Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Following last weekend’s chastening defeat to West Ham United, Unai Emery’s Arsenal project looked in danger of falling asunder. With that said, the visit of Chelsea, who easily sidestepped the Spaniard’s high-press back in August, looked incredibly ill-timed. Jorginho, Maurizio Sarri’s tempo-dictating pivot, was key to his side’s success on that occasion. But the famously passive Mesut Ozil was the regista’s direct opponent then; Aaron Ramsey, fielded here in Jorginho’s face at the tip of an Arsenal diamond, proved nowhere near as forgiving.
Emery’s tendency to overlook Ramsey has raised plenty of eyebrows this season, particularly as Arsenal have often evinced a very obvious lack of penetrative running. The Welsh midfielder provided just that from the bench at the London Stadium, but his intended role here was very different.
Stopping Jorginho, the conduit through which Chelsea conduct all their attacking maneuvers, was Ramsey’s goal. In this manner, Emery hoped to emulate Tottenham Hotspur, who through deploying Dele Alli as a Jorginho spoiler have beaten Chelsea twice already in the current campaign. Sarri’s side had used Jorginho to great effect back in August, bypassing Arsenal’s high-press with ease before playing quick vertical passes in behind Emery’s high line. Not so this time: thanks to Ramsey’s attentions, the Italian international dropped from 60 first-half passes to 34. For once, no-one was making the tediously well-worn case for Ozil’s inclusion.
Ramsey alone could not stop Chelsea’s build-up play, however, as in David Luiz, Sarri possesses one of the most technically-adept defenders in world football. But, fortunately for Arsenal fans, Emery’s two-striker system worked a treat, as neither Luiz nor his partner Antonio Rudiger enjoyed any time on the ball. Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa, therefore, was forced instead to look towards his full-backs, free on paper thanks to Arsenal’s narrow diamond.
Except Emery had that covered too, instructing both Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira to shuttle out accordingly. As soon as the ball was played in the direction of either Cesar Azpilicueta or Marcos Alonso, Emery’s shuttlers were instantaneously triggered into pressing action. Unsurprisingly, Torreira, the archetypal dogged Uruguayan, proved superior in this regard, finishing with a game-high nine tackles — five in the Chelsea half, and all on the right-flank. Alonso, seemingly the only Chelsea player harbouring any intention of getting into the opposition area, had met his match.
Still, Arsenal’s press was bypassed on occasion, raising the spectre of Chelsea working dangerous switches-of-play to their free full-backs. Eden Hazard, again fielded as a lone striker, almost profited from one such instance, but instead swept an Azpilicueta cross wide. Alonso, too, attempted plenty of crosses, but Chelsea’s own issues with penetrative running — a chronic problem in recent weeks — and a related paucity of bodies in the Arsenal area rendered them moot.
Indeed, in their last four games, Chelsea have only fashioned five big chances. And, most damningly of all, all five originated from the same source: low-percentage through-balls from deeper-lying players, lofted over the top of the opposition defence. Newcastle United’s surprisingly un-Rafa-like combination of a high line with no pressure on the ball allowed both Luiz and Jorginho to provide them last weekend. And Luiz (literally) chipped in with an assist for N’Golo Kanté’s winner over Crystal Palace, too. Luiz also set up his side’s only big chance here, when Sead Kolasinac, criminally out-of-line, played Pedro onside. But when the opposition sits off, as Arsenal did following their two set-piece goals, reliance on such Hail-Marys is denied to Sarri’s dysfunctional side.
Alternative means of working Bernd Leno had to be found, then. But following a first-half in which Chelsea managed zero shots on target, it took the Blues until the 81st minute to test the German. In fact, Alonso’s acute-angled effort proved to be his side’s only shot on target of a game that devastatingly highlighted how blunt Chelsea’s attack really is right now. The Blues converted a 67% second-half possession share, and 120 final-third passes, into that one, single, solitary chance.
Jorginho remained nullified, even after Ramsey departed the fray, as Emery duly stuck Mohamed Elneny on the Italian. The Spaniard switched to a 4-4-1-1 at the same time, presumably designed to prevent Alonso from again deciding the contest. But, in truth, he need not have bothered. Given Jorginho’s continuing inability to evade pressure, Chelsea once again lacked guile in midfield — necessary to split a deep-lying defence. Mateo Kovacic, again ineffectual, looks more suited to Jorginho’s metronomic role than that of an attacking creator. While Kanté, although managing better in his new advanced role than public opinion would imply, is infinitely more likely to finish a move than to start one.
Higher up, with all three of Pedro, Willian and Hazard intent upon playing in between the lines — without a focal point like Olivier Giroud off which they can play wall passes — Chelsea simply do not look like scoring goals. And certainly not from crosses, many of which a rejuvenated Laurent Koscielny easily repelled from Arsenal’s underpopulated area. Luiz and Rudiger, meanwhile, remain poor defenders, unable to cope with the dual threat of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang raiding the channels either side of them. Ramsey joined in too, as is his wont, helping to win the dead-balls from which Arsenal struck gold.
This at least, unlike so much of Arsenal’s transformative performance here, was nothing new. Back in August, Arsenal created five first-half chances by continually invading the space behind Chelsea’s advanced full-backs and pulling the ball back, along the way to cancelling out their hosts’ two-goal lead. Alonso struck the winner, at the end of a second-half in which Chelsea’s dominance of the pressing and possession battles was magnified. But the Blues rode their luck, fortunate that Emery’s press was not well-oiled enough to quell their slick, Jorginho-centred, build-up play. Not this time, however. Arsenal again created the better chances, yet never looked like conceding very many. Emery demonstrated flexibility in learning from his August experience, while Sarri, a man Napoli chairman Aurelio de Laurentiis once dubbed “a one-dimensional coach…who only knows how to play one way” clung grimly on to his Plan A, his only plan, Sarrismo. Penny for Roman Abramovich’s thoughts?
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112