Arsenal’s losses to Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City this season have been nothing short of embarrassing for their fans. In the space of just a few months the club has gone from genuine title contender to also-ran. While fans would have bitten your arm off had you offered them Champions League Qualification and a (potential) FA Cup win back in August, the reality is that, having been so involved in the title race up until now, the club’s recent drop in form has been a tough pill to swallow.
It’s not just losing to your title rivals which hurts so much, but the manner in which Arsenal have lost; by completely and utterly imploding. Until recently, many opposition fans were genuinely worried that they’d seen the last of Arsenal’s traditional end-of-season collapses. They’re not now.
But what are there real reasons for such inexplicable performances?
Coincidence, or is there more to it?
All three of those huge losses have taken place away from home. All three have taken place on a Saturday. And all three have kicked off at 12.45pm. Now, the first two facts aren’t really that interesting. Teams usually perform better at home than away, and most teams play on Saturday every week. The early kick-off time, however, does jump out at you. Is there a real link between Arsenal playing early in the day, away from home, and full-on capitulation?
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some type of thinly veiled attack on the fixture list or protest of a conspiracy. The truth is just that there does seem to be a pattern to the games in which Arsenal have imploded this season. The problem, however, must lie with Arsenal themselves and not with the opposition. Is their pre-match routine affected by kicking-off so early? Do the players miss training on the Friday if travelling? What do they get up to the night before? (Looking at you Olivier…)
There’s no doubt that they looked lethargic and slow off the mark in all three games. Tactically they looked as if they hadn’t woken up yet.
On the 6th April the Gunners will face their last big test away from home at Everton. The game, although being played on a Sunday this time, is a relatively early kick-off at 1.30pm. Will lightning strike a fourth time? If Everton perform in any way close to how they did in the first fixture at the Emirates, it’s anyone’s guess.
Focusing on Chelsea
A look at some of the more regular statistics from the match reveals far from the whole story of what occurred at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea had only slightly more possession (53%) – not an amount you’d normally expect after watching such a mauling. Arsenal had more aerial success, and won more tackles than Chelsea. A pass success rate of 83% for Arsenal wasn’t even particularly bad. Chelsea only managed 4% higher. The only notable difference between the two sides seems to be in their total number of shots, with Chelsea having close to double (21) Arsenal’s total of 12. So, if there wasn’t a hell of a lot of difference in many areas of the game, how did Chelsea create and threaten so much more?
There’s no doubt in my mind that José Mourinho’s game plan was to emulate Liverpool’s dazzling start against the Gunners from a few weeks back. He knew that the longer Arsenal are given to settle into a game the better they usually do, so instructed his team to begin the match with high intensity and to press Arsenal high, forcing them into mistakes. A glance at Arsenal’s goals scored in the Premier League this season shows a distinct trend: they tend to score more goals towards the end of matches. It was this trend that Mourinho was intent on suffocating. And if the Liverpool game had taught him anything, it was that, if you peg them back early and show no mercy, Arsenal find it very hard to regain control and composure.
Looking at Arsenal’s goals conceded also provides some interesting conclusions. From the figures alone, you’d be hard pressed deducing that Arsenal are most vulnerable right at the beginning of a match. The evidence seems to point to two clearly defined periods of play: midway through the first-half, and/or right at the end of the match. What Chelsea (and Liverpool and Man City) did so well was hit them before they’re used to conceding. Scoring so early on denied Arsenal the chance to find their own rhythm.
The startling thing about these figures? Those five goals Arsenal have conceded in the opening 15 minutes might not seem so important at first glance, but they were all scored by Chelsea (2), Liverpool (2) and Manchester City (1), and resulted in the club’s biggest losses of the season. In those three matches alone, Arsenal shipped 17 goals, which represents an unbelievable 50% of all the goals they’ve conceded this season in the Premier League.
Arsenal’s weaknesses were glaringly obvious at Stamford Bridge. The team, used to playing possession football, played far too high a line. Sagna and Gibbs were so far ahead of Koscielny and Mertesacker that it looked at times as if Wenger had set his team out with just a back 2. Arsenal also, in general, don’t press anywhere near as much as they should when they lose the ball, which – when coupled with a high defensive line – is nearly always a recipe for disaster. It leaves you incredibly vulnerable to quick, direct counter-attacks, something which Chelsea demonstrated to perfection.
For all his positives, Per Mertesacker’s lack of pace is a real hindrance when playing against teams that break on the counter. Last season I was constantly on Mertesacker’s case, declaring him too slow for the league. While he has completely won my admiration since then (I think he’s probably been Arsenal’s best player this season), there’s no denying that he costs the side on occasions. Koscielny does have the speed to cover for him most of the time, but has problems with his decision-making – evidenced by the amount of penalties he gives away. According to Opta, “since joining Arsenal no player (at any club) has conceded more Premier League penalties than Koscielny.”
Chelsea’s starting eleven displayed a fine balance between attack and defence, and we all know how Mourinho favours players who will run and work for the team. Set out in 4-2-3-1 system, Luiz and Matić provided a screen for the defence, who only really had Giroud to worry about anyway. Hazard, Schürrle and Oscar hassled, harried and offered ferocious pace and incisive dribbling, and Eto’o, with his penchant for hanging on the last man, was sure to cause Arsenal problems. Chelsea’s fullbacks had no real need to advance up the field, because their midfield won the battle so convincingly.
An analysis of the first three goals shows us just what Chelsea did right on the day (after Gibbs’s sending off it became even more of a walk in the park, so there’s not as much to learn from analysing the other three goals).
Chelsea press Arsenal’s midfield effectively. Winning the ball here would leave them with acres of space to exploit behind Koscielny and Mertesacker. Oscar, Schürrle and Luiz’s positioning means that Oxlade-Chamberlain is surrounded. He attempts a ridiculous outside-of-the-boot pass to Kieran Gibbs, who is too far wide on the left. It’s easily dispossessed by Schürrle, who plays a quick one-two with Oscar before running at the two centrebacks.
Maybe unaware that there is no one to his right, Mertesacker continues to backtrack towards his own goal instead of coming to meet Schürrle. Koscielny, caught in no-man’s-land, neither cuts off Schürrle nor marks Eto’o. Schürrle plays the ball out to Eto’o, who turns back on his left foot and curls a beautiful shot into the corner of the net.
Cazorla receives the ball from Podolski in a relatively safe area, but Matić is on him in a flash. His touch isn’t the greatest and he attempts a turn, but the Serb has already caught up with him and forces an error. Arsenal, with the fullbacks too far forward, only have their two centrebacks plus (a slow) Mikel Arteta in defensive positions. Matić dribbles forward before laying it off to Schürrle, who has already beaten Arteta for pace. Mertesacker is too far away to be of any real help, and Koscielny is obviously worried about Eto’o’s presence to his right.
Although possessing the numerical advantage, Arsenal’s defence fails to deal with Schürrle’s run and he is allowed to get a shot at goal, through Koscielny’s open legs. Mertesacker’s poor positioning and lack of pace mean he can’t get his body in the way of the shot. Cazorla, although trying, isn’t quick enough to make up for his mistake. Arteta was left for dust about 15 minutes ago.
Once again, the fullbacks are far too high, leaving Koscielny and Mertesacker vulnerable on the break. Hazard is unchallenged (where was Sagna?) and has time to slide the ball through to Torres, who then returns it – taking out both centrebacks in the process. This allows Hazard to take a shot at goal. Oxlade-Chamberlain, thinking it’s heading in, palms it away, and the resulting events will continue to give Andre Marriner nightmares for years to come.
Tactical naivety and a distinct lack of pace
Whatever way you look at it, Mourinho tactically outclassed Wenger. He set his team out with clear instructions on how to take advantage of their opposition and they worked to maximum effect. He’s not always the easiest person to like, but as a manager it’s almost impossible not to respect his ability and his achievements.
Arsenal, for all their injuries, didn’t put out a bad side, just one lacking in speed. Giroud, Podolski, Arteta and Mertesacker aren’t blessed with bundles of pace and energy. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain probably represented the biggest threat to Chelsea in that department, but had an absolute shocker of a game, especially considering his great form of late.
Although I have no data or figures to back this up, I also do believe that Arsenal, for some reason, get particularly spooked when playing in large, vocal stadiums away from home. All three games mentioned above were played out amid raucous atmospheres. It is easy to dismiss points like this, but players are undoubtedly affected psychologically and emotionally by what is going on around them. Perhaps if the crowd at the Emirates were more vociferous with their support then this wouldn’t be such an issue for the team.
Regardless of what happens during the remainder of the Premier League season, Arsenal lifting the FA Cup come May will appease supporters who have seen the club go trophyless for so long. There will, however, always be those who think: What if?