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Chelsea 2-4 Arsenal, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

Well, that was frustrating

Chelsea v Arsenal - Premier League
Unconvincing performance from both those pictured
Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Rarely do games finish so unsatisfyingly. The tactics were wrong, individual errors and performances were horrific, and the result was unfortunately an accurate reflection of the more effective team on the day. That Arsenal had lost their three previous games this month and were incapable of scoring more than a single goal in any of them (nor more than two total in their last five) would make Chelsea, on paper at least, favourites. We did everything we could to ignore that and add to the overall upheaval currently facing the club.

Starting XI’s - some questionable ones from our perspective

From the onset, our formation looked vulnerable based on the selections, particularly across the midfield. On our left, Bukayo Saka tormented Marcos Alonso with pace and even provided ample cover defensively to limit Alonso’s offensive contributions, although it seemed like crossing was not part of the plan anyway. Nearly 45% of their attack came down their right flank, and they had correctly identified both Alonso and Malang Sarr behind him as vulnerable.

Both N’Golo Kanté and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have had more than a few questionable performances in midfield appearances and our double-sixes have been outplayed by a midfield three often of late. That problem compounds itself when they are expected to be the main connection between the defense and attack — especially without either of our wingbacks playing in a wingback role. César Azpilicueta on the right had a game to be forgotten, despite scoring a rare goal, often positionally unaware even before misplacing the pass that gifted Arsenal their winning goal.

Front three in possession, Lukaku’s heat map and touch map
FBRef, WhoScored?

Up front, Mason Mount and Timo Werner essentially picked themselves, but the inclusion of Romelu Lukaku did not pay off. This game unfortunately added to his run of poor form, and even watching on the limited field of view of a television broadcast, it was evident that his runs were often truly in complete disharmony with the rest of the team and our passing movements.

Against a deep block, Lukaku can be man-marked too easily by most Premier League defenders and he saw only about a third of the touches that Werner and Mount did while managing just five more than his 60th-minute replacement, Kai Havertz. Lukaku was not getting onto through balls nor was he linking up via his ability to hold possession. Worse yet, his inability to judge the flight of a ball is becoming alarming, and he is losing far too many aerial duels. In the example below, a simple flick puts Werner in on goal, but Lukaku is a spectator as the ball flies well over his head.

Lukaku has mistimed and misplaced himself in judging the flight of the ball (enlarged for effect) far too often

Meanwhile, Timo Werner continues to earn his starting spot. Not only did he bag the first goal (via some luck and deflections), he was the only one whose press and running were making the Arsenal defense uneasy. He has been keeping his runs more angled or delayed and has been staying onside as a result, so he is a threat when he is through. He is using his pace more wisely and even using his body leverage more effectively, losing possession less often as a result.

But the most conspicuous aspect of our selection was the entire back line. Malang Sarr needs a veteran counterpart who is capable of cover, as he is (still) prone to errors both on the ball and in defense. Reece James being deployed at right-centre back, to once again combat the direct vertical threat of a pacy winger, limits our right-sided offensive push and hinders his productivity. And then there’s Andreas Christensen.

Chelsea v Arsenal - Premier League
James needs to be given the freedom of the flank
Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

While Christensen had been great in both the centre and right-centre positions earlier this season, he was far from it against Arsenal. Once a reliable deputy centrally for Thiago Silva, and outstanding while playing on the right of Silva, that Christensen is long gone. Awkward bounce or not, his backpass attempt to gift Arsenal the first goal of the game was foolish in approach and even worse in execution. It’s just one moment, but one that simply cannot happen. “Impossible” as Tuchel called it repeatedly.

What would be noticeable from Chelsea’s patterns of play, which were substantial given our near 70% possession, was how slowly we moved the ball into the final third, then progressed the ball while holding possession in the final third, or even how slowly we attacked after winning possession back in the final third.

3 on 3 turns into a 4 on 7 due to our recycled possession

Even while on a break, if an obvious chance does not present itself, we tend to turn back to recycle possession. Our attacking swagger is non-existent. There seems to be too little ruthlessness in general, and we have frustratingly suffered to create any substantial xG against proper opposition.

Noting The Analyst’s stats that we are second slowest in attacking build-up and have the second highest passes-per-attacking-sequence, it is no wonder that teams are sitting in a deep block and threatening on the counter instead. Arsenal were able to set up deep with a very narrow midfield and we again seemed reluctant to cross into it (despite the repeated opportunities we were getting from corners).

Low xG’s (excluding Southampton)

It’s easy to point the finger at individuals and specific decisions, but rotation is inevitable with so many games in a season. Tuchel needs to find secondary solutions to the positional requirements of a 50-60+ game season, because continuing to drop points at the Bridge especially is concerning. Let’s hope they truly are just ironic and unfortunate April showers.


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