Antonio Conte has achieved many good things in his 18 months as Chelsea manager, but his inexplicably poor record against Arsenal has not been one of them. This stands in stark contrast with the Blues’ domination of the Gunners since the start of the Abramovich Era (and especially after Jose Mourinho arrived the first time), and that makes it even more baffling. The latest example was today’s frustrating 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge, just a week after the two sides battled to an equally frustrating 2-2 draw at the Emirates. The scoreless draw means that Chelsea have it all to do in the second leg of this year’s League Cup semifinal in two weeks’ time.
Conte left no doubt as to his intentions, going for Chelsea’s strongest 3-5-2 lineup, making just two changes from the league meeting this time last week. Antonio Rüdiger spelled Gary Cahill in defence while Danny Drinkwater tried his hand at being a more effective midfielder than Tiemoue Bakayoko.
Arsène Wenger also chose a strong side, though with his squad hit by injuries, as usual, and transfer rumors, as usual, it looked a far weaker and more patchwork side than Chelsea’s. Arsenal, lining up in a familiar 3-4-3 formation, left out Petr Cech and Mesut Özil completely, while Alexis Sánchez started only on the bench — his ineffective second-half appearance more than justified that bit of selection, it should be noted.
Playing away from the Emirates and in a cup game against a big rival, Wenger abandoned his usual highly attacking and high-pressing ways in favor of a more contained version of their possession game. Deeper possession, compact lines, sitting back, and countering are not phrases we associate with Arsenal in the Premier League era, but old dog Wenger, sat in the stands serving a suspension, was showing new tricks.
The plan for Chelsea was surely to play an up-tempo passing game, and Hazard’s first pass of the game inside of two minutes for Morata to chase was a great initial sign of it. The striker’s effort found only the side netting.
With Arsenal concentrating efforts in the middle of the pitch, Chelsea were more than happy to go wide with both Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses pushing up. This forced Arsenal’s own wing-backs in Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Héctor Bellerín to drop deep and provide little menace at the other end. Even Arsenal’s wide attackers (Iwobi and Welbeck) would drop back into coverage.
With Chelsea pushing higher and higher, Arsenal’s pace was becoming a slight concern on the counter, though the almighty presence of N’Golo Kanté intercepted almost all such thoughts, let alone actions.
But while Chelsea edged the first-half in terms of shots and chances, the requisite quality to break down even such a makeshift group of defenders as Arsenal’s was lacking. The one time it looked like we finally worked them over and the telling cross from Cesar Azpilicueta was swinging in perfectly as usual, it was the head of Cesc Fabregas that met it, rather than that of Morata. Ospina gathered easily and gratefully just before the half-time whistle blew.
Perhaps buoyed by that chance or Conte’s half-time talk, Chelsea came out of break with with renewed spirit and intention, pinning the Gunners deep in their own half, winning corners, and creating multiple chances.
With ink on his new contract still drying, Andreas Christensen had a chance just a couple minutes in to became Man of the Match, but his free header missed the goal completely. He repeated that trick a few minutes later, but not before shots from Alonso, Morata, and Drinkwater also fell by the wayside. This was all starting to look very familiar once again.
With Arsenal losing Wilshere to injury (again), they lost any midfield dynamism they may have had. Not even the introduction of Alexis Sanchez for Lacazette could spark them into life, and Chelsea continued to have the upper hand in all aspects except of course on the scoreboard.
Willian was introduced with a little over 20 minutes to go, replacing Danny Drinkwater, who didn’t exactly dazzle. Surprisingly, Willian stayed in midfield rather than push up into his customary right forward position — in theory, this is a good role for the Brazilian, but Chelsea could’ve possibly used more options on the front line rather than the middle of the pitch, to take some of the double- and triple-teams away from Morata for example.
As Chelsea continued to push for an opening goal, a few gaps appeared at the back, though were usually quickly closed back down by N’Golo Kante & Co.
Conte introduced Bakayoko and Batshuayi for Hazard and Morata, respectively in the final ten minutes, and they both managed to miss headed chances before a rather lenient Martin Atkinson — about three yellow card-worthy tackles by Granit Xhaka today, only one punished — brought an end to proceedings.
The two teams head back to the Emirates for the second leg in two weeks’ time all even, with the Gunners possession the slight home-field advantage now.
A rather different sort of match today than last week; though it’s only natural to go for a more cautious approach in a cup game, where the stakes are a bit higher and far more immediately consequential than in the league.
That said, it was far from a good result for Chelsea, who were the better team of the evening.
Chelsea vs Arsenal running xG pic.twitter.com/R2kTsJOFh2— Scott Willis (@oh_that_crab) January 10, 2018
Maybe next time Conte will be able to get just his second win against Arsenal in eight competitive tries (and first at the Emirates)?
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