Chelsea FC tracked off their first competition battle of the season by losing against Arsenal in the League Cup Semi-final. Unlike other times, the Blues maintained their attacking fluidity from the start by deploying a front-3 until full-time. Hazard’s lead did raise expectations of them qualifying to the final, but they were cancelled by Rudiger’s own goal. Later, Willian’s injury and Chelsea’s unstructured defence in the box led to the opponents’ winning goal. Conte’s men fought until the end to push Arsenal’s game back and even forced them to sit back during the last quarter. But their lack of attacking width didn’t allow them to pose any significant attacking threat.
Arsenal’s midfield overload
Arsenal used a 4-3-3 formation to solidify the central midfield, unlike their usual back 3 setup, while the full-backs were meant to exploit the width. As Chelsea have been more and more relying on their central region to hold their possession, their Premier league opponents – including Arsenal – have realised that outperforming them in that very region would knock them down. This tactic was also effective to multi-mark Hazard in deeper areas.
The home team compressed the midline tightly to stop Chelsea’s penetration from the centre. This midfield overload of 3v2 also allowed Arsenal to win possession and counter on loose first or second balls throughout the game.
For most of the game, Arsenal kept winning the midfield battle forcing Chelsea to sit back. This allowed Wenger’s men to more frequently penetrate in Chelsea’s half.
Chelsea’s attacking style
Chelsea used a 3-4-3 setup to maintain their attacking fluidity at the front as opposed to using 5-men midfield and playing defensively. Kante and Bakayoko played as a double pivot and maintained distribution from the defensive mid while the trio of Pedro, Alonso, and Hazard utilised the left flank to penetrate and initiate attacks.
For the starting minutes, Chelsea were able to penetrate and pass through the opponent centre-mids with Hazard dropping in between the lines. Chelsea’s first goal resulted due to the same reasoning. Kante passed to Pedro who was between the lines. As Arsenal’s defensive lines were closed down to block Kante and the front 3, Hazard moved out to the open space, receiving a pass from Pedro before scoring.
However, Chelsea’s domination became weaker since Arsenal were pressing all over the field, including forepressing, to disturb Chelsea’s build up from the back. As Arsenal started to control the midfield due to their more compact midline and midfield overload, the Blues relied on long passes up the flanks. But the home team also shifted their midfield bloc accordingly pressing Chelsea on the flanks too.
Even though Chelsea managed to play end to end against such a solid midfield for a good part of the first half while dominating possession via long crosses, fast build up, and back passing, they were eventually left behind in possession in the second half.
For the second half, Chelsea were sitting back attempting to play the counter-attacking game. But their main counterforce, Hazard, was marked in deeper regions which shrank their chances for penetration. Chelsea’s passing structure couldn’t become coherent during quick counters especially when it came to using the attacking wings.
Since Chelsea were using 5-4-1 as their defensive formation with Hazard remaining at the front, they struggled to initiate attacks smoothly from the midfield. When Batshuayi was substituted for Pedro, he got into the front position while Hazard dropped back to the midfield during the defensive phases to execute attacks from there. But as Chelsea were mostly in their defensive phases, Batshuayi remained isolated by Arsenal’s backline being alone at the front.
In response, Chelsea attempted to connect to the central attacking region by using the space in between Arsenal’s mid and defence instantly to compress defenders there and so make the space at the front. But there couldn’t be made any coherent passing structure to execute this strategy smoothly.
Later in the second half, Chelsea consistently initiated attacks via the flanks and then shifted their game from the wings to the deeper regions, in response to Arsenal’s block at the flank, until Arsenal’s midfield became less compact to extend its coverage. This opened up space in their midline for Chelsea. Thus for the last quarter, Chelsea were able to penetrate through the opponent midline more frequently than before forcing Arsenal to sit back and defend.
Chelsea’s lack of attacking width
Although Chelsea found a way to penetrate by expanding Arsenal’s midline during the last quarter, they still couldn’t use the deeper areas at the attacking front to carry on their attack as the opponent defence was still compact there. The only option left with Chelsea was to use the attacking wings. But that’s where Chelsea lack. They couldn’t go on with their attack further due to being stuck in the central attacking region. Thus, every time Chelsea reached the attacking third, they lost possession, allowing frequent counters to the opponents.
Due to lack of attacking width, Chelsea couldn’t use the flanks to pass straight up to the attacking wing from the back. Willian and Moses could have shown their nice passing combination at the right wing but the unfortunate injury of the Brazilian didn’t make it possible.
Chelsea’s marking tactic
Indeed it was a tough battle especially after Willian had to leave, but it was Chelsea’s marking tactic which won them possessions on many occasions.
The Blues multi-pressed the opponent player with the ball to restrict his forward passing options and then one of them came closer to the opponent to intercept. This would force the opponent to pass back or sideways. Arsenal were mostly diverting their play to Ozil or Wilshere to the right who were dropping in between the lines. Chelsea also marked any opponent who dropped in between lines to block the passing option to them as well.
Bakayoko made many successful interceptions and tackles winning Chelsea possession and the chances to initiate attack. Yet, in some instances he went close to intercepting his opponent earlier before Chelsea’s defence line could settle, which opened space behind him for the opponent. Since the French international needs time and to be in position to execute his defensive abilities, it’s better for him to stay in the defensive mid and not leave the midline especially during the end to end play or when a counter is expected to be conceded.
In a way, it was their tight press which helped Chelsea in their defensive phases. Every time the Blues loosened their pressing structure, they conceded attacking threats.