Monday, January 25, 2016

Arsenal 0 Chelsea 1: Three Things We Learned

A first-half red card induced by Chelsea’s Diego Costa and a goal by the Chelsea striker sent Arsenal to a 1-0 home defeat on Sunday.

With the loss, the Gunners dropped out of first place in the Premier League and now sit just two points ahead of fourth-placed Tottenham.

The incident in the 17th minute, when Per Mertesacker found himself on the wrong side of Costa and tried a last-ditch tackle, obviously changed the dynamic of the match and rendered most analysis meaningless. Still, here are three things we learned from the encounter.

Arsenal paid for the risks of its high line

The potential of a disastrous defensive moment is real when Arsenal employ a high line. The coordination between Mertesacker and his partner Laurent Koscielny has to be perfect, and their teammates higher up the pitch must put pressure on the ball to prevent the easy pass. If either of those elements is missing, the opposition has an opportunity to break beyond the Gunners’ defense.

That’s what happened when Chelsea’s Willian lost Aaron Ramsey in midfield, saw Arsenal’s other midfielder Mathieu Flamini back off, and picked the pass to Costa as he ran off Mertesacker’s shoulder. Koscielny and Mertesacker stepped up a smidge in an effort to catch Chelsea’s striker offside, but that was the wrong decision, taken in a split-second with no room for error.

We’ve seen similar series of events in previous matches this season. At Swansea, Jonjo Shelvy pushed the ball through the midfield and connected with Bafetimbi Gomis, who skirted Mertesacker while Koscielny stepped up. Against Newcastle, Ayoze Perez captured an errant pass in midfield and found an open Georgino Wijnaldum. In both those cases, Arsenal keeper Petr Cech came to the rescue, and Arsenal went on to win.

Mertesacker’s challenge, Costa’s theatrical tumble, and referee Mark Clattenburg’s red card prevented Cech from having the opportunity to save the day again.

In matches that turn on such small margins and instantaneous individual decisions, the risks of the high line require better collective management.

No one should fault Arsenal players for their effort

Even reduced to ten men with Mertesacker’s expulsion, the Gunners looked livelier than their opponents. They amassed 47 percent possession, which is remarkable for a team suffering a numerical disadvantage for 70 minutes, fashioned six corners, and found themselves with decent looks at goal on several occasions.

The problem was that Chelsea’s defenders kept most of Arsenal’s activity in front of them. When one of Arsenal’s wide players got the ball in the attacking third, there were no credible targets for a cross into the penalty area.

So Arsenal’s fullbacks often carried the ball long distances, particularly Hector Bellerin, who was a frequent threat on the right. He succeeded in bypassing several Chelsea players on occasion but ran into resistance as he got nearer goal. From Arsenal’s left, Nacho Monreal found himself open in the penalty area late in the match but couldn’t create a shot.

All this attacking from the fullbacks left the Gunners open to counterattacks, and Chelsea did get into spaces that more clinical teams would have exploited for the killer blow. Some acknowledgement is due Koscielny and Gabriel, Mertesacker’s replacement, for their work managing these late Chelsea attacks, though the pair must share some responsibility for Costa’s goal.

Arsène Wenger does not shirk tough decisions

The Arsenal manager’s call to sacrifice center forward Olivier Giroud in order to introduce Gabriel sparked considerable debate. Would Arsenal have been better served with the target and ball control Giroud offers, rather than the speed provided by Theo Walcott?

It’s a reasonable question. Just as Wenger’s choice of Walcott over Giroud--made with much more information than we have--was a reasonable one.

Overall, the manager had to account for the three fourths of the match that remained after Mertesacker’s red card. He had to consider the fitness of the players, the likely approach of his opponents, and his team’s best chance to succeed.

Reports that Giroud had suffered an injury in training may have factored in the decision. If that injury would have forced Giroud off at some point anyway, it made sense to replace him early.

Let’s also remember that the match was scoreless at the time, making it more likely that Chelsea would push forward and leave themselves vulnerable to a counterattack. This dynamic would have worked to the strengths of Walcott, not Giroud. Wenger did not foresee that Chelsea would score so early and then, despite a man advantage, sit back and soak up Arsenal’s pressure. That pattern of play would have favored Giroud.

Extra Time

Normally I turn the sound off when I’m watching matches. I don’t find NBC’s commentators insightful or instructive, as a general rule. On Sunday, I wanted to get a sense of the atmosphere, so I didn’t mute the sound.

I wish I had.

The main reason was the insistence of analyst and ex-Chelsea man Graeme Le Saux that Mesut Özil’s “body language” was the giveaway to a poor performance by the German. Rather than examine the setup of the Arsenal team once reduced to ten men or explain how Chelsea were containing Arsenal’s creative players, Le Saux harped on the appearance or carriage of Özil.

This is armchair psychology masquerading as analysis and absolutely no help to understanding a match.

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