It was a game that Arsenal had to win. Entering play 6 points behind Chelsea, a loss would’ve meant Arsenal’s only route into next season’s Champions League could come through the Europa League, a tough proposition even if Unai Emery has won it three times. Luckily, for Emery, this must-win game was at home, and perhaps paradoxically, against a team that finished ahead of Arsenal last season and is ahead of Arsenal in this campaign. Before yesterday, Arsenal’s best performances, accounting for quality of opposition, have come against Liverpool at home, Tottenham at home, and Chelsea away.
In a way, this sums up the quandary of Emery’s tenure at Arsenal so far. Emery is an expert at opposition analysis, and setting up his side to react against stronger sides. It is against the lesser sides in the Premier League where Emery and Arsenal have struggled, summed up by the matches around Liverpool and Tottenham: draws against Crystal Palace and Wolves, a difficult 1-0 win against Huddersfield, and losing at Southampton.
Speaking of Tottenham, it was Mauricio Pochettino who instigated the way to set up against Sarri’s Chelsea to counter their pressing and passing game: use a player to man-mark Jorginho, Chelsea’s metronome, work overlaps against Chelsea out-wide, block the passing lanes through the middle, and then get runners from midfield to overwhelm Jorginho and the Chelsea centre backs. To do this, Emery started Juventus-bound Aaron Ramsey, who carried out the two functions of role expertly: Jorginho’s influence was minimal, and Ramsey’s movement when Arsenal were in possession was excellent, getting into good positions in conjunction with the advanced fullbacks and the two strikers.
Indeed, it was Arsenal’s pressing that allowed them to get on top of Chelsea in the early stages. Arsenal’s only fluid move in the first twenty minutes came when Héctor Bellerin slipped Alexandre Lacazette down the right, whose cross should’ve been turned in by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang; otherwise, Arsenal’s chances came from set pieces and winning the ball high up the pitch. It was energy, then, other than technical quality that separated the two teams, as Sarri pointed to after the match when questioning Chelsea’s mentality: “From a technical point of view both teams are pretty much on the same level, but Arsenal were more determined.”
Indeed, this is how most games between the Premier League’s best sides go. Matches are not necessarily about imposing, through play with the ball, on the opposition, but about being able to hold the opposition at arm’s length through your own play off the ball. This means Arsenal should improve in these matches away from home—they’ve been more or less fine in big games at home for quite some time, even under late Wenger—but what’s been notable about the performances against Liverpool, Spurs and Chelsea has been that Arsenal have been good in those games without putting together flowing moves. Rather, it’s been about capitalizing on quick bursts and moments, from set pieces and transitions.
When Arsenal looked to build play against Chelsea yesterday, the moves were disjointed, with Arsenal succumbing to Chelsea’s own pressure. In the system, a 4222/4312 hybrid, Guendouzi and Xhaka were deeper, with Torreira having a higher role as Emery looked to preserve his 2-2 midfield box set up in possession, allowing the fullbacks to take up higher positions. Arsenal, though, are a team that lacks quick ball-playing ability and creativity in those midfield positions. Xhaka can be too slow to move the ball at times, and higher up, Ramsey is an excellent attacking player, but not a number 10 in the mold of Özil, while Torreira is a defensive player. Arsenal’s best moments in possession came when Xhaka was able to spread the ball wide, particularly to Sead Kolasinac, but those moments were few and far between.
One drawback of Arsenal’s system was that it allowed Chelsea’s own fullbacks, especially Marcos Alonso, to get forward and offer dangerous width. It explains why Emery brought Maitland-Niles and Iwobi on to move to a 433, though the former had to immediately switch to right back. Yet, that reduced even further Arsenal’s ability on the ball and ability to counter cohesively; of the five midfielders on the pitch as the match ended, only Iwobi could be considered an attacking player. As Arsenal’s energy drained in the last quarter and the Gunners could no longer press with the intensity of the first half, the inability to control the match through possession means a Chelsea goal could’ve made the final minutes distinctly uncomfortable.
That is one aspect that Emery might want to address, ahead of matches against Manchester United in the FA Cup and Manchester City in the Premier League. But more than anything, Emery will want Arsenal to add consistency, so that Arsenal’s best performances are not simply limited to the big games. Whether he can marry his big game approach with the demands of being expressive and creative in games against the Premier League’s lesser lights will go a long way to determining if winning the Europa League will become Arsenal’s number one priority once spring rolls around.