Monday, 18 September 2017

New found defensive steel?

Chelsea 0-0 Arsenal
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Arsenal left Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon content with their display but rather disappointed not to have secured the three points that their performance richly deserved. The Gunners went into the game with football pundits and supporters alike expecting a similar display and result to their previous away game to Liverpool but the Gunners proved them all wrong.

At Anfield Arsene Wenger had selected Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka at the base of his midfield and it was widely considered that the lack of an out and out defensive midfielder in this area was the main reason for the abject performance and heavy defeat. Therefore when the team sheet was circulated prior to the match against Chelsea, confirming that Xhaka and Ramsey would once again be deployed at the base of the midfield, expectations amongst the Arsenal faithful were not high.

However the issue in this area of the field was always more to do with the tactical set up of the team rather than the players deployed in these roles. Of course it would be ideal to have an out and out defensive midfielder stationed in front of the defence, offering a defensive shield. However if that player is instructed to push forward when the team have the ball, vacating the deep lying midfield area, then his effectiveness in protecting the defence will be minimised significantly. Similarly, if the naturally more attack minded Xhaka and Ramsey were to be instructed to hold their positions and not surge forward with reckless abandon, then Arsenal’s defence would receive the protection required, especially against the top sides.

This is exactly what happened against Chelsea on Sunday and it was no surprise that Arsenal were a stronger defensive proposition as a result. In an interesting turn of events the absence of Mesut Ozil through injury may have actually helped the team in this aspect of the game rather than hindered them. Ozil is a fine player when the Gunners have the ball, but out of possession he offers very little and while it may be possible to get away with this against the so called lesser sides, against the top teams Arsenal are made to pay for it more often than not. It may also explain why Xhaka and Ramsey have vacated their defensive positions so readily in the past. As Ozil allows the opposition to essentially by-pass him far too easily, this then puts pressure on the midfield who feel the need to attempt to win the ball back as quickly as possible and so they surge forward, only to leave gaping holes behind them and their defence exposed.

Yet with Ozil not in the side, Wenger was able to deploy Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck either side of Alexandre Lacazette. This front three worked tirelessly without the ball, closing down the Chelsea defenders ensuring they had as few options as possible whenever they were in possession. As a result of the hard work going on in front of them, Xakha and Ramsey were able to sit back and hold their position, all of which meant Chelsea not only struggled to build play from the back but were also met with a more formidable and organised opponent. It was also not a coincidence that the Arsenal defenders enjoyed their best performance of the season so far with Shkodran Mustafi particularly impressive in the middle of the defensive three at the back, as he battled with Alvaro Morata throughout, effectively nullifying the threat from the Spaniard.

In fact after the opening 15 minutes, in which Arsenal appeared to be slightly nervous, the Gunners began to settle into the game and were actually the better side. On only one occasion throughout the entire 90 minutes did Chelsea open Arsenal up, as the Gunners attempted to catch Pedro offside, only to see the Spaniard beat the offside trap and find himself clean through on goal. Fortunately the Spaniard did not manage to slot the ball beyond Cech but given the fact that many were predicting another easy walkover at Stamford Bridge, Arsene Wenger can be extremely proud of the defensive solidity displayed by his side.

However this was not a performance in which Arsenal sat back with ten men behind the ball, soaking up pressure for the entire game. The Gunners defended from the front and also looked dangerous going forward with the combination play between Iwobi and Bellerin on the right hand side, especially impressive at times. In fact Arsenal could claim to have had the better of the chances throughout the game with Chelsea rarely threatening Cech’s goal. The away side could have taken the lead through Danny Welbeck’s header in the first half, following excellent work by Bellerin. Unfortunately the Englishman couldn’t direct his header on goal when any attempt on target would have surely resulted in a goal. Bellerin was at it again moments later, reaching the by-line and cutting the ball back to Lacazette, who unfortunately saw his shot deflected by David Luiz, taking the power out of the shot for the grateful Courtois to collect. But Arsenal’s best chance came through Aaron Ramsey’s purposeful run into the box, going past several challenges before seeing his prodded effort unfortunately come back off the post. The rebound fell towards Lacazette but the Frenchman didn’t seem to have anticipated it and his effort was skied over the bar with the goal at his mercy.

The second half proved to be a tighter affair with both sides struggling to create genuine goal scoring opportunities, although Arsenal did have the ball in the back of the net only to see Mustafi’s header correctly ruled out for offside.

Prior to the game Arsenal fans would have been content with a draw, however it was difficult to avoid feelings of disappointment at not having converted such an improved performance into three points. However at the same time one performance should not be allowed to mask glaring issues within the squad that should have been addressed in the summer. The lack of a physically imposing presence at the heart of the midfield is still a problem and it is worth noting that Arsenal won the midfield battle in the first half when the less physical Fabregas and Kante were the midfield duo for Chelsea, but then found it more difficult to impose themselves in the second half when the physically commanding Bakayoko was introduced at half time. Yet Arsene Wenger does appear to have finally found the blue print when playing against the top sides and with a few key additions Arsenal could be a genuine threat to the top sides. However it will be interesting to see if the manager sticks to the blue print when Ozil returns to full fitness. The German’s lack of effort when his side are out of possession undermines too much of Arsenal’s play to be justified and Wenger must now accept this. Whether or not he actually does, is a different matter.

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