With a bit of a tactical masterclass, Mauricio Pochettino continued to show us why he is more than capable of raising this squad’s level of play and challenge those at the very top. The game hardly played out like 10th in the table versus 2nd (at the time), and that was due to the fluidity of our front line in attack and their coordination in the press, a dominance in the midfield, and a smothering via man-marking of Arsenal’s front three. And yet until these younger players improve and learn what it takes to see out a match, we will only be able to reminisce of the resilient old guard that did so with ease. That said, this was the first match this season where we have dropped points after taking the lead, but we did so in tremendously poor fashion in a very short span and against one of the worst opponents to do so.
It is unclear how much our front line was built out of necessity through injury (Broja out and Jackson heavily bandaged) and how much of it was by design, but their effectiveness certainly can’t be brought into question. The press controlled the momentum and the gameplay, so despite the fact that we only had 38% of the possession in the first half, we were dictating the play, as with their 62% possession only 30% of that possession took place in our final third and 43% took place in the middle third. More telling stats from that first half might be that Arsenal had the fewest shots (2) and shots on goal (0), touches in the box (3), and their lowest xG total (0.12) than in any other match this season and indeed in much of Arteta’s reign at the club.
The player positions and indeed some later reports called this a 4-2-3-1 with Cole Palmer ostensibly showing as a central striker, but he was operating off the right side and inside right channels more than an out and out striker. Conor Gallagher was named as a central attacking midfielder, but his touch and heat map are much more elaborate than that, and the partnership that Gallagher (our eldest midfielder, mind you, at the ripe old age of 23) and Palmer have developed has been crucial to our successes. Gallagher registered more chances created (4) than anyone else on the pitch, too, and he has the second highest pass completion percentage (89%) in the final third in the Premier League this season. As always, the pass map much more clearly indicates the common space from which a player was operating and to whom they were passing, as well as the xT that came from those passes. With very little surprise, Enzo was at the heart of it all and also had the highest xT from his passes - his 177 successful passes into the final third this season are also second most in the league.
And while that pass map is all fine and dandy, considering we have again conceded possession to great avail, our defensive actions map might be an even better representation of how we controlled them. It shows quite clearly the emphasis we had on defending our left flank, where 46% of Arsenal’s attack came and was duly and utterly stifled. Colwill, Gallagher, Enzo, Mudryk and obviously Cucurella were all heavily concentrated on their defensive duties in that area (hence their average positions in the map above), and it is a stark contrast to the gaping holes where no defensive action was taken (or needed) through the centre and on our right.
And that defensive organisation is what led to Mudryk’s goal, too. Ben White is smothered by Cucurella and Mudryk, so White tries to play it back to Martin Ødegaard, who in turn is smothered by Enzo and Gallagher. Gallagher is all too happy to take the ball into the space in front of him, but the charge of Mudryk to get down that flank from deep gets him in position to take his
I know that Mudryk has claimed that he knew David Raya can sometimes be pinched via his positioning on crosses because Toni Jiménez was aware of this via their Spanish connection. Mudryk himself claimed after the match that it was a half shot, half cross - which almost contradicts his claim of knowing to shoot from those angles. I have no doubt that Mudryk can become a fantastic player for Chelsea and I am in not way trying to put him off, but there is no chance he was going for goal on this occasion. His glance just prior to crossing the ball all but confirms that, as he is looking nowhere near the direction of the Raya but very clearly eyeing the run of Sterling.
That was one of a pair of goalkeeping mistakes on the day, with Robert Sanchez playing a poor pass that Declan Rice cooly finished off - but there has been an unnecessary amount of focus placed on that. In fact, if you look at his specific pass map below, it was his only misplaced short pass of the night. Similar to Levi Colwill (7/16 at 43.8%), Sanchez was horribly inaccurate at long passes and turned the ball over with a majority of them (6/19 at 31.6%). In fact, contrast that to their mid and short range passing and Colwill would have been 55/57 at 96.4% and Sanchez would have been 15/16 at 93.7%. Those long passes (essentially clearances) gave possession right back to Arsenal, just in a deeper position, which is where they want to build their attacks from anyway. Long balls to our short front line were highly ineffective, and yet Sanchez tried to connect on those more times (19) than he played it short (16), which is strange considering it is normally a priority in Pochettino’s system. It’s amazingly poor luck that on his singular misplaced short pass he caused such devastation to our overall outcome. C’est la vie.
Two other players who have had enough rigmarole regarding whether or not they are good enough for Chelsea blue had culpability for their second goal, and both happen to be our second choice outside backs. Before fingers are pointed or blame is applied, we should note that Marc Cucurella had more successful duels won (10) and tackles (5) than any other player on the pitch and was visibly frustrating Bukayo Saka all evening with the singular exception to that being Saka’s assist, and once again it’s just quite unfortunate that one instance led to their equaliser. Gusto had less to do defensively with Martinelli for the majority of the match, but lost his mark of Leandro Trossard at the most crucial moment.
The issue partly lies with Noni Madueke, who hasn’t had nearly as much success with us as he has with the England U21s. Mudryk had been defensively responsible all match long, tracking back and contributing to both Cucurella’s success and Saka’s frustration - more than half of Mudryk’s touches are in our half, which can’t be said of Palmer on the opposite flank. Mudryk being replaced by Madueke may have led to a break down in the marking scheme and made the play possible. Cucurella has Saka covered initially, but the overlapping run of Ben White leads to some miscommunication. Cucurella visibly steps off Saka to cover that run and assumes that Madueke is going to pick up Saka, which should be the case in how Pochettino wants those runs covered, but Madueke doesn’t take care of his end.
This is what gives Saka the fraction of a second to deliver that cross to the far post. That sort of miscommunication is far less common when the synchronicity of the team is more developed via playing time together. Madueke not being selected for countless recent matches may have minimised that synchronicity as a result - or perhaps that is what Pochettino was seeing in training that explains his limited playing time lately. Gusto doesn’t cover himself in glory either, allowing his mark to make a run in off his shoulder, but had the ball been blocked or even just properly challenged or deflected, missing Trossard’s back post run might be a moot point.
So yes, there are some positives, but there are some negatives, too. Arsenal conceded their first away goals of the season to us (hooray!), but they also hadn’t won from 2-0 down in their previous 8 attempts to do so, adding to the disappointment of not seeing out this performance. We should have been weary of their substitutions - they have 5 goals and 3 assists from players brought on as replacements, and 3 of those goals were from Trossard himself. Keeping an eye on him should have been a priority and an emphasis that we knew about going into this match.
Positively speaking, we have 7 points from our last 3 games and 2 or more goals in each of those, all of which were preceded by a win in the League Cup. Negatively, the Bridge is no longer a fortress, with only one win from our last 12 at home in the League, and we have been especially abysmal against the ‘Big 6’ sides lately. We take the good with the bad until there is enough cohesion in the squad to not squander a comfortable lead.
Chelsea’s record against ‘Big Six’ sides in the Premier League since the start of last season:— Squawka (@Squawka) October 21, 2023
Still no W. pic.twitter.com/f634QkbiPO
Regardless, the future looks bright, with so much young talent that we are literally bursting at the seams, and Pochettino is finally getting this team to click...we just need to ensure that focus remains for the full 90 minutes on Saturday, with another chance to bag a win at the Bridge against the pesky Bees from Brentford.