Unai Emery’s debut in English football was always going to be a damp squib; Manchester City were bound to be too strong and too organised for an Arsenal team at the beginning of the post-Wenger era. But Chelsea, despite being clear favourites to beat their rivals at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening, are far from invulnerable and might just be the first team to experience the full force of Arsenal under Emery. The Gunners will look to absorb pressure and play on the break, inviting Chelsea’s possession football.
Maurizio Sarri’s project – to transform Chelsea into a high-line ball-playing side – is essentially the reverse of what Emery is doing at Arsenal. While the Italian coach looks to expand the concertina, the Spaniard hopes to compress it. The result, with both teams in transition, should be mistakes, bizarre decision-making, and awkward defensive actions. Or, in other words, goals.
1) Are Arsenal’s narrow counter-attacks the perfect weapon against expansive Chelsea?
Unai Emery’s tenure at Arsenal will be defined by aggressive (though selective) pressing, compressing space between the lines of defence and attack, and quick counters. Staying compact and narrow is vital both defensively and offensively. In direct contrast, Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea will look to dominate the ball in an expansive and fluid 4-3-3 formation, which could make Saturday’s game a classic possession-v-counterattack end-to-end contest.
Arsenal might just have the upper hand. Much was made of their attempts to pass out from the back against Manchester City, but this should not be conflated with a desire to beat Pep Guardiola’s team at their own game. Emery wants to draw opponents forward, outmanoeuvre the press, then break into the spaces. A Chelsea team caught in transition between the reactive tactics of Antonio Conte and Sarri’s demands could easily be sucked in.
So early in their respective new projects, do Chelsea have enough positional fluidity to turn possession dominance into chances? Or have Arsenal learnt enough about Emery’s space compression, and patience, to hit Chelsea with a sucker punch?
Arsenal's pressing game has been effective early on. Not giving Man City much time on the ball. Crowd is loving it too. #arsmci
— Mattias Karén (@MattiasKaren) August 12, 2018
2) Can Ozil expose still-adjusting Jorginho from a new deeper midfield role?
Arsenal effectively played a narrow 4-3-1-2 formation against Man City with Aaron Ramsey up front alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the hole and Mesut Ozil to the right of a midfield three. (Although most chose to present this as a 4-2-3-1, with Ozil and Mkhitaryan as wingers, neither spent much time in these areas while Ramsey often pressed ahead of Aubameyang).
It looks like Emery plans for Ozil to play in a deeper midfield role this season to instigate counter-attacks when the ball is won back in the Arsenal half. Against City he notably attempted one- or two-touch vertical passes in tight spaces around the edge of the Gunners penalty box, hoping to release Aubameyang or Ramsey on the break. This tactic is much more likely to work against Chelsea, whose new central midfielder, Jorginho, looks a little overawed by the pace of English football. Controlling the counter-attacks from a withdrawn role, Ozil has the quality to pierce a disorganised Chelsea midfield.
Some of our fans need to realize that Mesut Ozil is not that creative assist king number 10 player anymore like he once was for me his legs and vision has gone hes 29 years old he now needs to be given a xavi role like Gerrard was given at Liverpool and David Silva at City!
— NP (@NickPowch1995) August 13, 2018
3) Can Pedro and Hazard exploit Arsenal’s lack of support on the flanks?
The first major tactical conundrum facing Emery as Arsenal manager is how to provide adequate support to the full-backs while retaining a narrow overall shape. Man City isolated Ainsley Maitland-Niles far too easily at the Emirates via a simple pass into the feet of Riyad Mahrez. A tight three-man midfield leaves a lot of room out wide; Sarri will be instructing Pedro to hug that touchline and pile on pressure.
Stephan Lichsteiner was more effective at pushing up to close down Mahrez and the Switzerland international could start on Saturday, but nevertheless Arsenal will struggle. Bernardo Silva’s goal, in the 64th minute, was the direct result of a simple two-v-one overlap between Benjamin Mendy and Raheem Sterling.
Alexandre Lacazette’s expected return to the starting line-up means even less defensive support from the forwards, and so this game could hinge on Ozil and the left-sided central midfielder (probably Lucas Torreira) having enough energy and intelligence to shift out wide.
Arsenal will be fine as soon as Emery realises Torreira is twice the player Xhaka will ever be
— ok (@JamzOkay) August 12, 2018
4) Which attacking midfielder will Sarri pick to put Guendouzi under pressure?
Ross Barkley’s audition for the role of playmaker in Sarri’s midfield wasn’t particularly eye-catching. The new Chelsea manager clearly rates Barkley highly, but with Mateo Kovacic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the wings there is no guarantee the 24-year-old will be given a second chance at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Having to start Ross Barkley because Mateo Kovacic isn't ready is a bit like eating spam because the butcher was out of filet mignon
— Kim was wrong about Rooney (@lgbtqfc) August 11, 2018
Sarri’s Napoli midfield always contained one defensive, one box-to-box, and one attacking midfielder, with the latter – invariably sat to the left – expected to probe the half-spaces, connect the midfield with the centre-forward, and combine with an inverted left winger (Lorenzo Insigne at Napoli, Hazard at Chelsea).
This position could be particularly important on Saturday evening because the Arsenal man patrolling this centre-left space is Guendouzi, a talented but erratic midfielder. He was caught flying into tackles against City and was partially at fault for the opener, failing to closing down Sterling on the edge of the area. If Hazard and Barkley can combine in the left half-space they should be able to commit Guendouzi, opening up a significant gap.
5) Will disorganised Luiz and Rudiger lose track of Aubameyang and Lacazette?
David Luiz has done nothing in his first two matches this season to refute the claim he cannot function well in a back four. The Brazilian looked haphazard and error-prone against Man City and was easily beaten to long balls by Steve Mounie against Huddersfield Town. Antonio Rudiger is also prone to lapses in concentration; together, these two will struggle to hold a solid high line or keep tabs on Arsenal’s quick forwards.
Lacazette and Aubameyang have struck up a strong partnership in pre-season and will probably start together this weekend after the Frenchman’s impressive 36-minute cameo in Arsenal’s opener. His neat touches and sudden turns helped push the hosts higher up the pitch, proving to Emery that Lacazette is a much better all-round striker than Aubameyang when playing on the counter. What’s more, the Gabonese makes excellent arcing runs from left to centre that Lacazette cannot.
Assuming they are instructed to stay close to one another, Aubameyang and Lacazette should be able to outflank Luiz and Rudiger, both of whom are slower and less self-assured in their roles than the Arsenal pair.
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