Arsenal (3-4-2-1): Ospina // Holding – Mustafi – Chambers // Maitland-Niles – Xhaka – Wilshere (Elneny, 57’) – Bellerin // Welbeck – Iwobi // Lacazette (Sanchez, 66’)
Chelsea (3-5-2): Courtois // Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta // Alonso – Drinkwater (Willian, 67’) – Kante – Fabregas – Moses // Morata – Hazard (Bakayoko, 84’)
Arsenal settled in possession with a back three aided by Xhaka who would sit in the six space and provide access for central distribution. Maitland-Niles and Bellerin maintaining high starting positions towards the halfway line necessitated a coordinated buildup through the middle of the pitch, with Iwobi willing to drop deep in the ball-side half space to link the defence to the midfield; Arsenal was able to progress easily at times into Chelsea’s middle block.
For most of the first half, Chelsea obliged Arsenal’s possession-dominating inclination by sitting deep in a defensive 3-5-2 focused around a position-oriented press. Their main focus was to solidify their defensive lines and prevent Arsenal from dragging defenders away through double movements and clever one-twos. Their compactness in the middle third created challenges for Arsenal’s early phase of possession as the lack of movement ahead of Wilshere and Xhaka forced regressive lateral passes to the wingbacks. Chelsea started having problems when Arsenal was willing to play direct passes over the defensive line before they could transition into defence. Passes by Wilshere and Chambers, for example, attempted to exploit the space behind when Chelsea decided to maintain a high-pressure line. Here, Lacazette and Welbeck tried to use their off-ball movement and pace, respectively, to stretch the defence vertically and open space for midfield runners in the dangerous central areas. Too often, however, Chelsea would react well and Arsenal were forced to pass backward, slowing down their forward momentum.
Chelsea adopted a similar game plan that they used several weeks wherein they used Morata as a roaming target man with Hazard shadowing the spaces in between. They were successful at times in the first half, especially when Arsenal was complacent in rebuilding their defensive shape, with Fabregas and Alonso drifting into the left half-spaces. Hazard in particular caused problems for Arsenal, as he was able to effectively move between the lines to expose the space Arsenal left in their middle block. Fortunately for Arsenal, Chelsea’s maintained the poor finishing they had from their previous match.
Chelsea was able to maintain constant pressure for large periods of the second half by making some small adjustments. Most of the time Chelsea became more aggressive in pressing Arsenal in the beginning of their transitions, shifting Fabregas and Kante further forward to disrupt their passing lanes. With their back three maintaining a high defensive line near the centre circle, Chelsea were able to stay relatively compact. Arsenal was at a disadvantage as they were forced to play more route one passes into Lacazette who was easily outmuscled by Rudiger and Christensen. The injury to Wilshere only compounded Arsenal’s transitional woes as the addition of Elneny took away their ability to penetrate the midfield.
Despite Chelsea’s advantages, Arsenal did well to maintain a low block in the defensive phase, forcing them to play deep crosses from out wide. Chelsea played 28 crosses overall with the majority coming from the right side and connected on only 5 of them (17.85%). Mustafi and Chambers deserve to be singled out for their performance during Chelsea’s second half dominance, with 9 clearances apiece demonstrating their ability to snuff out chances. While Arsenal’s defence has been lacklustre for most of the season, this was an encouraging performance.
This was a very evenly matched encounter, with neither side able to break the deadlock and maintain an advantage before the second leg. While not the best attacking performance by Arsenal, they at least return to the Emirates confident of returning to the League Cup final for the first time since 2011.