A Blue Up North reviews Chelsea’s match away to rivals Arsenal.
For a second consecutive Saturday, Chelsea kicked off their Premier League match at teatime, this time away to Arsenal. It is a matchup that has been dominated by The Blues in recent seasons, with only 1 defeat in their last 13 meetings. Also, no other team has won more Premier League matches as the away side at The Emirates than Chelsea.
Both clubs had changed their managers during the summer and both have come under fire in recent weeks due to indifferent form and mixed results. Unai Emery had lost 4 out of his last 8 matches, while Maurizio Sarri had only won 4 of his last 7.
But this clash could have a big say in how the respective clubs could be moving in the table. Chelsea started the match in 4th spot and hoping to go above Tottenham Hotspur in to 3rd place. Arsenal were 6 points behind The Blues and level with 6th places Manchester United. A Chelsea victory would have meant an almost insurmountable 9 point gap, whilst The Gunners could close to only 3 points and gain a psychological boost as the battle for top 4 places heats up.
Emery made 3 changes, with Hector Bellerin, Aaron Ramsey and Lucas Torreira all returning to the starting line up. Mezut Ozil remained on the bench with the Arsenal manager still not trusting his German play maker.
After a full week since narrowly beating lowly Newcastle United at home, manager Sarri opted to keep his Chelsea starting XI unchanged. So The Blues went with a front line devoid of a recognised striker. Eden Hazard was required to do his best in the central role, flanked by Willian and Pedro. Meanwhile, former Gunner Olivier Giroud was on the bench, with Alvaro Morata not in the squad.
This may be Sarri’s favoured starting team but it also means it is Chelsea’s most predictable team to play against. And Arsenal had done their homework. Arsenal started with an intense pressing plan, which instantly hampered Chelsea’s ability to play the ball from the back.
The Gunners kept 5 players high up the pitch, all of which hunted down whichever Chelsea player was in possession. Jorginho once again was closely attended to and Kepa Arrizabalaga at times found it impossible to find a teammate under such pressure.
Arsenal enjoyed early chances and it was only a matter of time before they had their lead. After misses from Aubameyang, Koscielny and Lacazette, the latter was able to rifle his shot in from Arsenal’s 4th corner in the opening 13 minutes.
However, one of the match’s biggest moments came soon after. David Luiz, reprising his assist attempts in recent matches, found Pedro once again in space behind the defence with a beautifully elevated pass. Unlike against Newcastle though, the Spaniard’s lob of the keeper bounced narrowly wide. An instant equaliser for The Blues could well have changed the context of the match, but sadly a determined Arsenal were able remain on top and to double their lead before half time.
Chelsea can rightfully feel aggrieved and unfortunate in conceding the second goal, but the home side’s superior attitude and application did deserve it. David Luiz had cleanly won a 50/50 tackle, but after the late arriving Aaron Ramsey went tumbling over the Brazilian, referee Anthony Taylor decided the challenge was not only offensive but worthy of a yellow card to the Chelsea defender.
The resultant free kick end out on the left and a simple lofted ball in the the centre missed the 5 statuesque defenders and bounced off Koscielny’s shoulder and looped past a hapless Kepa and in to the corner of the goal.
At 2-0, this match would have been retrievable to previous Chelsea sides. There were moments when they pressed forward but, as in recent matches, they could not create nor convert enough chances. Both Rudiger and Alonso had done well to win free headers, but both missed their target.
In the second half, Sarri’s substitutions by numbers were predictable in both their personnel and their timing. In truth the changes made little difference as Koscielny and the Arsenal defence held strong. Even with Giroud on the pitch and with Hazard and Hudson-Odoi on each flank trying to create, Chelsea were still relatively toothless.
Many will point to Sarri’s team selection, his tactics and players who are out of form or not. All of these are up for debate but this match was won by the collection of players that wanted the win more. Arsenal were desperate to narrow the gap and apply pressure in their attempt to gain a top 4 position. Emery and his coaching team had clearly prepared their team and were tactically sound. Their high press, 2 up front, a more robust midfield and a defence fired up to repel whatever The Blues could muster had put Chelsea on the back foot.
The Chelsea team hardly looked as though they were prepared for this match. Poor marking, over run in midfield and struggling under the high press. They moved the ball too slowly and they rarely looked the side who beat Manchester City and had outplayed Spurs at Wembley earlier in the month.
Yes, they came very close to getting something out of the match. Alonso hit the post, while Rudiger, Pedro and Barkley all could have done better, but the statistics will highlight just 1 attempt on target all match, and that was also from Alonso. The fact that the left back had 2 of the best chances in a match away to one of your biggest rivals tells volumes of Chelsea’s recent attacking issues.
Sarri did take an interesting stance post match as his realisation that it will be more than just tactics and ability that are needed to achieve his philosophy on how football should be played on his squad. He needs a team that will grab a match by the scruff of the neck and through desire and pure will cause far more problems to their opponents.
The coming weeks will be interesting and the first glimpse of any reaction comes up as soon as Thursday evening. A beautifully poised semi final second leg has now been turned up a further notch or 2. We can only hope Sarri and his players can prove that the match at The Emirates was just a temporary glitch and they can overcome the other lot from North London.
Written by Jon Ellis, home and away season ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue