Chelsea on the front foot
Chelsea started the game well, with intensity and tempo on the ball, finding success through their typical passing plays.
One such typical play is the around-the-corner pass from the wing-back to the center or inside forward. This is a frequent move Chelsea use to break through high pressure when playing short from goal kicks, and it also creates space for the forwards to attack.
Early on, with Arsenal playing long and pressing high with numbers forward, Chelsea find Moses, who then plays up to Morata with the first-time around-the-corner pass. Morata chests the ball down to Willian, who’s moving inside, before quickly turning and attacking the space behind Monreal. Since Arsenal’s central midfielders are higher up (Ramsey higher to press initial second ball, Xhaka moving over to cover the ground pass to Willian) Willian has space in the middle to receive the ball and carry it forward. Morata’s movement also pulls Mustafi from the backline and takes him out of the play (after Willan runs past him with the ball) and leaves Monreal too far forward to cover.
Usually (when starting with a goal kick rather than a ball recovery) Chelsea would be in an even better position, with Alonso high in space on the left wing once Willian receives the ball, but on this occasion, he’s in a deeper position to deal with the initial long ball from Arsenal. This, combined with Koscielny’s excellent cover and Bellerin’s speed (to track Pedro) are enough to prevent Chelsea from breaking completely through.
Another typical move Chelsea use in possession is to create space for Fabregas in the middle to receive the ball facing play—where he can then play passes to the frontline or behind the defence.
Chelsea can accomplish this through a centre back’s early wide positioning—additionally this can be done through the wide central defenders carrying the ball forward on the outside. Here, Azpilicueta draws pressure to him with the ball before finding the pass on the inside to Fabregas, who’s dropping deep to be on the same horizontal line as Azpilicueta and thus receives the ball facing forward. Before receiving the ball, Fabregas makes a quick shoulder check to see if there is any pressure coming from behind. In this case, Lacazette is closing in, so Cesc quickly sees and finds the run Pedro’s making behind the defence.
Good covering from Koscielny once again prevents Pedro from being clear to attack the box.
While Chelsea would eventually manage to get a cross in, by then Arsenal would have plenty of defenders back inside their own area. This problem repeated itself throughout the game, with only Morata (and occasionally Alonso) in position to pressure the box and Arsenal defending in numbers.
Problems with build-up arise
Chelsea created multiple chances in both possession and through counters (Fàbregas playing the pass behind for Pedro’s 1v1 chance, Azpilicueta to Morata ball into the box, etc.) but failed to convert them. Then they began to have some problems in other areas as well.
Both with and without the ball Arsenal began to create the conditions which have allowed them to have success against Chelsea in recent meetings: preventing Chelsea from using their passing patterns, and attacking Chelsea with numbers between the lines—using quick one-touch play to prevent Chelsea from applying pressure on the ball.
After Arsenal’s deeper positioning early on in the game—which allowed Chelsea space to move them and find the central midfielders facing play with the ball—they began to push higher up and hold their midfield line inside Chelsea’s half.
This would lead to the following scenarios:
- Chelsea having slow possession at the back and not advancing with the ball, or forcing forward passes which gave the ball away.
- Being forced back to Courtois and playing long (with pressure on the pass back to Courtois).
- Courtois going long from goal kicks.
- Arsenal preventing short building on Chelsea’s (stronger) right side and pushing up to pressure Cahill upon receiving the ball on the (weaker) left side. When Arsenal could press Chelsea high, they anticipated the passes Chelsea would make (Ramsey on Kanté and Bellerin on Alonso) which allowed them to block Chelsea’s natural progression forward—Alonso dealt well with this later, after Bellerin had blocked the previous passes, by feigning the normal pass inside before beating the Arsenal man up the wing.
- Chelsea trying to play through the pressure with passes and movements they aren’t used to—forced to play in an unclear way.
For example, David Luiz would attempt to play long diagonal passes for the wing-backs to run-on to, as well as hard passes up to the front three in the middle—these passes are hard to control and led to Chelsea losing the ball.
Chelsea also tried to play around-the-corner passes a bit deeper, with Fabregas dropping straight back to receive (Azpilicueta passing forwards and not horizontally) and trying to find Willian on the outside (in the space left by Xhaka as he moved up to pressure Fabregas). However, the combination of Xhaka (closing down both man and the line of the pass) and Monreal (able to intercept the pass to Willian) shut that down quickly.
Fabregas also tried once to move wide into the wing-back position, as did Kante in the second half (which allowed him to play a long diagonal behind for Moses), but otherwise Chelsea continued to play in a way which suited Arsenal.
Arsenal’s quick attacks
Arsenal’s were able to not only disturb Chelsea’s game but also create problems for Chelsea’s defence. They were able to attack quickly throughout the game, transitioning at speed from winning a second ball or forcing Chelsea to lose the ball.
From goal kicks they played long, preventing Chelsea from having opportunities to press and cause problems. To open up the pitch even more, they had the central defenders drop to play short for some goal kicks (drawing Chelsea’s frontline towards their goal) before playing back to Čech to play long.
When competing for second balls, Arsenal would continue to press high—as opposed to getting back into their defensive shape. Continued pressure on back passes would then force Courtois to play long and allow Arsenal to compete for the ball in midfield again. Throw-ins in Chelsea’s half were the same: continued pressure.
When Arsenal had the ball, they made excellent use of Ramsey’s ability to carry the ball, as well as his movements forward off the ball (between lines and in the box) and his quick combination passing. Through carrying the ball he was able to create a few chances with feints and passes, and work space for the shot that hit the post.
Iwobi was another Arsenal player who made good impact by playing quickly with one or two touches. He could also turn with the ball when he received a pass between the lines (from the wing to inside) before finding a free player on the inside to switch the play along the floor—such as for the shot by Kolašinac.
Welbeck held the ball well with back to play. He made runs behind, carried the ball and created with feints around the box (e.g.: his attempted pass to Ramsey); while his work-rate defensively always causes problems.
On the right, Bellerin was causing Alonso plenty of problems. Bellerin’s speed allowed him to get around Alonso on the outside and still reach the passes made on the inside, thus getting free for attempts to put the ball into the box. David Luiz’s defensive covering was often great in these instances, matching the runs to either clear the ball first-time or to make sure he made some contact on the ball with any shot on goal.
To start the second half Chelsea brought on Bakayoko for Pedro—moving Fabregas higher. This provided to be a good solution in some moments, where Bakayoko’s more individual style (since he’s still adapting to the natural passing patterns of the team) was to Chelsea’s advantage. He could make the passes that were on, as opposed to the natural patterns that Arsenal were anticipating, while his ability to powerfully carry the ball forward in midfield gave Chelsea a new dynamic with the ball.
Additionally, Morata began making more movements wide and was having more success with his feints to move past Mustafi with the ball. However, for the most part, Chelsea’s problems with slow possession at the back continued.
Later in the half Chelsea tried a new solution with the switch to a different flavor of 352, by bringing on Hazard and moving Fabregas to play as the deepest midfielder. Hazard was able to take on players and make use of his individual quality when he came on, often drawing fouls. This switch also gave Fabregas some space on the ball to play forward, as Bakayoko and Kante were higher up to push Xhaka and Ramsey back. But Arsenal matched this later on in the game by adding their own third midfielder in Elneny (with Iwobi making way).
After a bright start, Chelsea found it difficult to continue to find solutions to break down Arsenal’s defence. And while both Chelsea and Arsenal were able to create a couple good chances to score, a mixture of poor finishing and saves from the goalkeepers kept the game scoreless.