It says a lot about the quality of this season’s Premier League that Chelsea remain safely within the top four. Their form has been pretty poor, and yet the same can be said for almost every member of the so-called Big Six – including lowly Arsenal, who visit Stamford Bridge on Tuesday in tenth.
Neither side are playing with freedom or confidence, and neither side looks likely to put in a statement performance in Tuesday’s derby. Our tactical preview this week is filled with hope, not expectation.
Here are five tactical questions ahead of Chelsea v Arsenal:
1) Will Arsenal repeat their fast start or has Lampard learned from his mistakes?
The Gunners were rampant in the opening 30 minutes of the reverse fixture in December, laying the foundations for a solid performance that was suddenly undermined by a four-minute collapse. This was partly thanks to Mikel Arteta’s ability to inspire high-tempo football and increased verticality compared to the Unai Emery days, as Mesut Ozil dropped deeper to receive the ball in midfield and charge forward.
But it was largely the result of Frank Lampard’s tactical mistake. Chelsea began the match in a clumsy 5-2-3, which quickly became 3-2-5 when in possession, and that meant the visiting centre-backs got stuck on the ball. The two midfielders were all alone – 15-20 metres from a static front five and three defenders – and the 2-3-1 part of Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 basically surrounded N’Golo Kante and Matteo Kovacic in a pentagon.
Surely the Chelsea manager won’t let that happen again, keeping the 4-3-3 that was restored 30 minutes into the game at the Emirates. From here, their shape was considerably more evenly spread and allowed for them to press Arsenal, forcing Arteta’s side into retreat.
Chelsea completely outplayed in that half, even with Lampard proactively making changes to arrest the tide.
Arsenal were brilliant, good structure and spacing in the formation. Nice invention, confidence and 1-touch stuff on the ball. Ozil just super.
— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) December 29, 2019
2) Will increasing individualism at both clubs get in the way?
The biggest threat to the quality of this match is the form of both clubs. Neither team’s attack looks particularly connected at the moment, with low confidence and stuttering rhythms affecting their respective abilities to create chances – hence scoring just nine goals between them in the six games since the sides last met.
For Arsenal, this comes as a surprise following what appeared to be the development of some automatisms against Manchester United and Crystal Palace. They were moving the ball with an instinctiveness that suggested particular moves were becoming muscle memory, only to fall into individualism against Sheffield United at the weekend. In this game, it took Nicolas Pepe, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli running alone down the wings for Arsenal to arrive in the final third, thanks largely to hesitant performances from Granit Xhaka and Ozil.
Chelsea failed to score against Newcastle for similar reasons. Lampard gives his creative players genuine freedom, and as confidence wanes this is becoming an issue. Mason Mount stutters for a bit too long, Willian is back to dribbling diagonally into a cul-de-sac, and Tammy Abraham’s touch has deserted him.
It could lead to a static match of bumbling touches and few decent chances.
3) Will James versus Saka battle liven things up?
If that’s the case, then pay attention to the head-to-head between Reece James and Saka, two full-backs increasingly relied upon to conjure a moment of magic while the more advanced players meander. Arriving from deep, and therefore at pace, both players possess the ability to cross the ball from deeper areas, potentially offering a more direct route to a goalmouth scramble.
James is the superior both at crossing and defending, meaning Saka could be in for a difficult time. The Chelsea right-back has been a revelation, creating five chances in the last two matches, which is a worry considering Arsenal didn’t defend the flanks particularly effectively against Sheffield United on Saturday.
If Chelsea had a 10 who had the vision and quality of pass Reece James has then Chelsea would create chances for fun
Don’t get offended but Mount isn’t that guy sadly..
— Conn (@ConnCFC) January 18, 2020
4) Will Arteta’s coaching see Arsenal dominate in the transitions?
Alternatively, Sheff Utd’s superb organisation and stubborn mid-block simply prevented Arsenal from showing off their new-found flowing moves, and Tuesday’s game will give them the chance to unveil what Arteta has been coaching over the last relatively free fortnight.
Chelsea are notoriously poor in the transitions, struggling to re-compress into a defensive shape after periods of possession. Lampard’s side spread too wide and commit too readily, leaving them exposed to the more ruthlessly organised counter-attacks. Assuming Arteta has prepared a detailed tactical plan for this scenario, Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and Pepe might break with unusual elasticity.
Jorginho has a key role to play in preventing Arsenal from catching out the hosts. After the formation switch at the Emirates it was the Italian who frequently got tight to Ozil, stunting Arsenal’s attempts to break.
5) Can Mount and Abraham link up to expose Arsenal’s hazardous centre-backs?
Arteta won’t get Arsenal back in the Champions League until he gets a couple of new centre-backs. David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi remain a liability, prone to lapses in concentration, flat-footed defending, and unforced errors. Throughout the first half of the season Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham showed a speed of thought that saw Chelsea win the ball high up the pitch and burst straight into the opposition area.
Tuesday could present the perfect opportunity to rediscover their strong partnership. Like most of our tactical questions today, it’s a case of ifs and maybes; the form guide doesn’t give us a lot to be excited about. Nevertheless, in theory Mount and Abraham can revel in the gaps that open around two of the division’s most calamitous defenders.