Arsenal (3-4-2-1): Cech // Holding – Mustafi – Chambers (Walcott, 88’) // Maitland-Niles – Xhaka – Wilshere – Bellerin // Sanchez – Ozil // Lacazette (Welbeck, 79’)
Chelsea (3-5-1-1): Courtois // Cahill – Christensen – Azpilicueta // Alonso – Bakayoko – Kante – Fabregas (Drinkwater, 71’) – Moses (Zappacosta, 56’) // Hazard (Willian, 82’) – Morata
Chelsea and Arsenal Equilibrium
Conte decided to engage in a position-oriented press structured around a hybrid 3-5-2. This meant that Hazard would join Morata in pressing Arsenal’s first line of buildup while the three central midfielders would sit narrow, with Kante the deepest lying. At times, Bakayoko or Fabregas would push slightly higher to engage the sidebacks, knowing that space behind would be adequately covered by the roaming Kante and ball-side wingback. Arsenal approached Chelsea’s pressing action through conventional means, with either Wilshere or Xhaka dropping deeper to provide a central option. This tactic could have worked if the wingbacks adopted a position closer to the centrebacks instead of near the forward line. By sitting forward as Arsenal are beginning their possessional play, Chelsea was able to create favourable 3v3 or 4v4 situations. Thus, Arsenal found it laborious to penetrate into their middle block.
While Chelsea was effective in neutralizing Arsenal’s buildup, they failed to account for the movement of Ozil, especially when he would drop deeper into the open spaces to create local overloads. Ozil was masterful in his ability to become a constant third option in the passing game (he had 105 touches). With Kante unwilling at times to compromise his position at the base of midfield, Ozil was able to receive the ball in space and dictate Arsenal’s forward progression. He was able to apply pressure on Chelsea’s back line by being proactive in his spatial occupation, favoring a position in either half-space between the opposing midfield and defense. Simple passes in these areas were a constant thorn to Chelsea for the entirety of the match.
Despite Arsenal’s positive adaptation to Chelsea’s defensive setup, everything was nearly undone by the failures of the three centrebacks. With Mustafi flanked by two young sidebacks, communication issues created situations in which Morata or Hazard were not adequately marked. Morata’s golden chance in the 14th minute came from a clearance by Moses that should have been easily handled. Miscommunication between Chambers and Mustafi as to who would push forward and mark Hazard left Morata to run onto the ball into space. With Cech unable to push out of the penalty area, Morata was free on goal, only to place the ball agonisingly wide. This was a worrying trend for Arsenal as it afforded Chelsea numerous attacking opportunities that should have been put away.
Arsenal’s in the Final Third
In periods throughout the match, Arsenal was able to mount effective attacking transitions when Chelsea was deep in the final third. The pace and movement of Sanchez and Lacazette would stretch the pitch, widening Chelsea’s centrebacks and opening space for Ozil to meander into. The positioning of Sanchez’s runs were notable for their unpredictability, utilising blindside movement to adopt aggressive positions either wide or centrally. Quick one-twos and third-man runs between the three led to some productive advantages.
Arsenal notably struggled when they entered Chelsea’s final third at a methodical pace, allowing them to reorganise their defensive shape to nullify available passing lanes. Arsenal did not help themselves that they lacked off-ball movement and failed to provide significant options for the midfield to pass into. Chelsea’s compactness made vertical progression difficult and forced Arsenal to move the ball through the flanks. Arsenal was better at times in forcing Chelsea to defend the width of the pitch. Against West Brom, they tried to play a compact passing game that moved in the opposition’s favour. By instructing Bellerin and Maitland-Niles to stay wide in the buildup, Arsenal was able to open space for Ozil to drift into. Using clever misdirection runs between the lines, Ozil was able to fashion space for himself to turn at speed. If it wasn’t for Ozil, Arsenal’s attack would likely have stagnated against a robust Chelsea defence.
As the game progressed towards the latter stages, the shape of each team became increasingly stretched, allowing for several aggressive counterattacks. Each side will feel hard done by and if Morata or Lacazette were able to convert several of their key chances, either could have walked away with three points. In the end, there was little difference between the two sides. Ozil’s magnificent display kept Arsenal ticking while Hazard, combined with worrying defensive lapses, gave Chelsea several chances to come out ahead. For Arsenal, it should be increasingly troubling that they lack a creative spark when Ozil is not on the side, as the West Brom match evidenced. Wenger, then, should make it a priority that he signs a new contract before he can depart for free in the summer.