Arsenal’s defensive structure provides them a glimmer of light in times of despair
The trouble upstairs at Arsenal has been indirectly affecting performances on the field. Agents’ powers, frustrated players in the dressing room, and indiscipline was only made worse with a seven match winless streak in the league stretching back to the first of November when they managed to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford.
It was surprising hearing Bernd Leno telling Sky Deutschland prior to kick-off that “bad attitude and lack of discipline” contributed to poor performances in the last few games. The surprise in itself was that these comments were made before kick-off, but for a key player to be saying that before the game perhaps shows the seriousness of the situation.
Poor performances affected results, but so was some of Mikel Arteta’s tactical decisions. The team looked predictable when they moved away from the different build up approaches to a more wing oriented approach. Leaving them one step behind against opponents who knew what Arsenal were going to do. A predictable approach coupled with poor performances was the recipe for ultimate disaster.
Going into the game against Chelsea, there were no reasons for optimism. Slight hope was injected however when the lineup featured Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli in addition to the ever-present Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka — who are probably Arsenal’s most consistent performers this season. The youth didn’t disappoint, as was the case for Arteta.
Arsenal’s formation was along the lines of a 4–2–3–1, but as always what was more important was the roles of the players. Smith Rowe had the task of man-marking N’Golo Kante in midfield to prevent easy progression of the ball for Chelsea. Out wide, Saka seemed more interested in marking Mason Mount rather than sticking to Ben Chilwell.
Often giving Arsenal an overload in the center of the pitch against Chelsea’s midfield three. As a result, Mohamed El Neny was free to cover his space or pick up any Chelsea player popping up in the center of the pitch.
When Chelsea moved the ball wide left to Chilwell, El Neny picked up Mount as Saka moved out wide to press Chilwell. All the meanwhile, Smith Rowe was stuck to Kante like a leech.
On the other side of the coin, when Chelsea kept the ball centrally or on the right side, Saka picked up Mount thus allowing El Neny to mark the wide Chelsea forwards who were drifting into the central area of the pitch.
El Neny was close to Chelsea’s drifters, and once they decided to attack the space behind Hector Bellerin, he followed. Here, Timo Werner moved inside the field and due to Arsenal’s setup El Neny managed to pick him up without worrying about Mount’s threat on the ball.
Then once Werner wanted to attack the space behind Bellerin, starting from a position in the center of the pitch, El Neny followed. Allowing Bellerin to press Chilwell without Werner lingering in the back of his mind, and forcing Chilwell to find another option other than Werner.
El Neny and Saka had a good understanding of their roles. Knowing when they should focus on stopping Werner and Mount….
….and when they should switch their focus to Chilwell and Mount.
Eventually, clamping down Chelsea’s left side with the help of Bellerin and regaining possession without Chelsea creating any threat.
Smith Rowe’s impressive performance on the ball was only matched by his performance off it, marking Kante out of the Chelsea passing sequences. However, when he was out of position, Arsenal were still keen to nullify Kante. Here, with Smith Rowe moving out to press Reece James, Martinelli keeps the pressure on Kante.
Another example late in the half sees Smith Rowe pressing Edouard Mendy, while Alexandre Lacazette is sprinting back to keep tabs on Kante….
….and be ready for the second ball if it drops towards the center of the pitch.
Seconds after that, Smith Rowe was still trying to get into his defensive position. Granit Xhaka was closer to Kante and signaled to Smith Rowe to the leave the role of marking Kante for him.
Xhaka pounced, forcing Kante to play the ball back to his defence as Smith Rowe tracked back to take Xhaka’s position.
Saka and Smith Rowe’s current positioning takes out the options of Mateo Kovacic and Mount for Kurt Zouma. Meanwhile, El Neny is free to pick up any Chelsea player dropping and Xhaka is continuing his press on Zouma. The consequence is that the French defender tried picking out a more difficult option in Christian Pulisic, but the pass was intercepted by Martinelli. This turn of possession resulted in the free-kick through which Arsenal doubled their lead.
Another threat that Arsenal negated was Werner’s runs inside the box. Usually these runs either cause problems for the defence or free Chilwell out wide. Whenever that happened there was no confusion in the Arsenal hierarchy. Bellerin always followed his man inside, leaving the wide defensive duty for Saka…..
….which meant Arsenal had sufficient men in the center of the penalty area, while also covering their wide area.
Even when Werner went off, Pulisic was making these runs inside the pitch. Bellerin followed, knowing that Saka will be covering the wide area. Sometimes being ahead of Chilwell.
Meaning that when the ball was circulated to Chelsea’s left side, Chilwell couldn’t put in the cross freely despite Bellerin being dragged all the way inside the penalty area.
This was a recurring theme in the second half which allowed Arsenal more bodies in the box….
….and minimized Chilwell’s threat on the left side with the presence of Saka there.
Chelsea’s display was properly lambasted by Frank Lampard in the post match interview and the post match press-conference, which to a degree seemed fair.
Arsenal’s defensive structure however was equally effective if not more in terms of nullifying Chelsea’s threat and turning possession into Arsenal’s hands.
The Arsenal youth and Arteta provided light in the time of despair for the Arsenal fans. This corner though, needs much more than ninety minutes to be turned.