Arsenal closed the gap on fourth-placed Chelsea to three points with a 2-0 victory over the Blues on Saturday. Senior writer Sam Blitz takes a look at the key aspects which gave the Gunners a much-needed victory.
At the start of November, both Arsenal and Chelsea were looking in good stead during their Premier League campaign. Maurizio Sarri’s Blues were lying in second place and looking like title contenders once again, while the Gunners were in the midst of a 22-match unbeaten with Unai Emery looking to fix the cracks left behind by former boss Arsene Wenger.
However, following a tumultuous winter period the two London sides look set to be embroiled in a battle for Champions League football, with the form of both sides dipping and their respective title challenges as good as over.
This meant that Saturday evening’s London derby at Emirates Stadium was crucial in the battle for a place in Europe’s elite cup competition. Furthermore, pressure was also mounting from sixth placed Manchester United, who beat Brighton earlier in the day to record their seventh successive win under interim boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
And it was the Gunners who took all three points at Chelsea’s expense thanks to first-half strikes from Frenchmen Alexandre Lacazette and Laurent Koscielny. The Blues put in a rather timid display at the Emirates, registering only one shot on target during the entirety of the ninety minutes. The Gunners now stand only three points behind Chelsea in fifth place, with Manchester United hot on the heels of both teams.
How was the game won and lost on Saturday, and where do both teams go from here?
Emery Passes Biggest Test So Far Thanks to Midfield Masterstroke
Prior to the match, the Gunners had endured a pretty miserable start to 2019, particularly with regards to off-the-field matters.
Unai Emery’s admission earlier in the month that the north London club were not able make any permanent signings during the January transfer window not only angered the fans but also severely damaged their chances of a top four finish. This news was further compounded with strong rumours that Head of Recruitment Sven Mislintat, responsible for scouting key talent such as Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi, was set to leave the club following a dispute over transfer resources.
And following their 1-0 defeat to West Ham last weekend, new coach Emery also came under criticism for the Gunners’ dismal display at the London Stadium, with the Spaniard’s critics placing a strong focus on the omission of creative players Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil from the starting line-up.
Both players were reinstated into the match day squad for the visit of Chelsea, but many were still surprised to see Ramsey, who is set to complete a free transfer to Juventus at the end of the season, start the match with Ozil once again left on the substitutes bench.
Yet a deeper analysis into the Gunners’ game plan on Saturday shows that Emery was right to select the Welshman over the out-of-favour Ozil, as it was Ramsey’s defensive responsibilities, not his attacking ones, which was a catalyst towards an Arsenal victory.
Arsenal’s number eight was positioned just in behind the Gunners’ front two of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, and was tasked with the constant man-marking of Chelsea’s midfield orchestrator Jorginho.
Ramsey followed the Italian for the majority of the match and closed him down whenever Jorginho got hold of the ball. The Blues’ orchestrator in the middle of the park was suffocated by the Arsenal midfielder, registering a passing accuracy of 85.2% which is significantly lower than his season average of 90.3%.
This was a similar tactic used by Tottenham against Sarri’s side in late November, with Dele Alli restricting the Italian’s game in a similar way as Mauricio Pochettino’s side ran out 3-1 winners at Wembley.
However, it was not just Ramsey who was tasked with a specific midfield role as Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi also undertook unfamiliar duties in the middle of Arsenal’s team.
The Gunners’ narrow 4-1-2-1-2 ‘diamond’ formation meant a lack of width in the Arsenal midfield, thereby creating a lot of space for Chelsea full-backs Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso. The Spanish duo tried to take advantage of this, having more touches (Azpilicueta 102, Alonso 106) than any other player on the Emirates Stadium pitch.
Yet Arsenal counteracted this lack of width as Emery ordered Torreira and Guendouzi to take up wide midfield positions, which not only put pressure on Chelsea’s fullbacks but also cut off any passing lanes into the feet of Eden Hazard.
And when the ball did get into the feet of Chelsea’s Belgian superstar, Arsenal’s other midfielder, Granit Xhaka, and central defenders Sokratis and Laurent Koscielny did well to close down Hazard and force him into errors.
Hazard was dispossessed more often (9 times) than any player on Saturday evening, which is testament to Arsenal’s closing down and defensive astuteness during the match.
Ozil Omitted Once Again
Arsenal’s impressive midfield display meant that Mesut Ozil was once again left unused by Unai Emery this season, and speculation has mounted once again about the future of Arsenal’s highest paid player.
The German has yet to feature for the Gunners in 2019, despite being deemed as fit and available by the manager for the past fortnight. Last weekend, Emery even went so far to say that Ozil was not deserving of a place in Arsenal’s match day squad for the fixture against West Ham.
That declaration from the Arsenal manager last week was a bizarre new twist in the Ozil saga at the Emirates Stadium. Emery named the 2014 World Cup winner as one of his five captains at the start of the season, yet now seems incapable of trusting the German in the big matches – where the 30-year old is often accused of going missing.
Another possible reason for Ozil’s recent exclusion from this Arsenal side is his lack of desire since signing a bumper £350,000-a-week contract twelve months ago. The German became the Gunners’ most lucrative earner in its history on deadline day last year, but has only featured 19 times in the Premier League since then, missing almost half of Arsenal’s league matches in the process.
And considering the Gunners’ current financial frailties in the transfer market, would selling Ozil and freeing up over £18 million in wages be better for the Gunners in the long term, especially considering that the 30-year old is struggling to get into Unai Emery’s side?
Where do Sarri’s Chelsea go from here?
Defeat to Arsenal on Saturday has magnified the cracks that have appeared in Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea side in recent weeks.
Firstly, the Blues are missing a focal point up front which proved to be the main source of problems for the London side last season under Antonio Conte. Alvaro Morata is too inconsistent and looks set to leave the club this month, while Olivier Giroud’s total of only six Premier League starts this season suggests that the former Arsenal man cannot be trusted by Sarri.
Eden Hazard has been deployed as a central striker in recent weeks but has not found the net since Boxing Day. The Belgian’s anonymous performance at the Emirates Stadium was summed up by the fact that Hazard only mustered two shots in the whole ninety minutes on Sunday – none of which were on target.
The Blues are widely expected to bring in Gonzalo Higuain from Juventus this summer which could prove to be a useful short-term solution, but the fact that the 31-year old striker is being brought in on a temporary deal with the option to buy proves that there is an element of doubt about the Argentinian international.
The second issue that Sarri needs to fix is his overall game plan, as teams have started to work out that this Chelsea side can be weakened if Jorginho’s impact on the game starts to become limited.
Both Arsenal and Tottenham have proved that this season, so Sarri needs to find an alternative midfield set-up, especially in the big games.
Dropping Jorginho does not seem to be on the cards, as the Italian has been a positive mainstay in Sarri’s sides over the past four years. French World Cup winner N’Golo Kante has taken up a more advanced role in the Chelsea side, which means that the Blues are not as potent in attack as they normally are.
The Chelsea manager attacked his players during his post-match press conference, stating that they were lacking in determination and that the defeat was “due to our mentality”. However, Sarri needs a rethink of his tactical set-up against the stronger sides in the league, and must do so quickly if they are to hold on to fourth spot.