2017-18 Premier League DARTS, Week 5: How Arsenal stymied Chelsea

Welcome to Premier League DARTS, FC Yahoo‘s weekly EPL column that will run every Monday morning. Why “DARTS”? Because Henry Bushnell will recap the weekend’s biggest games with Discussion, Analysis, Reactions, Takeaways and Superlatives. All of that is below. But first, a brief intro …

The ball went back to Skhodran Mustafi, and, in unison, without hesitation, they were off. Danny Welbeck, Alexandre Lacazette, Alex Iwobi. Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey behind them. All of them. Arsenal players, bombing forward straight from kickoff.

Sure enough, Mustafi hoofed long toward Welbeck to open the second half. And as he did, the likes of Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry surely cringed. This wasn’t the Arsenal they knew. This wasn’t the Arsenal so many neutrals have come to admire. This was a bastardization – or so the nostalgics might have cried.

But it was the Arsenal that showed up to Stamford Bridge on Sunday, and the Arsenal that earned a 0-0 draw. It was pragmatic Arsenal. It was reasonable Arsene Wenger. And it – all of it – was effective.

Wenger has been labelled an ideologue over the years, afraid to change and unwilling to adapt. But for all his flaws – and yes, there still are many – that specific criticism has come to bear less and less truth.

Arsene Wenger on the touchline at Stamford Bridge. (Reuters)
Arsene Wenger on the touchline at Stamford Bridge. (Reuters)

Wenger is no longer faithfully married to his romantic style of soccer. Over the past eight months, he has scrapped his trusted 4-2-3-1/4-3-3; has been accused of employing long ball tactics by both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp; and even admitted to adopting a more direct approach.

Results, on a broad scale, haven’t changed, and probably won’t. But Wenger’s Arsenal, on occasion, has. And that’s why it came away from the Bridge Sunday afternoon with a well-earned point.

But how did it?

1. How Arsenal stymied Chelsea

On paper, Wenger matched Conte’s 3-4-3 with an identical shape. On paper, Arsenal cancelled out Chelsea man for man. But in reality, that wasn’t really the case.

Had both teams been aggressive, it might have been the case. But the game would have then turned into a series of individual battles. Such a tussle would have favored Chelsea. Wenger knew that, and knew he couldn’t afford to have the game come to that. So he adjusted.

Arsenal pressed opportunistically, but not often. When Chelsea had established possession, Arsenal conceded it. The tempo slowed. Depending on where the ball was, Arsenal fell back into a 3-5-2, with one of the two wingers sliding inside to ensure the Gunners were never outnumbered in the center of the park. You can see that dynamic here:

(Screenshot: Sportsnet)
(Screenshot: Sportsnet)

Chelsea’s wide attackers, Pedro and Willian, like to check inside to disrupt the 2-v-2 balance in the center of the park. Oftentimes their movements were tracked by either Laurent Koscielny or Nacho Monreal. But to counter those overloads, Arsenal’s weak-side central midfielder would also drop into the space between midfield and defensive lines – the exact space Pedro and Willian sought. The weak-side winger would tuck in to essentially become a third central midfielder.

The shifts were easiest to recognize on throw-ins:

(Original video: Sportsnet)
(Original video: Sportsnet)

From a birds-eye view, here’s a rough estimation of what Arsenal’s defensive shape would have looked like when Cesar Azpilicueta had the ball on the right side of Chelsea’s back three:


Soccer, of course, is not always so structured. But the point is that Wenger tried to give it more structure than Chelsea-Arsenal games have had in years past. And for the most part, the ploy was successful.

Chelsea did still create roughly 0.9 Expected Goals, because Arsenal didn’t completely shy away from risk or adventure. The main protagonist and culprit was Aaron Ramsey. Almost all of the 0.9 xG came via exploitation of space Ramsey vacated in the middle of the field.

When Ramsey ventured forward and Arsenal lost the ball, Chelsea broke through the heart of Arsenal’s midfield, just as Liverpool did three weeks ago. And when the Welsh midfielder was a bit too eager to close down Cesc Fabregas in Chelsea’s half, Cesc evaded him and set up Pedro for Chelsea’s best chance. In the second half, Tiemoue Bakayoko pranced by him and bore down on Arsenal’s defense.

But Ramsey was more disciplined than usual, and made up for his defensive frailty by helping propel Arsenal’s attack. All in all, he got the balance right. Wenger got it right. Arsenal got it right. And the Gunners very well could have plundered all three points.

2. Yes, Arsenal was better without Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil …

Neither started Sunday’s showdown, with Sanchez on the bench and Ozil out of the 18 entirely due to injury. But it’s not outlandish to assume the German playmaker would have been named on the bench as well, even if fit.

Wenger needed two positionally disciplined wingers to execute his plan. You could argue the causation flowed in the opposite direction – that Wenger opted for a more conservative, organized approach because he was without his creator-in-chief – but either way, it would have been near impossible to be so stable and so stringent with Ozil in the team.

However, this does not mean Arsenal is better without its two attacking catalysts. Sunday’s circumstances were atypical. Sunday’s approach was the exception, not the rule. Wenger will need both Sanchez and Ozil to play 30 league games apiece if he wants to take Arsenal back into the Champions League places. All Sunday showed was that against certain opponents – namely the top six – neither Sanchez nor Ozil needs to be an automatic selection.

3. Thank you, Romelu Lukaku …

For celebrating a goal against your former club.

The whole “respectful” non-celebration trend has gone too far. It’s one thing for Frank Lampard to hold back after a late equalizer against Chelsea. But if everybody does it, the non-celebrations that reflect true love between player and club are less meaningful.

Plus, Emmanuel Adebayor running the length of the field to slide in front of visiting Arsenal fans at the Etihad is infinitely more fun than, say, Daniel Sturridge hanging his head after scoring against Man City.

Lukaku had it absolutely right. “‘It was just a bit of banter,” he told Sky Sports after United’s 4-0 victory. “I missed a free-kick and they booed me, so I was happy to score.” Of course he was. And he had every right to flaunt his happiness.

4. Thank you, YouTube …

For allowing us to refresh our memories of the brilliance of pre-hair transplant, baggy-shirt-and-shorts, No. 8 Wayne Rooney:

Stocky, lumbering, only-go-beyond-a-jog-if-I-absolutely-have-to Rooney is a useful player. Heck, he’s the only Everton player to score in the Premier League this season. But man, he’s a shell of his former self.

5. The give-and-take of Jermain Defoe

Friday’s first half between Bournemouth and Brighton might have been the most putrid 45 minutes of the 2017-18 season thus far. And blame for the putridity largely fell on the shoulders of Bournemouth, the home side, and the more talented team. The Cherries were dreadfully dull and uninventive.

That’s what you get when you replace well-rounded, multi-functional forwards with Jermain Defoe. At 34, Defoe has become the ultimate poacher. He contributes almost nothing to build-up play, and his inability to link up with Josh King and Bournemouth’s midfielders blunted the team’s attack. He was a big reason their extended spells of possession were meaningless.

But he’s also still Jermain Defoe. And you know what else you get from Defoe, when you surround him with enough creators and present him with a chance? This: