Whilst most people were expecting this in-form Chelsea side to carry on their merry way and sweep aside Arsenal – who themselves have endured a torrid season; the likeable, but under-pressure Mikel Arteta, seemed to have other ideas. He made several changes and deemed matching Chelsea’s 3-4-3 system as the best way of coming away from Stamford Bridge with a positive result. These changes included deploying Bukayo Saka as a Right Wing Back, which certainly caught people by surprise, since 1) Saka has been Arsenal’s most consistent attacking player this season and 2) he had three Right Backs sitting on the bench in Bellerin, Soares and Chambers.
This did not just surprise the fans, but it surprised Thomas Tuchel and Chelsea, who were frustrated and unable to find a way through. Arteta set his team up perfectly from a tactical perspective – limiting Chelsea to just a few clear-cut chances throughout; Kai Havertz blazing over 1-v-1 in the first half and Giroud/Zouma hitting the bar late on. Yes, Arsenal did not create an awful lot themselves, but they found themselves 1 up through the Jorginho mistake early on, and they saw the game out really well from then on.
There was one tactical surprise that I noticed from Arteta’s side that I wanted to highlight and explore further. Interestingly I think he must have got the idea from watching his former side Manchester City’s defeat to Chelsea at the weekend. Maybe he would have even chatted with Pep after the game, to plot together how to beat this well-coached Chelsea team, with City facing Chelsea in the much-anticipated Champions League Final in a couple weeks’ time. I will expand below…
Chelsea vs Man City recap
After Chelsea’s impressive away win against newly crowned Champions – Manchester City. Jamie Carragher demonstrated an impressive analysis of Chelsea’s defensive style. It has been widely pointed out that Chelsea’s defensive record since the arrival of Tuchel has been phenomenal (West Brom thrashing aside). But Carragher was quick to point out that this does not by any means suggest that this Chelsea team are ‘defensive’ by nature, instead suggesting that they simply ‘defend well’. His analysis showed Chelsea’s aggressive man-for-man defending, pressing high and tight. The key feature of the analysis was how Chelsea’s defenders followed the City forwards and stayed incredibly tight to them, even when they dropped into their own half. This can be demonstrated with the image of Antonio Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta below:
On the face of it, this leaves a lot of space behind that City could have exploited. However, Tuchel’s 3 Centre Back and 2 holding midfielder system, provides sufficient coverage, and allows full commitment to the aggressive, front-foot approach. City’s commitment to playing out from the back and passing through the opposition meant that they were having to find their way through the well organised and aggressive defensive press of Chelsea, in limited space, in their own half. Something that they struggled to do, and Chelsea were able to win the ball from City regularly, finishing the game with marginally more possession than Pep’s side.
A way to overcome this would have been for City to beat the press through bypassing the midfield and going straight up to the forwards/into the channels and then forcing Chelsea back. An example of this was with the City goal as Sterling was played into the channel, before out doing Christensen. But City remained stubborn and stuck to their principles though and rarely troubled Chelsea after this.
Arteta undoubtedly would have been watching his former side and making notes on how to trouble this Chelsea team. And this is what he came up with…
Arsenal’s 3-4-3 shape formed a 5-4-1 in defence and a 3-2-2-3 in attack (shown below).
Now the surprise – it was not the Arsenal ‘wide forwards’ of Odegaard and Smith Rowe who formed the forward 3 in the attacking shape with Aubameyang, it was actually the Wing Backs (Tierney and Saka). They got themselves high and wide when Arsenal were in possession, see below:
Now this was important, because as the teams were matched in shape, Reece James and Ben Chilwell found themselves in a man-for-man battle with the opposing Wing Backs, Tierney, and Saka. As a result, when the Arsenal Wing Backs positioned themselves up high, James and Chilwell had to drop back and pick them up.
This was significant because it left a huge pocket of space to the sides of Jorginho and Gilmour in the Chelsea midfield. Pockets of space which were difficult to fill in the absence of N’golo Kante. Because of this, Odegaard and Smith-Rowe (Arsenal’s most creative players) were able to drop into these pockets to pick up the ball from deep. This forced the Chelsea defenders to make a decision; do they follow them that far into the Arsenal half? Instructions from Tuchel would imply that yes, they should. But in doing so, they would leave space in the channels, where Saka and Tierney would be 1-v-1 with their opposing number. So, the Chelsea defenders did not aggressively push forward with the same consistency, and when they did not, it forced Mount and Pulisic back to pick Smith-Rowe and Odegaard up.
On the occasions Chelsea defenders did press high, what Arsenal did differently to City (with mixed success it must be said) was they used the space created as quickly as possible. Odegaard and Smith-Rowe fired the balls out into the channels quickly, to give Saka and Tierney the chance to break forward and try and get the ball deep in the Chelsea territory. Not only this, but it pushed Chelsea back, it made their press less relentless and gave Arsenal some breathing space.
As mentioned, this ploy had mixed success, largely down to the execution, but the plan itself was spot on. And moreover, it seemed like the first glimpse of an opposing manager trying to out-think this Tuchel system and render them defensively vulnerable. With 4 big games approaching for Chelsea; the FA Cup Final, Champions League Final and 2 vital games in the Premier League to secure their top-4 place, it will be interesting to see whether other teams adopt this tactic and maybe they will get the execution better than Arsenal did. Equally, will Tuchel cotton on to this? and make tweaks to the system that has served him so well thus far?
What else did Arteta and Arsenal do well?
Arsenal chose to defend very deep against Chelsea, and this shone Chelsea’s weakness since Tuchel arrived in full light. Chelsea have been unable to break down a low block with any sort of ease and has led to results like 0-0 against Brighton, Wolves and this loss against Arsenal, as well as rarely putting several past oppositions in games that they do win. Chelsea’s best results have come against Man City x2, Real Madrid x2 and Liverpool.
Arsenal’s low block left no space for their roaming forwards to run into or have time on the ball in. Arsenal held this shape well throughout and played with great determination and tenacity, something that has been missing in recent weeks.
My final observation came with how they set up to deal with Chelsea passing out from the back. And this actually led to their goal (even in fortuitous circumstances). They funnelled the ball towards Zouma and gave him possession, as the weakest link in terms of ball possession and distribution ability they were then able to snuff out his passing lanes and force him to either panic and pick the wrong pass or go back.
The illustrated image above shows passes blocked (blue) through the positioning of the Arsenal forwards, and the passes left open (green). These open passes are either back to Kepa, an ambitious and risky long pass to Azpilicueta which he is likely to get wrong or (the pass he took) to Jorginho. Which allowed the Arsenal players to press Jorginho together and led to his rushed back pass and the goal.
An impressive and industrious display from Arsenal’s players if not spectacular, and an impressive tactical performance from Arteta, who on this occasion did get the better of Thomas Tuchel and Chelsea.