In the first half, Arsenal worked possession through their three midfielders, held the ball under pressure through the wing-backs, and found the free man at the back during Chelsea’s moments of high pressure.
Morata tried pressing to the sides to block the pass back inside and force them to play forward a couple of times, but their circulation through the central midfielders (despite Chelsea’s central moving up to pressure them from behind upon receiving the ball ball) allowed them to work the ball to the other side of the pitch to find the wide center backs in space. Chelsea would then drop to defend the midfield, where they would attempt to pressure or intercept forward passes, particularly when made to the wings where the wing-backs would push up to meet Arsenal’s wing-backs.
By having space and numbers around the ball to begin attacks, Arsenal could use their central midfielders to move the ball. Ozil and Wilshere found spaces on the outside and behind Chelsea’s midfield three consistently, and Ozil’s freedom to move and collect the ball allowed him to have a great influence on the game—especially when combining between the lines with Alexis Sanchez.
105 touches for Ozil tonight. Tired towards the end, but terrific to watch. #AFC— Arlo White (@arlowhite) January 3, 2018
Their wing-backs’ ability to hold the ball in deep positions (midfield) came into play here, especially Bellerin’s, since they would draw Chelsea to one side of the pitch before switching to the other—this would be a different approach to Chelsea’s, as we’ll see later on.
Along with finding the feet of the front two dropping for the ball between the lines in Chelsea’s half, Arsenal would increase the tempo of their play in order to create with the ball. Lacazette could attempt quick combinations with Bellerin on the right, while Ozil and Sanchez combining in and around the box created chances—such as Sanchez’ saved shot.
Chelsea’s high pressing and counters
Chelsea had some great moments of success with high pressing, as well as capitalising on Arsenal making mistakes with the ball—allowing the midfielders to intercept the ball to begin dangerous counter attacks.
High pressing was successful when Chelsea could get the team in a high enough starting position in order for Fabregas and Bakayoko to push up and press Arsenal’s wide central defenders. In doing so, Morata and Hazard could remain central to cover Xhaka and Mustafi (as well as any back passes to Cech) while the spare man on the opposite side would soon be pressured close to his box (such as Holding moving the ball over to Chambers). However, sustaining such a high field position and intensity on the ball (especially to block passes to Arsenal’s central midfielders) is best done in moments.
When Chelsea won the ball, they would immediately have the front two as forward options. Since Arsenal didn’t project their wing-backs as high and early as Chelsea can during possession, their wing-backs had less distance to recover to rejoin the backline and regain defensive organisation. This meant that the width of the pitch was often covered for counters, but Chelsea could attack the middle and the space behind the defence as well. One moment in the second half led to Fabregas quickly finding a pass behind the defence for Morata to have his second chance to score against Cech. Furthermore, Hazard was open to receive the ball between lines from deep counters, where he often had to keep the ball with dribbling in order to wait for support to join attacks.
With the ball, Chelsea were more aggressive to play forward early and through pressure, using their central midfielders and wing-backs differently than Arsenal. Arsenal themselves showed aggression in pushing forward from their front two, where Sanchez would be focused on preventing Azpilicueta advancing forward with the ball, leaving Cahill to be the spare man of the back three.
Although Cahill was in the most space, Chelsea still insisted on going right, to Azpilicueta, and playing through the pressure. By building through high pressure on the right, with Moses dropping deep to receive and play the ball forward, Chelsea could open up opportunities for their frontline to fluidly disorganise and create advantages against Arsenal’s backline.
When Christensen moved off the back of Lacazette to look to receive the ball higher up, it would draw another of Arsenal’s central midfielders forward to pressure the ball, leaving them more open at the back for passes to Chelsea’s frontline—although, when the ball wasn’t played forward, Moses committed an error which almost led to a chance.
The problem with this approach in the first half was that they would they would look to play direct passes too often and lose the ball as a result (without scoring), which would allow Arsenal to continue attacking through possession and result in Chelsea having long periods of defending. From Arsenal’s possession, they could then push Chelsea back and sustain attacks in and around their box, creating a few chances.
Transitional moments from Chelsea’s long passes
Since Chelsea played forward passes early to the frontline, with an open team, it meant that if they were able to keep the ball, they would have a good chance of quickly creating, while if they lost the ball it could lead to Arsenal having quick and dangerous counters.
From the right, when Chelsea played forward they could find Morata in the air and then space behind to pickup the second ball between lines. In doing so, they would be able to quickly attack Arsenal’s dropping backline; where Hazard and Morata could both combine to quickly create a chance.
Diagonals from Moses provided some of these opportunities, as well as one of the diagonal passes going behind for a 1v1 chance for Morata. In this case, Christensen moving forward drew Xhaka forward (Maitland-Niles moving up to pressure Moses, and Holding closing down the space between him and Bakayoko)—all on the near side of the ball. At the front, Hazard moved from the right of Morata to go short towards the ball (and directly in-line with Morata) which drew Chambers towards him to follow. As the ball was played, Morata looped his run on the outside to moved into the space left by Chambers at the back, before he had the speed to get to the loose ball for the chance. Cech’s quick footwork and repositioning allowed him to cover the far-post well, before diving towards the near-post upon the shot, but it was one of three crucial misses by Morata in the game.
In the moments where Chelsea were building attacks on their left, they would push Alonso up high early to pin Bellerin back, to allow Fabregas to move wide to the wing-back position to collect the ball and play forward. Hazard could drop deep towards him to receive to feet on the near side, but for the majority of the first half Fabregas would look to play direct and try to create with his long passes. As he would be in position to play his forward passes, Bakayoko and Moses would also move up to join the frontline to give Chelsea width and numbers to attack—Bakayoko having a few chances to score from Fabregas’ passes behind, both long and from combining inside.
When Chelsea were unable to win the ball, however, they would often allow Arsenal the opportunity to counter, where Ozil was key to once again, getting between the lines early to receive and start a quick attack. Lacazette and Sanchez were wide of Chelsea’s back three, which wouldn’t have the cover from the wing-backs immediately (wing-backs recovering from high positions in possession) and both Wilshere and Bellerin quick to support as they reached the box. After starting the counters, Ozil could join the box quickly and with excellent timing, or combine to create chances.
Arsenal’s front two taking up wide positions defensively caused a few problems for Chelsea both during counters and when Chelsea had the ball. Being wide and high for counters opened space in the middle, since Christensen was deeper as the sweeper and the two wide central defenders couldn’t leave the front two to push onto Ozil, as well as being directly in space to receive the ball. The problems it caused Chelsea when they had the ball was that Sanchez’ individual threat and positioning made it difficult for Azpilicueta to leave him and find the space he usually does to play crosses into Morata, without risking even more dangerous counters had Chelsea lost the ball.
Second half changes
In the second half, Chelsea were more patient to hold the ball before playing forward, where they could now win the ball from Morata’s lay-offs or loose second ball’s. They also involved Kante more in their building and advancing with the ball through midfield on the left—be that goal kicks, Fabregas looking short rather long, or via Hazard’s flicks.
The only issues Chelsea had were that when they reached the final third, and made the 1v1 on the right, Moses wasn’t able to beat Maitland-Niles on the outside. Conte was quick to make a change to bring Zappacosta on in order to find a solution.
Lacazette had a chance inside the box, which Courtois quickly closed down (getting his left foot forward and close to the ball to block the shot), and Arsenal won a few corners from their quick combinations, but it would be from Chelsea’s mistakes that they would then take the lead. A forward pass from Bakayoko to Hazard was won by Holding instead. From there, Arsenal countered and Ozil created a chance inside the box from a quick and perfectly timed 1-2, before Wilshere pounced on the deflected pass inside the box from the following corner.
Arsenal were quick to attack from kickoff and almost scored a second, before Chelsea had possession again. They continued to play shorter passes and look to open up space for the midfielders, where Fabregas found space and played the pass behind for Hazard to go on to win a penalty. Fabregas then went on to create two chances for Bakayoko joining the box (unable to shoot quickly enough) and Morata (his second chance against Cech) before being replaced by Drinkwater.
Ozil began playing more towards the right, before the next change in the game, where Welbeck replaced Lacazette. Upon this change, Sanchez moved more centrally (where Lacazette had been playing) and Welbeck came on to where Sanchez was playing, but also dropped back when Arsenal didn’t have the ball to provide extra support in midfield.
Chelsea’s final change saw Willian on for Hazard, and he made an instant impact with the ball by finding a switch to Zappacosta. Here, where Moses was unable to, Zappacosta managed to beat Maitland-Niles on the outside and put the ball into the box for Alonso to finish with a first-time shot.
Arsenal’s second and final change was to bring Walcott on for Chambers in order to try to equalise, which they did. Chelsea tried playing high up in Arsenal’s half and pressing high, but on the opportunities where they were able to press Arsenal won a free kick and Chelsea were forced to drop back and defend again. With Arsenal’s sustained high pressure around Chelsea’s box, they were eventually able to find the equaliser through Bellerin’s shot.
With little time remaining, Chelsea were still able to quickly create another chance from their kickoff, where Azpilicueta had his first chance of the match to play a pass behind the defence for Morata. The striker failed to score his third chance of against Cech in the match, before Zappacosta’s rebound hit the crossbar.
An open game with chances for both teams to score a number of goals, though the mixture of good goalkeeping and bad finishing hurt Chelsea more than Arsenal, especially the chance after Bellerin’s late equaliser. The game sets up an exciting two-leg semi-final to be played in the coming weeks.