powers were amongst the top three teams in Europe, but only ever going as far as the Champions League Final (in 2006). They won the FA Cup in that same year, but ever since it's been downhill for Wenger. The club has seemingly traded on-pitch success for financial stability, but that betrays the increasing level of competitiveness within England's top tier sides.
*Sorry, terrible joke.
Arsene Wenger is your typically stubborn Frenchman, always striving to maintain his deeply ideological style of football even if that comes at a cost to Arsenal's ambitions. He comes across as tactically inflexible, unwilling to change styles even when there is glaring errors, as was the case when he refused to buy physical defenders who could handle the physical players who were always able to dominate Arsenal (just ask Drogba).
He's also always been steadfast in his dedication to developing young talents, willing to play them far more than their body can physically handle as well as paying them far more than their ability would seemingly deserve. That's lead to a dangerous culture where players who simply aren't good enough are extremely difficult to get off the books, and players who become too good for Arsenal want to play elsewhere in search of trophies. In that regard, the work done to introduce more experienced players such as Per Metresacker and Mikel Arteta has made a big difference.
That may sound scathingly critical of Wenger, and he certainly does have his skills: his teams certainly do play exhilarating football at times and their business model is admirable. His coaching also seems world class, as there's a reason why Arsenal appear like a player farm for other teams to poach: it's because Arsenal is actually developing these players to an elite level. They just either can't keep them around for long enough or find a system that allows them to beat all teams, and not just the ones that can be overpowered through sheer talent.
Arsenal play in a 4-2-3-1 that could just as easily be termed a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1: either way, the numerical notation doesn't really matter. In principle, it's a standard back four with a standard midfield four in front, and an attacking midfielder dropping off an advanced striker.
Starting from the goalkeeper, Arsenal's usual first choice Wojciech Szczęsny has been sidelined for two to three weeks, opening the door for Vito Mannone to stake a claim for the first team. In front of him, Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs should be rewarded for their promising form with another start, while who will constitute as the central defensive pairing is a little bit more of a delicate issue: on paper, Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny are the best partnership, the two enjoying a strong relationship last year, with the Frenchman playing a key role in sweeping up behind the more aggressive Belgian.
However, with Koscielny and Vermaelen's respective injury problems, Mertesacker has been able to stake a claim for a starting spot, a chance he's taken with both hands. Arsenal's new tactic of dropping deep has been a favourable move for the German, who is also playing a key role in combating the many crosses Arsenal have had to face. With all three fit for this match, I'd expect Vermaelen as captain to be handed a start, unless illness strikes him down again. That means it's a choice between Mertesacker and Koscielny: I'd personally be inclined for the Frenchman, as he'd be useful coming up against the sinuous running of Chelsea's attacking trident. However, SB Nation's Arsenal blog The Short Fuse informs me that they'd expect the pairing of Mertesacker and Vermaelen to start, mainly because both are in form, and Wenger prefers consistency in centre-back selection. They also made the point that a partnership of Koscielny and Vermaelen would indeed probably be the better choice.
In the middle, the selection is a little more obvious: Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby will patrol the central midfield zone, with Arteta playing as the deep-lying playmaker and Diaby as the enforcer. That's a harmonious combination of talents, and one that's been extremely effective. Arteta in particularly has enjoyed a strong start to the season, revelling in his role at the heart of the Arsenal play. In fact, he's registered an average of 111 touches every game this season, the most of any player in the Premier League.
There is also the potential for Wenger springing a surprise by introducing Aaron Ramsey into a central zone, as the Welshman was impressive against Manchester City, albeit from a narrow right wing position. That selection dilemma will ultimately rest on what approach Wenger will take to that flank. He'll need to choose between the aggressive attacking of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the pace and fluidity of Gervinho, or the raw speed of Theo Walcott. That in turn will inform the selection at centre-forward. Olivier Giroud scored his first goal for Arsenal in the Carling Cup on Thursday and would be a useful player to hold up play and play clever one-twos around the penalty area. If I were Wenger, I wouldn't be too worried about pitting Giroud against some of the best aerial defenders in the Premier League, as the French striker, despite all appearances, doesn't possess that great an attacking header. I'd probably expect to see him play the same side that was deployed against City with Giroud in place of Gervinho. This means Ramsey will be tucking inside and contributing to the build-up of possession, and looking to offer Jenkinson some protection to the marauding runs of Ashley Cole.
On the other flank, Lukas Podolski is a sure bet, having enjoyed a strong start to life in the Premier League. He'll be looking to link up with new signing Santi Cazorla, who is also adapting well to England, laying on two assists and a goal in his first five matches. I wrote more about Cazorla in my column for A Football Report earlier this week.
With all things considered:
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Vito Mannone, Kieran Gibbs, Thomas Vermaelen ©, Per Mertesacker, Carl Jenkinson, Lukas Podolski, Abou Diaby, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Santiago Cazorla, Olivier Giroud
But enough lineup dilemnas! Let's break down the interesting stuff.
Everything runs through Cazorla. For what's it is worth, I thought Cazorla was one of the best signings of the summer and so far, that seems to be justified. To save myself a bit of work, you'll have to excuse the arrogance of which the following quote, written by myself, must appear:
His game is all about movement. He makes clever vertical runs to collect possession and distribute quickly to the flanks, escaping the attention of his markers, and free to drive into space to shape incisive attacking counter attacks. This quality was crystallised in the devastating passing move to set up Lukas Podolski's opener against Liverpool. Furthermore, in slower periods of build-up play, Cazorla is able to find clever pockets of space in between the lines, possessing the intelligence to know when to attempt the killer ball or simply keep the flow of the attack, a trait demonstrated by the 138 completed passes Arsenal attempted in the attacking third against Southampton, of which Cazorla completed thirty eight.
Cazorla's role at Arsenal has evolved, even in the short time he has been at the club. In his debut against Sunderland, he dropped deep frequently, where his desire for the ball often conflicted with Arteta's role and denied Arsenal the incisiveness to build attacks. As a result, he has moved higher and higher up the pitch, playing more as a classic playmaker. You'll often find him sitting in the lines between midfield and defence, and that's something Chelsea's probable midfield, Lampard and Mikel, will certainly have to be wary of. His ability to link triangles and pass with purpose will be crucial.
Cazorla tends to drift out into left-sided positions, and this zone will be pivotal: Podolski and Cazorla enjoy a healthy relationship, and the Spanish playmaker will be looking to play crafty through balls into that zone, as he did against Liverpool. Furthermore, the attacking runs of Kieran Gibbs will create overloads, and I'd expect Roberto Di Matteo to recognise this threat by deploying Ramires as a defensive winger on the right. This imbalance is elucidated in that of Arsenal's ten goals this season, eight featured build up from the left and only two towards the right
On that right flank, Arsenal's less pronounced attacking threat can be linked to Carl Jenkinson, who has been ever-present as a result of Bacary Sagna's injury. Jenkinson is more reserved, preferring to time his runs up field more infrequently than Gibbs. He also linked up nicely with Ramsey, with the duo topping the pass combination stats for the Manchester City game (21).
Furthermore, no Arsenal player has really nailed down that right wing position. Theo Walcott has been embroiled in contract talks, and is better suited to open games (5-3, anyone?), while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is surprisingly aware of his defensive responsibilities on that flank, but this perhaps comes at a cost to his direct attacking style. Gervinho is certainly an option on that flank, but for reasons stated earlier I'd expect to see Aaron Ramsey on that wing. The result of this is that he'll come inside and maintain the rhythm of Arsenal's passing.
Breaking down deep defences has long been a difficult task for Arsenal, and Giroud provides them with greater all-round threat. However, there is also the possibility of Gervinho playing through the middle, as he did against Manchester City. It would be easy to term the Ivorian a false nine, but as we've seen before, that can be a misleading definition. Rather, Gervinho moves laterally, normally from right sided positions. It is an effective ploy for freeing up space for Cazorla, because as defenders lose their reference point, the Spaniard is free to come into dangerous attacking positions.
Arsenal's attack is at its best when breaking into space (remind you of anyone?), and Chelsea's defensive approach should centre on denying them that space. That sounds like a job for the defensive positioning of John Obi Mikel, who will be the key to breaking down fast breaks - therefore, the Nigerian should look to avoid any early yellow cards.
It's been a surprise, to me at least, to see Arsenal's midfield so structured this season, in contrast with the fluidity of previous seasons. Arteta and Diaby work as a unit, shielding the defence and distributing the ball further up field. The loss of Alex Song to Barcelona necessitated such a move, as the Cameroonian was the fulcrum for most of Arsenal's midfield play last season.
Interestingly, Arsenal's midfield combination mirrors that used by their opponents, where one player is tasked with enforcing and one tasked with distributing. I think it's clear to say which is the more functional. Interestingly, this kind of combination was also mirrored by Manchester City on Sunday, with Yaya Toure and new signing Javi Garcia in tandem for the champions. This lead to a stalemate in the centre of the pitch, with both sides in effect negating the other in that zone.
Mikel Arteta is a player Chelsea could have done well to pick up last summer. In the absence of Luka Modric, Arteta is one of the foremost deep lying playmakers in the Premier League (which maybe says something about the quality of passers in the Premier League). Arteta's transition to the demands of Champions League football has been admirable and he's taken up a deep lying role, rarely to be found in the penalty area. Instead, his job is to work the ball into those areas. I feel like Arteta's defensive ability is also significantly underrated: he takes up good positions to deny opponents time and space between the lines.
His partner Diaby is more aggressive. Graham made me the suggestion to me the other day that Diaby is a more disciplined, less talented Ramires, and I think that's actually a fairly apt description. Like our own Brazilian, Diaby likes to break forward, using his athleticism to manoeuvre challenges and break into the final third. However, when Diaby is off form (as he was against Manchester City) he is very poor: sloppy in possession and often caught out of position.
On either side of this duo are the wide players, who despite their identity perform the same role of tracking back, narrowing inside and forming a bank of four. The 'two banks of four' approach is a typical approach to the defensive phase, and it's not surprising to see Arsenal implement this at the same time Steve Bould was promoted to assistant manager, as the former player used to play in this system during his time at Arsenal. Central to implementing this style is Cazorla, who possesses the intelligence and discipline to be aware of his teammates positions and cover for them if need be. This kind of flexibility allows Arsenal to adapt this defensive strategy, underpinning why Cazorla is so important to the system.
Saturday's early kick off is a clash between the two sides to have conceded the least goals in the Premier League so far this season (2). That's a statistic you wouldn't normally associate with Arsenal, and an abnormality that can be explained by the deeper defensive structure which places more emphasis on shape than ever before. Arsenal like to narrow the pitch and concede the wings, thus exposing themselves to lots of crosses from the flanks. Crossing is a fairly inefficient way of attacking, and Mertesacker usually does a good job of covering his defence aerially, but Fernando Torres should certainly be aware of the movement of Chelsea's fullbacks, as Cole and Ivanovic will be the players free to swing in crosses.
Vermaelen is the most aggressive out of all of Arsenal's possible centre backs, and can be drawn higher up the pitch. That inevitably leaves space in behind for onrushing attackers, with Koscielny tasked with the responsibility of sweeping up in behind. Additionally, the other option Mertesacker possesses a well-known flaw in his obvious lack of pace, and up against a mobile and technical set of attackers, he could be posed significant problems. Considering both these issues, Koscielny may be the more logical choice for Wenger.
Both of Arsenal's fullbacks aren't that great defensively, and I'd expect Eden Hazard and Ramires to be looking to lure them into challenges near the byline, and looking for cut backs low across the box. An energetic fifteen minute spell aside against Manchester City, Jenkinson attacks much less than Gibbs, and placing Hazard high up in those channels could cause the Finnish defender problems. By contrast, Ramires should look to track Gibbs runs upfield, before quickly bursting into the space behind when Chelsea regain possession.
You could hear Craig Burley venting about zonal marking from all the way over here from Australia, and while some elements of his assessment were completely off the mark, he was correct in identifying Arsenal's defensive strategy at set pieces as a zonal marking, or rather, ‘zonal defending' approach. Cox's examination of the defensive system was by and large spot on, and his article at ESPN, hyperlinked above, is well worth a read.
Specifically, Arsenal's approach to zonal marking sees the two centre backs patrolling the central zone, while fullbacks Gibbs and Arteta marking the posts. In-swinging crosses, like the ones Juan Mata can deliver so excellently from the right hand side, would be my recommendation: it was evident at the goal and throughout the game Mannone's vulnerability to coming out and punching the ball away. I'd also recommend Chelsea place a man on the goalkeeper at corners, as placing as much pressure as possible on the relatively inexperienced goalkeeper is in my eyes a good move.
I feel like the approach that Chelsea has taken to its previous games against Arsenal will serve us well once again. Sitting deep and looking to break on the counter is always an effective strategy, and despite Arsenal definitely taking a more reserved approach to the defensive phase, it was clear to see against Manchester City that it is possible to lure them higher up the pitch and returning to their possession based play, which inevitably opens up space in behind (City didn't do a good job on those transitions, but the space was there, particularly in the second half). This approach is also best suited to the players most likely to take to the field for Chelsea, with Fernando Torres and Eden Hazard in particular thriving on quick transitions of defence to attack.
Specifically, I mentioned earlier a desire to see Ramires on the right wing to counter the threat that Arsenal pose down that left flank. Deploying the Brazilian to track the runs of Podolski and Gibbs in particular would certainly go a long way to neutering Arsenal's major strength - this season, 37% of their attacks have come down that side.
I'd also prefer to focus on narrowing the space in which Cazorla likes to play in. Leaving that space exposed, as Liverpool did with their fluid three man midfield, is akin to suicide. We have all seen what has happened to sides who have allowed Juan Mata to roam, and Cazorla is in a similar vein.
While Arsene Wenger is rigid and tactically inflexible, he has lots of options at his disposal. On the opening day against Southampton he went for an attacking trio of Gervinho, Podolski and Walcott, three players whose games are based around pace and agility. Sunderland naturally defended deep, and it wasn't until Oliver Giroud came on to provide Arsenal with height in the penalty area. Martin O'Neill's side had to find the balance between preventing space in behind the defence and pushing the physical presence away from goal. The game ended in a stalemate, but it revealed the varying options at Wenger's disposal. Wenger's not one to change a winning or a losing formation, so the starting XI will be significant in informing how Roberto Di Matteo's set up their play.
The loss of Robin van Persie didn't hurt Arsenal much as the previous departures of their key players, namely because they already had the replacements at the club. Giroud and Podolski aren't upgrades over the Dutchman, but Santi Cazorla certainly gives them a new creative licence they've missed ever since Fabregas departed back to Barcelona. Arsenal devastated us on the counter attack last year, and it is certainly possible they could do the same again. I'd prefer to see Chelsea making this a cagey, counter-attacking game: the quality of our attackers should be able to take care of the rest.
Read more - Arsenal Column's tactical preview
|Weakness||Breaking down deep defences|
|Last match||v Coventry City (H, Capital One Cup) 6-1 (Giroud, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arshavin, Walcott, Miquel, Walcott|
|Key player||Santi Cazorla|