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Unai Emery’s conservatism against Chelsea a cause for concern

Having changed the momentum of the match, Arsenal were well placed to go onto win the match, but gave momentum back with second half decisions.

Chelsea v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

After finally taking advantage of Chelsea’s porous backline, Arsenal, having been two-nil down and guilty of some awful defending, were level. Going into halftime, it was the Gunners who had the momentum and Chelsea who needed the break, with Arsenal overcoming tactical mistakes that contributed to going two-nil down.

Unai Emery made one change, with Alex Iwobi replacing Aaron Ramsey, meaning Mesut Özil would play in a number ten role, and Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi would continue as the deepest midfield pair. Having seen Chelsea cut Arsenal apart in the recent pre-season match, Unai Emery set up his midfield to man-mark Chelsea’s midfield, with Özil man-marking Jorginho, Guendouzi marking N’Golo Kanté, and Xhaka marking Ross Barkley. The system of man-marking didn’t work. Chelsea always had a spare man: Özil didn’t know whether to press in a 4-4-2 shape, and press Chelsea’s centre backs, leaving Jorginho free, or let one of Chelsea’s centre backs, such as David Luiz, have time and space.

With a partial man-marking system, but also a zonal system elsewhere around the pitch, Arsenal were susceptible to having their midfield stretched, as happened on the goal. Chelsea’s movement into midfield meant the three in midfield got overloaded and weren’t always covered by the wide players, with Mkhitaryan disappointing in this regard, especially for the first goal. This meant Chelsea had a player with time in midfield, and could stretch Arsenal further with runs in behind, with Alonso and N’Golo Kanté getting behind with some regularity.

Kanté is Chelsea’s best defensive player in midfield, yet with a new forward-thinking brief, it has given opponents the ability to play around Chelsea’s midfield pressure, as Arsenal did here. Arsenal created an excellent chance within the first half an hour, for Aubameyang, after a through ball from Guendouzi found an advance run from Héctor Bellerín. The earlier chance, for Özil, also came from wide: Iwobi slipped in Monreal, whose cross was met by the advance run of Özil.

Arsenal passes, first 30 minutes

Arsenal began to dominate, though, when they were able to surround Jorginho. Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were able to play in the half-spaces around Jorginho, and the passing of Granit Xhaka enabled Arsenal to swiftly switch the point of attack. Whereas in the first thirty minutes of the half, Arsenal were forced to play mostly in their own third, with Petr Cech and his centre backs having to look longer because of Chelsea pressure, the last 15 minutes saw Arsenal not only recover two goals, but get a foothold: with Mkhitaryan and Iwobi overloading Jorginho, Xhaka and Guendouzi could play higher up, and Arsenal’s possession game saw the Gunners go from back to front, rather than side to side, with Iwobi’s equalizer an example of the kind of passing move from the back that Emery wants.

Arsenal: 30-45

Unai Emery made two decisions at half-time. One decision was to replace Granit Xhaka, who had been booked, with Lucas Torreira. The second decision was to have Arsenal sit off more and try and play on the counter attack, attempting to leave Stamford Bridge with at least one point, if not three. Yet in taking Xhaka off and deciding to sit deeper, Arsenal lost the initiative that they had gained at the end of the first half. While Torreira and Xhaka may seemingly be like for like—indeed, Torreira may be the better defensive player—they differ in one key area: receiving the ball in a deep position, and playing long switches that can go beyond a team’s press.

Xhaka and Torreira passing

With Arsenal having given away the initiative, Chelsea were squeezing the pitch in the second half, and without Xhaka’s long-passes, and Guendouzi keeping the same role on the ball, playing higher up the pitch, Arsenal struggled to put attacking and counter-attacking moves together. This is borne out in the passing maps: whereas Arsenal overloaded the half-spaces between Jorginho and the Chelsea wide players, those spaces were largely not exploited in the second half. Without the ability to spring players in behind, or take multiple players out with one ball, Arsenal had to build play more slowly, building more through the full-backs, moves that were reminiscent of the latter Wenger years when the team would struggle going forward. Rather than playing on the counter-attack, Arsenal were passive observers of the second half, and Chelsea’s winning move had an air of inevitability once Eden Hazard was brought onto the pitch.

Arsenal passing, 45-90

When he was hired, several commentators pointed out that Emery has a habit of poor and conservative in-game decisions, ceding momentum and turning three points into one, or indeed, one point into zero. The frustrating part for Arsenal will be that for fifteen minutes they completely dominated a fellow top 6 opponent away from home, and had enough chances in the first half an hour for there not to be a two-goal deficit. Arsenal showed they have a high-grade attack in the latter parts of the first half, but that attack will only pay dividends if Arsenal can actually move the ball into the attacking third effectively. In the first half, with Granit Xhaka, they were able to; in the second half, shorn of his passing range, and with other ball-moves—Mkhitaryan, Iwobi, Özil and then Ramsey—played in the attacking band of three, there was a lack of connectivity between the Arsenal lines. Only be resolving issues of connectivity will Emery be able to make Arsenal a better side, and to do that, he may have to shed some of his innate conservative thinking.