Cesc Fabregas shines for Chelsea as Arsenal miss Olivier Giroud
This may be the most unpredictable season in years, but some things remain the same -- Arsenal still have their Chelsea complex.
Arsene Wenger's team remain without a win against their London rivals in nine league fixtures, and Sunday's 1-0 defeat at the Emirates wouldn't have been made easier by the sight of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas relishing protagonist roles.
Arsenal's former playmaker looked sharp from the start, and Costa provided the breakthrough by tempting Per Mertesacker to foul him as the last man and get sent off. That moved Wenger to sacrifice Olivier Giroud and put Theo Walcott up front, but Costa's opener minutes later ruined the counter-attacking game plan. Soon Mesut Ozil was made a false nine as Walcott and Joel Campbell stayed wide, yet Arsenal missed Giroud in the box as crosses and final-third passes were sent without a focal point.
Chelsea interim coach Guus Hiddink kept sending Costa on runs down the channels and, though the timing was often poor, the calming presence of Fabregas helped Chelsea control the tempo. Fabregas also dropped back to form a five-man midfield shield, which eventually yielded another clean sheet at the Emirates. That meant Arsenal have now gone nine hours and 32 minutes without scoring against Chelsea in the league, their longest-ever goalless run against a Premier League opponent.
Chelsea look for Costa runs
Chelsea's tactics were not surprising. Fabregas played behind Costa with Willian and Oscar on either flank, backed up by Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel. Fabregas dropped deep to orchestrate moves as Willian and Oscar looked for spaces between the lines. Costa, meanwhile, destabilised Arsenals centre-backs.
Mertesacker will always be vulnerable to pace, and within three minutes, Costa had made two runs down the left. This is his most natural side anyway, but the prospect of sprinting past the German made the move even more obvious.
It surprised few when Costa sprinted in behind Mertesacker to meet Willian's through ball, only to be brought down. That triggered the introduction of Gabriel, the man whose dismissal was engineered by Costa in the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge in September.
Though Chelsea now held a one-man advantage, Costa kept making similar runs, and more chances might have emerged had the timing been better. On 27 minutes, he was waved offside down the left, a scenario that was repeated twice in the first five minutes of the second half. When Costa saw the flag raised again on 57 minutes, he smacked the corner flag in frustration. After he had come off to a chorus of boos, his replacement, Loic Remy, continued to make the same error, bringing Chelsea's offside count up to seven.
Ozil misses Giroud's presence
At the very least, Chelsea could rely on their main striker to do his job. Arsenal could not. This game would always invite Giroud to look for crosses and set up midfielders with flicks and lay-offs; indeed, within 10 minutes, he played a slick one-two with Mathieu Flamini, who was unable to finish. Yet Wenger viewed Walcott's pace as a more natural choice on the counter and withdrew a distraught Giroud in front of a perplexed home crowd.
The move backfired immediately. Costa soon turned in Branislav Ivanovic's cross to record his sixth goal in six games, enabling Chelsea to defend deeper and stay patient. Wenger initially sought to keep Walcott up front with Ozil behind, leaving the left side open, but it soon became clear that Ivanovic was getting too much space, so Walcott moved down as a permanent left winger with Ozil as a lone striker.
This created its own problems. With Ozil dropping deep as usual, Arsenal had no immediate reference point. On one occasion, the German playmaker got the ball but had nobody ahead of him and had to wait for Walcott and Campbell to move into advanced positions. Further issues emerged in the final third, where Walcott, Campbell and Ozil were all unable to challenge John Terry and Kurt Zouma in the air.
That left Arsenal reliant on quick combinations near the box, and though Walcott twice threatened down the left, Giroud's absence remained conspicuous. Ozil appeared particularly frustrated by not having a target to aim for inside the box, completing none of his eight crosses and few of his more ambitious forward passes. That reflected Arsenal's struggles: they failed with 21 out of 22 crosses and managed just one shot on target. Petr Cech later described how they had been "missing a little bit of the last touch inside and around the box," and Giroud might have agreed.
Fabregas keeps Chelsea ticking
At the other end, Chelsea never created much either, but their ability to nullify Arsenal owed a fair bit to Fabregas. Aside from creating some of the most promising moves, his calm on the ball helped control the tempo as Chelsea slowed things down.
Also defensively, Fabregas was everywhere, dropping close to Mikel and Matic to make a series of interventions. The ex-Gunner was either top or joint-top for most attempted passes (70/83), most passes in the final third (25/36), most completed take-ons (4), most tackles (6), most ball recoveries (12) and most fouls earned (5). Those are the figures of a commanding midfield display.
Arsenal rely on midfield finishers
With Giroud benched, Arsenal filled the box with central midfielders. Flamini and Aaron Ramsey unleashed five of their nine efforts, and the Frenchman in particular should have done better when squandering Ramsey's lofted pass just before half-time.
He had another chance three minutes before the end when his close-range effort was deflected, and he ended with a total of three chances close to goal, despite taking little part in the build-up play near the box. Had they fallen to a specialist, the result might have been different.