Liverpool’s German manager Jurgen Klopp (L) and Chelsea’s Italian head coach Antonio Conte watch thier players during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in London on September 16, 2016. / AFP / GLYN KIRK / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications. / (Photo credit should read GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)
Here is a statistical and tactical preview of Arsenal’s return to Premier League action, where they host Chelsea on Saturday evening.
After two four-goal performances in the past week, confidence among the Arsenal dressing seems to be rising. Last weekend’s win over a Hull City that were defensively well drilled and disciplined brought about a fluid, dynamic attacking performance, with the continual movement of Theo Walcott, Alex Iwobi and Alexis Sanchez as a false nine causing all sorts of problems, with the genius of Mesut Ozil exploiting the space created by the attacking trio.
The Gunners were handed a huge aide in Jake Livermore’s harsh red card just before half-time and a penalty after Petr Cech hauled down Mbokani in the second half did cause a moment’s panic until Sanchez soon ended the tie with his second of the afternoon. However, Chelsea are a far more ruthless, cut-throat side. Give them chances and they will take them without conceding soon after like Hull last week. So, what do Arsenal have to do to win on Saturday evening?
Diego Costa is a nightmare to defend. A snarling, angry mess of flailing arms, wild elbows and an aggressive nature, Costa does not give defenders a moment’s rest whatsoever. His first season in the league, two years ago under Jose Mourinho, was sensational. His physical power and aerial dominance saw him score 20 goals in 24 appearances and lead the Chelsea line with great authority.
Costa’s key attribute is his ability to relieve pressure off of the defence. His touch, while far from spectacular, is good enough to hold on to possession, especially combined with his strength to keep defenders at bay, and he possesses far more pace than many give him credit, as evidenced by his goal against Watford earlier in the season when released by Cesc Fabregas, spinning in behind the Hornet’s defence and finishing well.
Against Arsenal, Costa has been particularly dangerous. In three appearances he has scored two goals, bullied the centre-halves into submission, wound up Gabriel Paulista to the point that the Brazilian was sent off and then baited Per Mertesacker into diving in as the last man, getting the German sent off in the process. The Gunners have notoriously struggled to handle physically powerful centre-forwards throughout the years, and on Saturday, the new pairing of Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny will once again suffer an onslaught of violent, aggressive football. Can they withstand the heat?
I personally do not believe that they can. Costa has scored five goals in five league appearances so far this season, and under the raging Antonio Conte is playing with a fiery anger that brings out the best in him. So, how can Arsenal stop the Chelsea man? Well, looking at the stats, cutting off the source.
LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 16: David Luiz of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on September 16, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images)
Cut Off The Supply Chain
Chelsea’s issues have come under pressure. In a first half demolition at the hands of Liverpool, Chelsea were unable to pose any attacking threat under the duress of the Liverpool press. Jurgen Klopp is notoriously enthusiastic in his insistence that his players hound the ball throughout the whole pitch. They are not asked to sit deep and contain. Rather, Klopp demands they press high up the pitch and quite simply outrun their opponents.
Without Cesc Fabregas, Chelsea were unable to dictate the tempo of the game. They were unsettled, Diego Costa was isolated and the whole side was relying on a moment of magic from Eden Hazard to even create a chance. In the first half alone, Liverpool made seven interceptions. Four of those came in Chelsea’s half. In the second, with a two goal lead and a tendency to sit deeper, Klopp’s side only made another five interceptions, only one of which came in Chelsea’s half.
Allowing Chelsea more possession off the ball certainly gave the London club a far greater foothold in the game, resulting in a Diego Costa goal thanks to a Nemanja Matic burst forward and low cut back. On Saturday, Arsenal will have to cut off the supply of the Chelsea forward. Rather than sitting deep and playing on the counter, relinquishing control of the game, Arsenal could well be wise in pressing high up the pitch, suffocating the life out of this Chelsea side. Pressurising the centre-halves of David Luiz, Gary Cahill and John Terry could well bring great rewards – something that brought about Jordan Henderson’s wonderful goal last Friday night.
GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN – AUGUST 07: Gael Clichy of Manchester City and Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal competes for the ball during the Pre-Season Friendly between Arsenal and Manchester City at Ullevi on August 7, 2016 in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)
Pressing Does More Than Defending
Winning the ball back high up the pitch is where Arsenal will reap their rewards. In Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Swansea earlier in the season, Leroy Fer scored a rather controversial goal. With the Chelsea back four keeping the ball without any intensity or purpose – I will get back to this later – the ball eventually arrives at the feet of Gary Cahill. Fer sprints towards the centre-half forces him into a poor first touch, nicks the ball (this was a definite foul even though it wasn’t given) and proceeds to convert the consequent one-on-one.
The timing of that press by Fer was incredible. Great shape by Swansea to force Chelsea back, Fer is a beast! pic.twitter.com/cT7AlxIgIY
What is crucial to this goal is the discipline of the Swansea midfield. Chelsea’s defence has no pass available forward. They slide the ball sideways where Fer realises that there is a chance to press hard on Cahill and force him into an error. Liverpool similarly suffocated Chelsea’s play in the first half.
Throughout the match, Liverpool attempted 68 passes in their own defensive third, completing 66 of them. Chelsea, on the other hand, attempted an astonishing 116 with only 111 complete. Liverpool smothered the tempo that Chelsea attempted to dictate, pressuring them with the ball while maintaining their shape without it. How can Arsenal replicate such a tactic?
Well, perhaps playing Alexis Sanchez as a central striker could well prove successful. I have been critical of the tactic so far this season, but with his endless energy and incessant pressing, the Chilean international is the perfect player to harass Chelsea in their own half.
Whether Arsene Wenger will choose to back his possession-based style, ask his side to sit deep and counter or press high remains to be seen, but the latter, as evidenced by Chelsea’s defensive woes recently, may well be the best tactic to replicate.