Arsenal v Chelsea is the highlight of Boxing Day. We take a look at some tactical questions…
1) Will Chelsea’s energetic playmakers simply overwhelm Arsenal?
The general tactical pattern of this game is a worrying prospect for Arsenal fans. Chelsea might have lost consecutive matches prior to the West Ham win but they remained a scurrying, high-tempo team throughout. Their energetic playmakers never stop moving, and alongside the manager’s wild pressing this makes Chelsea very difficult to play against – unless the opponent sits deep.
Arsenal’s lack of structure, their low confidence, and their passive possession over the last couple of months does not bode well. If Frank Lampard decides to pack the team with his most explosive creators then it seems unlikely Mikel Arteta’s side will have the purpose or cohesion to match.
Worse still, Arsenal’s two-man midfield can be overworked at times, and certainly with Pulisic and Timo Werner dropping into the number 10 space, the hosts may be overwhelmed.
2) Will Lampard risk a 4-3-3 or give Kante extra support?
But the shape of the midfield battle depends on which formation Lampard picks. Since October, N’Golo Kante has been playing in the Makelele role alone at the base of midfield, producing some fine performances that have helped Chelsea improve in the transition, but after consecutive defeats to Everton and Wolves, Lampard moved back to a 4-2-3-1.
Jorginho started the West Ham game alongside Kante, and although both players got forward it was a more conservative approach on the whole. Should Lampard pick this system again, Arsenal may be let off the hook; Arteta’s side are particularly weak in central midfield and are seemingly unable to progress the ball through the middle, making a double pivot of Jorginho and Kante unnecessary.
Should Lampard return to a 4-3-3, the two advanced eights either side of Kante should be able to dominate the half-spaces, moving easily through the zones on either side of Arsenal’s two-man midfield.
3) Can Werner take advantage of Holding’s errors?
The weakest part of Arsenal’s defence at the moment is Rob Holding, who starts on the right-hand side. Gabriel’s performances have dropped alarmingly since Arteta switched back to a three, the Brazilian often caught frantically stepping out of the back line to expose his fellow defenders, and Holding appears to be most badly affected by this.
He is too often caught flat-footed or simply sat a couple of yards deeper than the Arsenal defensive line, leading to needless errors and soft goal concessions. It was a big problem in the hapless defeat to Everton, in which Holding scored an own goal, and yet his replacement for the League Cup, Shkodran Mustafi, was even worse.
Arteta has no choice but to continue with Holding, and as Hector Bellerin advances up the pitch the former Bolton defender will likely be exposed by the pace and movement of Timo Werner. Werner is yet to find consistency at Chelsea when on the ball, but his runs are superb, worrying even the best centre-backs in the division.
Werner versus Holding is a pretty serious mismatch, and as Arsenal’s defence is distracted by Mason Mount, Pulisic and others, Werner should get in behind.
Werner had a bit of a stinker statistically. It wasn’t great. But what I do like is his intent. The movement is always sharp, the runs are intelligent. He’s good at holding his run and keeping onside. Trusts his pace. Still a really good player, the foundation is great.
— The Tactical Times (@Tactical_Times) December 21, 2020
4) Can Saka and Tierney combine without Aubameyang?
Arsenal are passive in possession and woefully disconnected from one another, severely limiting their creativity. Their only viable route to goal in recent weeks has been via Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney, who interact on the left flank to create space for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
This has always been the most impressive part of Arteta’s tactical system at the Emirates; in a hybrid 3-4-3/4-3-3, Saka comes infield as Tierney overlaps, while Aubameyang drops into the half-space to collect the ball and drive at the defence. These three have hardly been firing on all cylinders recently, but nevertheless we have seen glimpses of the old partnership re-emerging, most obviously for Aubameyang’s goal in the 1-1 draw with Southampton.
However, Aubameyang is unlikely to pass a late fitness test, potentially dissolving the good work Saka and Tierney can do. Perhaps Willian or Eddie Nketiah can replace Aubameyang in the move – but probably not. Cesar Azpilicueta, in for the injured Reece James, is a defensive upgrade in this area for Chelsea.
5) Will Ceballos and Pepe make the most of counter-attacking opportunities?
One glimmer of hope for Arsenal is that Chelsea over-commit, leaving themselves vulnerable to counter-attacks. The outstanding performances of Thiago Silva and Kante have largely eradicated Chelsea’s 2019/20 issue of getting caught on the break, although given Arsenal are there for the taking, Chelsea may spread too wide and attack with abandon.
If so, it will be up to Dani Ceballos, the only progressive midfielder in the squad, and Nicolas Pepe, the only player willing to take on his man, to make the most of breaks. Bellerin may fancy his chances of bursting beyond the attack-minded Ben Chilwell, too, although the England international’s quick recoveries mean Bellerin’s main purpose will be to help give Pepe more space.
Unfortunately for Gunners fans, nothing we have seen this season suggests Ceballos or Pepe will play with the purpose or self-belief required to counter-attack successfully – certainly not for 90 minutes, and certainly not well enough to take any points.