If the Carabao Cup is a “nothing” trophy as some fans like to attest, nobody told Arsenal or Chelsea. On Wednesday, the two giants of London met for their second of 3 meetings in as many weeks in the first leg of the Cup semi final at Stamford Bridge. The match was a physical battle from whistle to whistle, with neither club willing to give an inch in front of their own momentum swung Arsenal’s way in the first half. In spite of this, Chelsea turned the tables for the second to put the Gunners on their heels. The resolve of both teams’ defence was tested and it held, the match ending in a 0-0 draw. Pre-match drama saw many surprised that Alex Iwobi wasn’t dropped for reported parting last weekend while Alexis Sanchez was, ostensibly because of an impending move to Manchester City, but that drama subsided as the match heated up and by the end both were on the pitch. The stage has been set for a brilliant return leg, but this one was not without intrigue.
Battle of the Pragmatists
When Antonio Conte first arrived in England to take the Chelsea job at the beginning of last season, few would have predicted that some of his best tactical chess matches would come in his matches against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. His arrival was accompanied by the return of Jose Mourinho to the league, this time with Manchester United, and Pep Guardiola opening his accounts on these shores with Manchester City, and they were thought to be his toughest opponents. But Wenger has matched the Italian, and in the important matches even bested him, while utilising variations of the same basic 3-4-3 formation (or near enough).
Despite Wenger’s absence from the touchline, his team appeared to stick to the plan from the first whistle, and he will be happy to escape Stamford Bridge with the goalless draw. The performance takes on increased significance when considering injuries prevented Wenger from fielding his strongest possible team against Chelsea, who themselves opted for a full-strength XI. With the return leg at home, Arsenal can regroup, get healthy and go for the victory as the Emirates Stadium. After the lacklustre performance and flawed tactics of the FA Cup crash-out on Sunday against Nottingham Forest, Arsenal needed this sort of showing from their players, particularly in defence, to break their streak of poor performances and relieve some of the enormous pressure being placed on them by frustrated fans.
The Trio Expected to Fail
Of all of the terrible performances in the Forest match, Rob Holding’s was easily the least lucky, if not also the worst. He was whistled for at least 3 avoidable fouls and the penalty he conceded was unfortunate, perhaps playing a touch out of his feet wasn’t the best option to take in his own penalty area. Calum Chambers was poor as well, despite showing flashes of his polish and grit while trying in vain to cover for his glacial partner, Per Mertesacker, who got turned around for 90 minutes like a revolving office door at the close of business. It was the sort of performance that sends fans into meltdown and player confidence to a dangerously low ebb.
However, the inclusion of a Shkodran Mustafi between the pair had an extraordinarily positive effect against Chelsea, with the trio playing as well as each of them have all season. They defended extremely well as a unit and improved positional play from the wing backs, Hector Bellerin and (the brilliant in this match) Ainsley Maitland-Niles, meant they had adequate support when Chelsea attacked. Something about Mustafi’s fearless play and the abandon with which he throws himself in front of shots inspires Rob Holding like no other player in the side, while it also frees Calum Chambers up to be more proactive himself in attacking the ball. Of the trio, Calum Chambers is the chief distributor, and his eye for the long diagonal ball to Alexandre Lacazette is something the team have been crying out for. All 3 have been criticised this season for their inconsistencies but they remain the future of the heart of the Arsenal defence until further notice and perhaps that future is brighter than some might have thought.
Neither Can Live While the Other Survives and Other Injury Concerns
You almost could just feel it coming, couldn’t you? Just as Aaron Ramsey was nearing a return to health, and fans were getting excited about the prospect of a midfield with both he and Jack Wilshere on the pitch together, Wilshere gets felled with an injury of his own. Though it looked rather innocuous, Wilshere stuck his leg out to block a hard-struck Victor Moses cross which clipped Wilshere on the foot, turning his boot to the outside. He was pulled from the game just minutes after giving it a go following treatment and was replaced by Mohammed Elneny. The injury was of great concern to fans, but they were also confused, as some thought it might be the knee and others the ankle that was giving him problems. However, given his injury history, particularly with his lower legs, there will be a lot of anxiety until he is back on the pitch playing again.
Elsewhere in the team, there are concerns over the health of stars Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny, as both are still fighting nagging injuries. For Ozil, it is the same knee problem that has held him out of training and forced him to miss the clash with West Brom, but he is apparently nearing full health and was close to playing in this match. Some, including this observer, thought that his absence in the week leading up to the clash might have been a combination of rest and Wenger holding his cards close to his vest, but the reporting from the day before turned out to be accurate.
As for Koscielny, the concern over his chronic back and achilles is starting to compound as he is missing more and more time as the season progresses. At 32 and with an astonishing turn of pace (seriously, check the league wide top sprint speeds from last season, he is up there), there should still be valuable years left in his career. But for now, it appears that his body is betraying him. With regular injections needed just to play 90 minutes on his balky achilles, the trio on display at the Bridge could be the present as much as they are the future.
VAR Already of Use
Given the recent and warranted controversy surrounding referees in the Premier League, no club will be happier to see the implementation of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) than Arsenal. Manager Arsene Wenger has found himself increasingly frustrated by the volume of questionable calls in the Gunners’ matches, many of which often seem to go against them and the most recent, a Mike Dean handball call, cost them 2 points.
There were to be no such mistakes on Wednesday as VAR was called on multiple times to offer clarity to a few situations during the match. It didn’t typically interrupt the flow of the match for longer than a few seconds, but a couple times the crowd became noticeably impatient as they tried to figure out what was happening. There will be millions of opinions on how best to streamline its use, whether it will have a narrower scope, or if it is worth the sacrifice of the added time to the games, which currently fit perfectly into a very television-friendly 2 hour package. For Arsenal and its tortured fans, there could only be one answer to VAR however, and that is a resounding yes. If it had been instituted for this Premier League season, Manchester City’s place atop the standings probably wouldn’t be in doubt, but given the tightly contested fight for the remaining places in the top 4, it might have had an effect.
Strategy to Pay Off?
Arsene Wenger knew going into this match, down his best creator, two starting central defenders and the all-action midfielder that has become the bane of Chelsea over the last two seasons, he was going to have a hard time escaping with a victory. Stamford Bridge is not exactly a fortress, but Chelsea always play well at home and open up a bit in the attack, so Wenger wisely didn’t opt for all out attack. Hector Bellerin took up a far more conservative position than usual, clearly tasked with minding the defensive side of his duties first. Maitland-Niles got forward a bit more but was also diligent in getting back into position after roaming forward.
The first half played more like a typical Arsenal half, with the Gunners controlling the tempo and having much more possession in quality areas. However, after the halftime whistle, Wenger must have channeled his inner-Mourinho, because Arsenal set up a much deeper block in their own end while the forwards pressed less aggressively in favor of clogging the passing lanes to the centre. As a result, Chelsea got more time on the ball and stole the initiative from the Gunners. The onslaught lasted around 20 minutes before Arsenal began to push back and start to create chances of their own again. The introduction of Alexis Sanchez gave them a more threatening dribbler in attack, but ultimately did little to create more chances for themselves.
The strategy was a bit of an unusual one for Wenger, who typically likes to play positive football regardless of the scenario, but he might have been put off by the form his defenders have been in recently. Perhaps in the Frenchman’s mind, escaping this leg with the draw on the back of a strong defensive performance would be good for the players most in need of a boost in his team, while leaving them the option of going all out at home, where the Gunners have been a much better side this season. A victory will ensure that Arsenal are the club in position to deny probable final participants, Manchester City, of their dream of 4 trophies this season. That would be as satisfying as it gets.