What went wrong in damaging defeat to Chelsea? Tactical Points
By Vinay Shankar (Tactical Analyst)
The return to a full-packed Emirates stadium certainly witnessed a masterclass- one from the European champions rather than the home team.
Covid continues to wreak havoc on player availability at the club but for the second week in a row, it was the three at the back set-up from the opposition that proved to be Arsenal’s undoing.
Chelsea utilised the full width of the pitch while building out from the back, with Havertz and Mount staying wide to make sure they always found the spare man to break through Arsenal’s press. Xhaka and Lokonga were forced to drift wide to mark their creative players leaving the central areas empty for Chelsea to feed their new star striker. Lukaku was left isolated against Mari and Holding. Once the ball was played around the corner to the Belgian, things were pretty much a lost cause.
The set-up of Chelsea allowed them to play through the press with ease, with one of Kovacic and Jorginho always available to help them retain the ball for long periods. Using the entire width meant their wing-backs were always free on the opposite flank against the four-man defence. The whole idea of wing-backs is to stretch the opposition and exploit the spaces.
One effective way to counter this formation is to play the same formation. Going man-to-man allows you to press directly and requires the wide centre-backs to float around and track the opposing forward. While Tierney can handle himself on the left, the same cannot be said for Holding/Chambers on the right. Going man-to-man could have also helped stop the service to Lukaku rather than constantly having to react to every situation. This tactic has proved helpful in the 2017 and 2020 FA cup finals as well as in the league against Chelsea in the past.
One thing that certainly needs to be clarified is that while Arsenal’s defence didn’t handle Lukaku well, very few defenders can actually handle him. Other than maybe Maguire or Van Dijk, almost every team is going to struggle against his unique characteristics. When a team pays more than 100 million euros for such a player at his peak, you’re pretty much getting a bully at the top of the pitch. The Belgian’s hold-up play has improved significantly in Italy and it’s no surprise to see Arsenal’s players struggle to win duels.
From an Arsenal point of view, the lack of a focal point at the top of the pitch seems to drastically affect the team’s ability to play out from the press and attack in numbers. Lacazette seems to be the only player that fits the bill in the current squad. While Smith-Rowe continues to be himself every game, the other player catching the eye is Sambi-Lokonga. A Partey-sized hole is certainly evident without the ball but the Belgian certainly looks confident in everything he does when gets the ball. His leadership was very evident in the second half as he was constantly dropping deep to receive the ball, wasn’t afraid to take on his opponent, and drove the team forward at every opportunity.