Wenger went with Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield and Miyaichi got a start, presumably because Gnabry wasn’t fit. It was a fairly strong line-up and certainly one that could compete with Chelsea’s second string, which, as discussed in the preview, could easily serve as a starting eleven at many Premier League clubs.
While the tournament itself is of little interest to me, the fact that Wenger played many of his regular players – some from the beginning and some as substitutes – showed he desperately wanted a win. However, numerous old failings were again visible as Chelsea controlled the game, first through possession and later through defence. The quality of Arsenal’s football certainly poses some questions about their ability to last the distance while performing against big teams, and cannot easily be brushed aside simply due to the stature of the competition.
The Gunners looked a little tentative early on and made a number of technical errors in the first five minutes or so. This allowed Chelsea to establish a rhythm and they dominated the ball. The absence of Arteta and Flamini was continuously felt in different ways but the players on the pitch worked hard to get bodies between the ball and goal thereby limiting the impact of any threat the visitors posed.
This wasn’t a case of good defending but a matter of working hard to somehow keep the goal protected. There are certain patterns which, when repeated, give us a good indication that a team is not controlling the game defensively.
For instance, when a striker is regularly able to move into space to receive and lay off the ball, opposition’s midfield runners can find open areas to attack, and many players from the defensive side are facing their own goal and chasing back, it’s safe to assume the defence is in the scramble mode. The image below is a decent example of this as Eto’o has dropped between the lines – gap is huge – and Mata is able to run into the space behind the full-back. Many Gunners are looking at Fabianski’s goal and chasing back including the two supposed defensive midfielders and a full-back.
Usually, the oppositions attacking efficiency determines how threatening such instances are and the defensive side has to rely on a bit of luck as they try to slow the attack down and get a crowd around the ball.
In the example above, Vermaelen slowed play down and the Gunners were able to somehow win the ball back by sheer weight of numbers. But look at the vast open space in front of the defence and the acreage that Eto’o is in. In such cases, the probability of conceding freakish goals is high because of these open areas where the ball could easily find its way to through a deflection. Instances of defenders getting in each other’s way because of their proximity and focus on the ball are also more likely than in cases where the shape of the team is not good.
The following example came in the 11th minute when quick feet and a nifty back heel by Mata gave De Bruyne a chance to run into space.
Vermaelen gets sucked out wide as does Wilshere. Monreal is chasing back. Look at the gaps that have opened up (black circles) and the distance between the two central defenders (yellow line). There are many runners who can attack these spaces (red arrows). Only poor choice and executions by De Bruyne slowed this attack down and gave the Gunners a chance to regroup. Even then Willian was able to receive the ball in space and get a shot away.
It is important to remember that snapshots don’t really prove anything and you can find any team out of shape for a short instance if you really go looking. The pictures above are only illustrative. But when you see such problems over and over again during the game it’s clear that the defence is not at the level it should be and the side will inevitably concede a goal or two.
The two goals conceded by Arsenal were both down to numerous defensive weaknesses. ‘Corner to the Gunners, goal to the opponents’ will soon become a cliché. Jenkinson will obviously get bulk of the blame, and he should, but it’s worth noting what a mad scramble it was with many players chasing back as they could not control the break from Chelsea higher up the pitch. The ball was skied and had vicious rotation on it because it deflected from a desperate, perhaps ill-advised, attempt at a sliding tackle.
It was again a freakish goal. Azpilicueta will probably not score another such goal this season. For the Gunners it’s a unique goal to concede in that the exact pattern will likely not repeat but it’s also a very predictable goal to concede in that defensive scrambles will gift very soft goals to the opponents.
The second goal represented different types of problems. It starts with two horribly miscued attempts at clearing the ball. First, Koscielny goes to head a long ball and only manages to head it backwards even though he is under no pressure. Then Jenkinson shanks his clearance and it goes out for a throw. From the resulting throw both central defenders are attracted to Eto’o who’d made a run towards the byline. His flick back results in an aerial duel between Willian and Wilshere before the ball falls kindly to Mata whose technique to control and shoot is exemplary. Again there was an element of luck involved as Willian’s header wasn’t exactly a controlled pass. The shot also bisected the defensive players and swung at just the right moment to veer past Fabianski. But with central defenders getting sucked out of position and the defensive midfielders lacking certain physical qualities and ability to read the danger, Arsenal invited misery upon themselves.
Chelsea could have scored more had they been more efficient. But this was their second string and it showed. Even then Vermaelen seemed lucky to escape without a red card at the end as Dowd probably considered the score and time left before letting the Belgian off the hook. That was another instance where Koscielny could only head a long ball towards his own goal.
Having said all that, it’s very important to note that it wasn’t simply a case of inept football from the Gunners. Far from it. There were phases when they were pretty solid defensively and also moments when they produced some quality moments at the other end of the pitch.
Difference was that Chelsea were, for the most part, extremely well organized and maintained excellent spacing between their players which meant they could close threatening moments down or force the Gunners into producing something special.
Arsenal also struggled a bit because two of their starting attacking players were clearly below par for such a game, albeit for different reasons.
Bendtner seemed like a player who was very low on confidence and his touch wasn’t up to scratch. Furthermore, he’s always had a weakness that has limited his output at the highest level – the Dane does not make runs for the sake of running. Van Persie excelled at this and Giroud has picked up where the Dutchman left off. Strikers at a club like Arsenal, where football is so intricately linked to movement, have to be constantly on the move. Whether the ball arrives or not is irrelevant. They have to spot gaps and keep moving. It can be a tedious job at times but it opens the game up for the side. The problem with Bendtner is that he only seems to make runs when he sees the ball being played into a space. And that means he’s static for certain periods of the game, locking up vital portions of real estate on the pitch and making the job of defenders that much easier.
Miyaichi is clearly a kid who is not ready for such games and it would be harsh to expect too much from him. He needs a loan spell at a Premier League club, or a Championship side, or a strong club in a foreign league where he plays regularly. There is just no substitute for regular game time for the level he’s at.
Arsenal had some promising moments after Özil and Giroud came on the pitch but Chelsea always seemed in control defensively, even if they had to park the bus at times.
The lasting memories from this game will be of the defensive errors, some pretty combinations from the Arsenal midfield, and the moments when they seemed to run out of ideas when confronted with a sturdy blue wall in the Chelsea defence.
Fabianski: Could he have done better for either goal? Maybe. Certainly for the first a case can be made that he could have read the situation quickly and moved a little earlier. Jenkinson was never going to generate enough power to loop the header over him. Didn’t have many big saves to make and his handling of balls that came at him was confident.
Jenkinson: Villain No. 1 in most peoples’ books I guess. Some fans got carried away with his performances last season but, as I’d noted, it was more down to the limited nature of his role in those games. He is not a player who can be relied upon to move up and down the pitch while constantly maintaining a good position and making all the right choices. He should primarily be asked to focus on defending and keeping things simple with occasional forward forays when space opens up. This game seemed to hectic for him and even his crosses and other attacking moments seemed rushed and clumsy.
Koscielny: Made a number of important interventions in the box and further up the pitch when the side played a high line. But he also lacked concentration at times. The two instances of headers going backwards are good examples. Also struggled against the power of Ba when playing a high line against the striker. Can’t fault him for the first goal but shares the blame for the second.
Vermaelen: Had to spend a lot of time covering behind Monreal and did well to break up or slow down quite a few attacks. Another one who shares some blame for the second goal and shared the struggles of Koscielny against Ba. Lucky to avoid a red card. I was surprised he didn’t venture forward a bit more for some long range shots or getting on the end of crosses. The lack of a proper defensive midfielder might have held him back.
Monreal: Opponents got past him quite often with one-twos and quick interchanges which meant he was seen running back towards the Arsenal goal way more often than a defender should. Part of the problems was that the team wasn’t compact and he didn’t get sufficient timely support on the flank. Attacking contribution much better than Jenkinson’s but his final ball had scope for improvement.
The defenders had a tough game and made numerous mistakes. Better communication and awareness could have prevented the second goal. Mertesacker’s ability to read the game was sorely missed as was the presence of Arteta or Flamini in front of the back four.
Ramsey: Very hard working game in defence but he is not the guy who is going to hold position in front of the defence and keep things simple. Missed having such a player beside him. Was also trying to make things happen at the other end but didn’t quite have the right understanding with teammates and the spaces were too tight, time too short for working it out on the go.
Rosicky: On occasions, his manipulation of ball and space was a joy to watch as was his link play with Cazorla. But it was usually a bit too far from the Chelsea goal. Didn’t do enough to help the defence at times and should probably have played alongside the striker or made runs in behind with greater frequency.
Wilshere: Some of his runs with the ball troubled the Blues. For instance, the run that saw Mikel picking up a yellow card had the opponents scrambling, while another one led to Giroud’s shot that forced an excellent save from Schwarzer. Defensively, he tried but again he isn’t a guy who naturally reads that aspect of the game. Also his choices and execution in the final third still leave a lot to be desired.
Cazorla: Like Rosicky, he too produced some easy-on-the-eye moments. But not enough, and certainly not in the decisive areas. Work rate was good and he surprisingly curbed his instincts to shoot. Corners could have been better.
Miyaichi: Have discussed above.
The midfield was not particularly well-balanced and that made it hard from a defensive point of view. Throw in the limitations of the two attacking players discussed above and the starting eleven was lacking something on either end of the pitch. The four main midfielders couldn’t quite compensate for it and they didn’t have the experience, mutual understanding, or skill to control the tempo, and thus the game, through their passing and movement. They also got in each other’s way at times when it seemed they were trying to work things out on the go. Sometimes it does feel a slightly higher degree of functional rigidity would help.
Bendtner: discussed above. I don’t think he was simply slacking off, just that he doesn’t have the drive (or the game intelligence) to keep running selflessly but in a tactically meaningful manner.
Subs: Özil and Giroud’s arrival did give Arsenal greater attacking impetus but it only went till the edge of the Chelsea box where a Blue wall held firm.
Wenger: The big games are here and his sides have lost to Dortmund and Chelsea through terrible defensive mistakes while not showing enough offensive bite. Deja Vu? It’s easy to dismiss this competition’s importance but the patterns seen in this game are concerning. Arsenal have struggled without Arteta and they will do so again, particularly when Flamini too is missing.Follow @goonerdesi