Wenger made 11 changes from the side that dismantled Coventry with ease but it was the one alteration to the starting eleven against City that might have proven decisive. Everybody expected Vermaelen to come back into the squad, he’s the Captain after all. The question was whether it will be Mertesacker who makes way or Koscielny.
Arsene left the German out, perhaps to give him a longer rest as he’s played the first five League games and the Champions League tie. It could also have been a tactical move. It seemed to me that Wenger wanted his team to press/play higher up the pitch in this game. As was discussed in the Preview, Arsenal were able to rely on counter-attacking football against Liverpool and City but the Gunners had to show greater initiative and control at home. So it is highly like that Wenger wanted two quick and aggressive defenders who would help with the high line and have the pace to recover.
The thing with Mertesacker is that he tends to drop back whenever he senses danger. This allows him to compensate for his relatively slower speed through intelligent reading of the game, but it does affect the shape of the team and tends to pull everyone deeper. Or at times he plays opponents on because he’s the only one who goes deep. This issue is not as pronounced in away games where a deep-lying defence is understandable or against smaller teams who do not possess sufficient attacking potency. But at home against a Chelsea side brimming with quick, clever, fleet-footed players, it’s not difficult to see the reasoning Wenger might have had.
The problem for the Gunners however, was that they just couldn’t get the high press going. In the opening minutes we could see Gervinho and Cazorla pressing the Chelsea defenders with some support from the wide players but the midfield didn’t follow through and the defence stayed fairly deep. There were moments when you could see Bould and/or Wenger egging the players to push up but their expression soon turned to a grimace and finally resignation when they realized it wasn’t working out.
This failure to press higher up the pitch had a big impact on the patterns of play. Chelsea were very comfortable at the back and were able to play out with ease. In possession, they could control 3/4th of the pitch but the Gunners were defensively solid in their deep quarter. The visitors saw a lot of the ball and their players got into very good positions to run at the defence but Arsenal’s structure and discipline was keeping them at bay.
At the other end, the Gunners weren’t able to move forward quite as fluently. Chelsea weren’t employing a high pressing strategy either but they did well to slow Arsenal down through half-pressing which ensured players on the ball didn’t have clear passing channels or easy forward passes. So Arsenal’s early attacks were limited to pops from distance as the visitors got enough time to get back into a deep and narrow shape. Width would have been helpful but Ramsey and Podolski didn’t really offer much. The full-backs were trying but they were often crossing the ball when Arsenal had one or two against six or more in the box.
The opening exchanges were cagey but Chelsea looked like they had greater territorial control. This helped them create the first goal. Hazard was able to pick the ball up in space on the left before running forward to play a one-two with Torres, who did an excellent job of holding his own in front of Vermaelen. Hazard had gotten in between the lines and would have been running towards Koscielny so Vermaelen probably thought it best to attack the ball. But you could argue the merits of that decision as Arteta was chasing back. As it happened, the Belgian lunged for the ball and conceded a set-piece.
Arsenal’s organization for the free-kick seemed like a mess. Diaby’s early substitution might have been the cause as he was probably assigned to mark Luiz. Oxlade-Chamberlain seemed completely unaware of his role. Both Vermaelen and Koscielny could be seen gesturing towards Luiz and saying something, presumably a plea or command directed towards AOC, but it didn’t have the required efffect. The Chelsea centre-back had a free run and was completely unmarked in the box as the ball just sailed over him. However, his positioning and the lack of marking had enough of an impact on Koscielny who lost his bearings and got turned for a few vital moments when Torres was able to stick a foot up and guide the ball towards goal. The Frenchman should never have ended up facing his own goal. The correct approach for him would have been to have his right arm on Torres, just to track the striker’s movement, with his body facing forward so he could have a clear sight of the ball. Once he lost visual contact there was no way he could have prevented Torres from scoring. But it wasn’t just Koscielny’s fault, this was just poor organization on the set-piece to go with his incorrect body positioning. More work is needed on the training ground.
Arsenal, as we’ve come to expect since last season, didn’t give up but went hard at Chelsea who seemed to have eased off.
The pressure paid dividends as the equalizer came from an Oxlade-Chamberlain cross that Gervinho controlled and finished with aplomb. Both events were a surprise. That was AOC’s only cross in 8 attempts that actually found an Arsenal player. And Gervinho’s composure and technique are rarely this lethal in conjunction. But Chelsea were forcing Arsenal wide and the Gunners produced the necessary response. The game was level again and there was everything to play for.
Arsenal had a good spell after the goal and started the second half in ascendancy. Chelsea were pushed deep for a sustained period but that proved to be Arsenal’s undoing.
It started with a rare loose pass from Arteta at a time when Vermaelen had pushed up the pitch. The midfielder then went to ground, as Chelsea quickly played the ball forward, but failed with his attempted tackle. This left the centre of defence exposed and forced Vermaelen into charging back. The defender was once again rash with his attempted tackle and conceded another set-piece in a position close to where the first originated.
This time Mata’s ball went straight through shaving Koscielny’s shin on the way. I thought it was poor goalkeeping as there was no Chelsea player in a position to attack the ball. Mannone should have read the situation and called for Koscielny to pull out. It should have been the Keeper’s ball but he was late to react and never reached it. But once again you could ask broader questions about set-piece organization and decision making. Someone should have been in position to attack that ball before it got that deep and low. Oddly enough, this wasn’t even zonal marking.
Arsenal tried to get back into the game and created a number of half-chances. Podolski had a header well saved by Cech, Cazorla wasted more than one decent opening by blasting way wide of the target, Giroud hit one on target but missed the best chance of equalizing late in the game after he was put through with Cech. The French striker showed good control and composure in rounding the Keeper but just didn’t know where the goalposts were.
It’s worth noting that Arsenal’s inability to press as a unit meant that they were not able to lay siege on the Chelsea goal towards the end as a top team would do when chasing the game at home. Even Montpellier had long phases where they boxed Arsenal in. That’s somewhat linked to the shape of the team and the new defensive approach but the entire discussion is out of the scope of this already extremely long post.
At the end of the day it’s difficult to say Arsenal deserved anything from the game. You can’t concede such soft goals and expect to win. You can’t hit the target with 4 of your 17 shots and deserve three points. Most importantly, this isn’t the first time the attackers have failed to hit the target or the defence has gifted goals, so there really is no excuse.
Mannone: Don’t blame him for the first goal as Luiz’s position would have forced him to stay on his line but communication could have been better. Definitely a culprit for the second IMO. Had very little to do otherwise.
Jenkinson: Another solid game from the youngster. Defended his flank, ventured forward more often than he has in the recent past, could do better in the final third but showed good confidence and determination.
Koscielny: At least partially at fault for both goals. Won only 1 of his 6 ground duels. Couldn’t contribute as much as Mertesacker does for ball circulation. A disappointing game in general but did make some timely clearances and interceptions.
Vermaelen: Conceded the two fouls that led to both goals. Interestingly, has 3/3 for tackles and 3/5 for ground duels – does that mean the fouls were classified as ground duels lost? These things do make me wonder about the definition of stats. Stats also say he was 6/7 on aerial duels but you also got a feeling Torres was able to hold his own in front of Vermaelen. Was bit of a mixed bag for the Belgian. Needs to work on his judgment and tackling technique. The penalty against Montpellier and these two fouls are just a continuation of some long standing weaknesses.
Gibbs: Probably the best of Arsenal’s defenders. Had the most touches, recovered possession most often, made 5 interceptions, and was 8/9 on tackles, 9/13 on ground duels. Was easily the busiest and most hard working defender on the pitch. Did make one or two mistakes, like the foul he conceded on the edge of the box, but given his work rate and contribution at both ends it’s tough to find faults.
After the game I read some criticism of the Kos-Verm partnership but that was a bit baffling. The problem in this game was not with the partnership but with certain individual decisions and technical aspects along with organizational issues and the failure of the pressing tactic. It’s easy to say Mertesacker would have been different but over the last 3-4 years we’ve seen many players have good and bad patches so such simplifications don’t really help.
Arteta: Absolutely immense once again but it seemed he was a bit isolated in this game and was stretched to his limits which led to some uncharacteristic errors not least of which was the poor pass and failed attempt at tackling in the build-up to the Chelsea winner. Still I’d say his effort was very important to Arsenal’s defence and overall possession game.
Cazorla: Missed two or three semi-decent chances (according to soccernet stats he has 1 goal in 23 shots with 8 on target i.e. less than 5 percent conversion rate, ~33% accuracy). Saw a lot of the ball and moved it around but wasn’t able to influence play in the final third in a decisive manner. Set-piece delivery wasn’t effective but that’s an issue with the whole team and thus related to training.
Diaby: It was always going to be tough. Lasted just over a quarter of an hour. Did complete all his 12 passes in that period and contributed 1 of Arsenal’s total 4 shots on target. Was missed for the rest of the game as Arteta didn’t get sufficient support.
Ramsey: Started on the right but moved to the centre after Diaby was subbed. It seemed he didn’t really understand his role. Kept pushing forward more often than necessary. Decision making was poor as he sometimes played quick passes when an extra touch could have helped and held on to the ball when an early release seemed like the better choice. It was as if he was playing as the attacking midfielder rather than Arteta’s partner who connected defence to attack.
The midfield did a decent job of protecting the defence from open play but both goals came from set-pieces that were conceded after the midfield was bypassed by the attacking players. Replacing Diaby and maintaining the delicate balance between attack and defence will be a challenge for Arsene.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Didn’t start the game but played long enough to be considered a starter. Created Arsenal’s two best chances – the Goal and Giroud’s late miss – but also wasted many opportunities to cross and one prominent chance to shoot. Saw a lot of the ball but couldn’t really express himself.
Gervinho: Took his goal well. Work rate was again very good but overall contribution leaves a lot to be desired. Again had a total loss of possession stat of 14 in 34 touches including 2 unsuccessful touches, 3 dispossessed, and 1 overrun. Has to learn to take care of the ball better and to link up with others in the attacking areas.
Podolski: Chelsea kept the central area packed and that limited the goal scoring opportunities he could get. Did a decent job of helping the defence. But in general he didn’t offer enough from the left.
I thought in such a game Podolski and Gervinho should have swapped places more often. Arsenal could have used a presence in front of the Chelsea defence, someone who could link play with his back to goal. The crossing game, even though it brought the equalizer, didn’t look like a genuine threat on a consistent basis. Arsenal’s passing and combinations were not quick enough in the final third.
Subs: Giroud should have scored once he rounded Cech but he’s hit the target once in 11 shots and that too was a deflected shot that Cech saved. He plays like a talented youngster who still doesn’t quite have his angles worked out. Walcott was disappointing.
Wenger: Ultimately the errors on set-pieces come back to the boss as they’re not a one-off. Don’t blame him for picking Koscielny but his team’s failure to press cohesively and consistently can only be sorted in training. One might wonder if Arshavin would have been a better choice than Walcott. Has a headache in the striking department and now possibly in midfield if Diaby stays out for a long period.
Sometimes I just wonder if the ‘Be a Gooner, Be a Giver’ mantra is too deeply ingrained in everyone’s mindset at the club. Maybe they’re also taking ‘Charity begins at home’ rather literally. Alas! Silly jokes can’t alleviate the suffering after such a game. The next one can’t come soon enough…Follow @goonerdesi