In February of last season, Manchester United travelled to Stamford Bridge aiming to defeat Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea for the first time in the Premier League since the German’s arrival.
In their search of a win they implemented a curious pressing scheme, using one of the wide players to press Chelsea’s double pivot alongside Bruno Fernandes. It only worked for one half until Mason Mount dropped deep to support the build up.
For Chelsea’s opponents, the variables have changed this season. Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud were replaced by Romelu Lukaku, and most importantly Tuchel had a full pre-season with the side from west London.
As in any equation, changing the input variables while sustaining the same process will yield in a different output.
Chelsea changed the variables this season, but Arsenal tried to maintain the same process by using a similar pressing scheme to the one Manchester United used against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season.
When the ball was on the left side of Chelsea’s defence, Bukayo Saka moved inside to mark Jorginho while Emile Smith Rowe was marking the other half of the double pivot, Mateo Kovacic, as Nicolas Pepe marched towards Antonio Ruedgier.
Mirroring the above situation to the right side, Pepe moves inside to mark Kovacic, Smith Rowe shifts to mark Jorginho and Saka has the duty of pressing Cesar Azpilicueta. All the meanwhile, Sambi Lokonga and Granit Xhaka were left to deal with Kai Havertz and Mason Mount and that is where Chelsea managed to break the press…..
…..Havertz’s dropped deep nearer to the touchline, moving Lokonga with him…
….which meant that Xhaka was now alone to cover the central area of the pitch. With the introduction of Lukaku, Chelsea now have an elite option to hold the ball up the pitch and progressive passes into him shouldn’t be allowed, that left Xhaka in a dilemma of whether to block the passing lane into Lukaku or the one into Mount. Xhaka stayed in between, allowing Kovacic to find Mount. A few yards above, Kieran Tierney is in another dilemma, he can’t commit to Mount because of the threat of Reece James out wide who isn’t tracked due to Saka’s role in the pressing scheme which forces the Arsenal wide player to position himself narrowly inside the pitch.
From their own half Chelsea managed to break the press, progress up the pitch and find their wide wing back in a good crossing position. Here, James had two options, either to find Lukaku inside the box or Havertz who is making a late run inside the box. The cross was in-between, falling behind Marcos Alonso.
There was also another variation of Arsenal’s pressing scheme — used after going one goal down — which saw Lokonga moving up to press Kovacic. That only made things worse…..
…..as it allowed the dropping Havertz more space and time on the ball because Cedric Soares was busy marking Marcos Alonso.
Now with Havertz in control of the situation, Arsenal were still facing the same situation. Saka can’t track back due to his initial positioning in the pressing scheme, Xhaka can’t block both passing lanes into Lukaku and Mount, and Tierney has two players to deal with. In this example, Mount is signaling to Havertz to play the pass into James…
……Havertz plays the pass, but James should have squared it to Lukaku instead of dribbling inside the pitch.
Lokonga’s role in pressing Kovacic was questionable, especially as Saka kept his narrow positioning in the pressing scheme. It meant free reign for the dropping Havertz, and when Xhaka moved slightly towards Mount, the pass into Lukaku was on as seen below.
Throughout breaking the press, Havertz was wide trying to free himself to be open for the pass. While on the other side, Mount was always narrow to drag Tierney inside the pitch, leaving space for James to attack. Lukaku already knew who he will play the pass into as he can see a completely free Havertz.
The German then played it across the pitch towards the free James, but the pass was too heavy.
Chelsea’s two goals on the day were the cherry on top, a reward for their ability to break down a questionable Arsenal pressing scheme. In the build up to the first, Havertz dropped behind Lokonga dragging the Arsenal midfielder slightly towards him.
This created a gap between Lokonga and Xhaka who was blocking the passing lane into Mount. Kovacic played a direct pass into Lukaku, but before that it’s important to address the positioning of both sides. Saka’s initial narrow positioning makes him unable to track James, leaving Tierney in a 2 v 1 situation with Mount dragging him inside.
Once Lukaku receives the pass, Havertz is free and Mount had already dragged Tierney inside as planned. Lukaku returned the pass to Kovacic instead of finding Havertz, but the final output would have been similar…..
….a cross field pass into the free James. Saka was out of position as previously explained and Tierney was pinned inside the pitch because of Mount’s run.
From here, James easily found Lukaku to make it 1–0.
The second is slightly different but the principles still hold. Havertz dropped to collect the ball moving Lokonga with him, while the rest of the pieces are in place. Saka is out of position because of his initial pressing position, Mount is narrow to occupy Tierney and James is keeping the width to receive the cross field pass.
Havertz then combined with Alonso to get the better of the Arsenal defence on the near side of the pitch, but it’s important to keep tabs on the positioning of the players on the far side of the pitch as well. Saka is weirdly, still maintaining his narrow positioning and Xhaka is left alone in the center area of the pitch.
Xhaka, the only Arsenal player in the center area, getting dragged towards the ball meant that Mount can receive it comfortably due to his narrow positioning throughout the attack. The same narrow positioning that hypnotized Tierney and kept dragging him inside…
…..leaving space for James to attack with Saka as usual, late to the party.
Chelsea had a clear plan of how to break this Arsenal team down, but Arsenal’s pressing scheme just made it much more easier.