Going back to 2017 through our last 17 matches against Arsenal, we have four wins, four draws, and an agonising nine losses — four of those essentially denying us silverware. After two FA Cup final losses (2020, 2017), one League Cup semi-final loss (2018), and one Community Shield loss (2017), the 2019 Europa League final is the only trophy upon which we can hang our hats lately (and, of course, our two Champions League trophies, to which we will forever remind them that they have a grand total of zero.)
Unfortunately, based on the trends of both squads, this poor return of results will continue. In the media, the conjecture over why we are unconvincing lately as being a consequence of the transition to a multi-club model is both prevalent and irrelevant. Arsenal won because they are healthy and in form, sitting at the top of the table, and according to The Analyst second to only Manchester City (or tied with Liverpool, which are still putting up great stats despite their position in the table, or, yikes, our next opponents in Newcastle) in all of the following open play stats: shots, xG, goals, offensive passing sequence time, shots against, xG goals against, and goals against. They play competent football when they have possession, and they had a majority and positional dominance throughout. Meanwhile, Chelsea are in the midst of an injury crisis and a club-level overhaul, and we ought read little more into this result than that all-encompassing statement.
Fair assessments would say that there would have been an entirely different starting lineup and substitutions had Potter had a fully-fit squad. Fatigue has been touted as another excuse for our poor performance, but that unfortunately doesn’t hold water, as they are even well ahead of us in minutes played by their regulars, and have the torturous Europa League schedule with which to contend. Again, the contrast lies with regard to injuries, as Arsenal were reinforced with the return of Oleksandr Zinchenko, who played a dynamic role between their defense and midfield, all while we continue to decrease in available selections.
Our midfield was overwhelmed by their press. The moments when their attackers rushed our defense they did so in a coordinated manner, and our next outlet passes were already being closed down as that happened. It does seem like Potter was trying to progress to our attack, per usual, both through the centre and down the right flank, leaving the left side more isolated. This made our patterned play predictable. Worse yet, the isolation of Cucurella concerningly exposed his speed and defensive awareness, and that’s disregarding his individual errors that nearly led to goals. His isolation also showed his reliance on the same-sided attacking players to facilitate his offensive efforts. His successes and failures seem to hinge on controlled possession and the play of those around him. If they fail, so does he.
The personnel selected were not capable of achieving a winning result. Our formation had changed, but the tactics did not, and that is a concern. The lack of width in the midfield with the change to a back four and midfield three did not allow the right side (or left) to be worked as efficiently as it has been. That is the modulation to our offensive game, and we are less regularly capable of central progressions with the ball without our wingbacks on the pitch.
The second route of escape from the back is the ability to pass through Jorginho, which is determined by either his time on the ball or, while pressed, having a wingback as a wide outlet to work the ball out from the back. This setup provided neither solution, and Jorginho’s 67% pass accuracy tells that story all too clearly. He demanded the ball but had no passes to make, so he was easily smothered.
The passing overall was hindered by Arsenal’s press, which was coordinated and deliberate, quite dissimilar to ours. Our comprehensively horrendous passing stats are exactly why our attackers were both isolated and short on touches while our only concentration of possession was in our defensive third. We had both the lowest average pass streak (only 3 in succession) and pass accuracy (71%) we have had for some time, while only possessing the bottle in the final third for a quarter of the game. That passing accuracy quota is even skewed in our favour due to the fact that 15% of our those passes were played by Trevoh Chalobah and almost all of his passes were to César Azpilicueta or Thiago Silva (only 3 of 35 were progressive) and were therefore contributory to our unsightly team pass maps below.
In the first half, which is where we accumulated almost all of our threatening possession but a demoralising total of 0.19 xG, our only real chance came from a corner. The mobility of Arsenal’s midfield and the confusion from our’s in both offensive transition and defensive organisation, which was minimally addressed by Potter, made this a lopsided affair.
In fact, Potter waited until they had taken the lead to make a true change to the team. He added Armando Broja for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, neither of whom got any service from the midfield and only hopeful balls over the top from the defense - and yet Broja still finished with 10 more touches in about a third of the game time. He also added Conor Gallagher for Kai Havertz, who wasn’t dropping deep effectively and his lack of influence is epitomised by the fact that through his touch map we can see how rarely, even as our no. 10, he touched the ball centrally or near the opposition’s box. He is not the one at whom to point fingers, but as our floating player with a less defined role, his offensive impact should be more substantial.
The second half did nothing to bolster the resolve of our players, even as Arsenal tried to hand us the win via two appreciable errors - we came under immediate pressure and were being intentionally pummeled at the near post on left-sided set pieces and corners. While our absent players do play a role in our open play offensive effectiveness, the need to fortify the defense on set pieces has continued to be a problem - we have now conceded 5 set piece goals from 13 games. A back three becomes difficult with so few centre backs available and a back four is unfamiliar and the systemisation of passing in that arrangement is dull at best, but the clarity on roles during set pieces is an overarching issue.
A hopeful conclusion is that this is truly the beginning of an entirely new regime and that this perspective and approach will prove to be as bountiful as those whom we are emulating. There are so many resounding noises in the background - from the entire reconditioning of the club, the managerial transition, the injury crisis, et al. - to cause such a distraction that results on the field would be affected. The injuries are the root cause, and a less pejorative analysis with respect to our situation continues to be to get to and through the World Cup with an ever-improving injury list and come out swinging on Boxing Day.