On Sunday, Arsenal travelled to Stamford Bridge searching for a repeat performance of this fixture last year. Although there have been some obvious changes for both of the London sides since then – not least the two managerial sackings at Chelsea and the departure of Robin van Persie to Manchester United – Gunners boss Arsene Wenger would have been hopeful that his side could exploit Chelsea’s indifferent home form and make up for their defeat to Manchester City last week, while Rafa Benitez was looking for his first home win of 2013.
Perhaps the only surprise in the Chelsea line-up was the inclusion of Fernando Torres ahead of Demba Ba. Benitez resisted the fan’s clamour for the Senegalese forward and stuck by the misfiring Spaniard, despite Ba’s two goals against Arsenal just a few weeks ago. Aside from this, it was an expected starting XI; with John Terry only fit enough to make the substitute’s bench. By including Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar in the attack for the third time in four games, Benitez made quite a statement: he was going to attack the inconsistent Gunners.
For Arsenal, Francis Coquelin retained his place in midfield after the midweek victory over Swansea in the FA Cup, sitting alongside Abou Diaby and the in-form Jack Wilshere. This meant that Santi Cazorla began on the left of Olivier Giroud, with Theo Walcott providing the penetrative running from the right.
As the old cliché goes, this was very much a game of two halves. For this reason, it would perhaps be most fitting to look at the two halves separately…
First half – A pattern is set as Arsenal struggle to gain control and Chelsea break quickly and incisively
One of the key battles, as Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox pointed out before the game, would be Theo Walcott against Ashley Cole on Chelsea’s left. Walcott enjoyed a lot of success against his England teammate in the 5-3 win last season, and it would be interesting to see whether any one of Mata, Hazard or Oscar would track back and provide support for Cole against the winger’s pace and the forward runs of Bacary Sagna. Early on, it seemed that none of them would. Walcott picked the ball up and had the space to cut inside and play Giroud in. The Frenchman missed, but it was a sign of how Walcott would need to be closely watched throughout the game.
The game soon settled into a pattern as Arsenal desperately tried to gain control of the ball and dominate possession like they are used to doing, but Chelsea’s intense pressing and harrying in their own half made it difficult to do so. Indeed, it was Ramires’ pressing of Coquelin – who was loose with the ball – which caused the first goal. It was a classic goal from a Rafa Benitez side, they broke so quickly as soon as the ball was won and Arsenal, with Sagna caught pushing on, could not get back in time as Mata finished expertly. 1-0. The speed of these transitions were causing Arsenal no end of problems and it was certainly at the point that Arsenal gave it away that they were most vulnerable.
With Mata, Hazard and Oscar roaming and rotating, the Gunners defenders were frequently caught back-peddling in the face of a rapid onslaught from the front four, where Mata was particularly prominent. The second goal was another example of this: again it was Ramires who won the ball in midfield and immediately Chelsea broke in a move, which culminated in the Brazilian midfielder exploiting the space behind Sagna again and being fouled by Szczesny. Lampard duly converted the penalty. 2-0. You couldn’t help thinking that with the technically excellent Mikel Arteta in midfield, Arsenal would never have conceded possession in the way that Coquelin and Diaby did in the first half. How Wenger and Arsenal fans must be ruing the Spaniard’s injury.
Arsenal were really struggling, and Chelsea were winning the ball and keeping it too easily. This was not helped by the inconsistent pressing of the Arsenal midfield. Wilshere was applying pressure as high up the pitch as possible and was even found alongside Giroud on certain occasions. Crucially, however, he was not joined by his team-mates and Chelsea were able to simply play around the solitary figure of Wilshere and maintained possession comfortably. On multiple occasions, you could see the Englishman berating his team-mates for not supporting him: it was a telling sign on the disunity in the Arsenal midfield. That said, Benitez’s side rarely threatened when Arsenal had set up defensively. Without the space provided by the quick turnovers of possession, they lacked imagination and creativity.
Second Half – Arsenal get a grip and Cazorla starts to influence proceedings
It was clear that Arsenal needed to change. In order to control the game they needed to be sharper and more incisive with their passing, making less individual mistakes at the heart of midfield. One of the ways they did manage to get a hold of the ball was through the redeployment of Santi Cazorla, who was marooned out on the left wing and generally ineffective in the first half. Cazorla began to tuck inside, creating a numerical advantage for the Arsenal midfield, and the effects were instant: they kept hold of the ball better and Gibbs was able to push on into the space vacated by the Spanish playmaker. It was a similar situation to Glen Johnson in Liverpool’s game against Norwich yesterday: whenever Luis Suarez came inside, the English full-back provided the width.
This tactical switch was to pay dividends in the 58th minute, as Cazorla picked the ball up centrally and played Walcott through. The winger finished unerringly, as he has done so consistently this season. 2-1. Walcott had actually been nullified as a threat since the opening few moments, and this was the first time he had asked questions of the Chelsea rearguard since his defence-splitting pass for Giroud. Interestingly, Mata, Oscar and Hazard were each taking turns doubling up on the Englishman and supporting Ashley Cole against Bacary Sagna: they were fluid both offensively and defensively.
The game now settled into another pattern as Chelsea sat deep and looked to maintain possession, kill the tempo of the game and break where they could. Torres threatened twice on the counter, and Ba should have scored after rounding Szczesny following his much anticipated arrival. Once again, the Blues were at their most menacing at the transitions, using the pace of their forwards to get in behind the Arsenal defence. Despite their much improved showing, the Gunners were unable to crack open the Chelsea back-line again and – despite a flurry of corners and free-kicks in the final few moments – failed to create many chances.
Arsenal paid the price for sloppily conceding possession in the first half, but Chelsea must be commended for the ruthless manner in which they countered. Benitez will be delighted with the speed with which his side exploited the spaces behind the Arsenal back-line and it certainly seems like he is starting to stamp his own authority and managerial ideas upon this Chelsea side, despite the initial problems. Ramires epitomised the high-intensity pressing and swift breaks and the Brazilian was fully deserving of the Man of the Match award. As for Arsenal, they will be ruing the loss of Arteta from the midfield and the subsequent lack of control in these crucial zones but will be pleased that Cazorla was able to finally get on the ball and support Wilshere in the creative department after half-time. Both sides have reason to be pleased, but Chelsea will be far the happier side, not only with the result but also with how dangerous they looked on the counter and the way they restricted Arsenal to very few chances throughout the game.