Chelsea's counter-attacking masterclass too much for Arsenal
Antonio Conte pulled off another tactical triumph as Chelsea sealed their ninth straight home Premier League win on Saturday.
Many of their traits were on show to great effect: the deep defending, the lethal counter-attacks and the advantages offered by their 3-4-3.
As so often, the wing-backs played a crucial role. Chelsea went ahead when Victor Moses and Pedro attacked Arsenal down the right and enabled Diego Costa to beat Hector Bellerin to a cross, before Marcos Alonso converted the rebound. Down the other end, Arsenal were more predictable, and created their best chances via set pieces.
The Gunners were weakened when Bellerin got injured in the aerial duel with Alonso, but they still had Nacho Monreal, who became their main attacking outlet and sent in several dangerous crosses. While Arsenal initially lacked a target man to take advantage, Olivier Giroud came off the bench to hit a late consolation goal.
By that stage Chelsea had bombarded Arsenal with counter-attacks, winning duels in midfield and immediately haring forward. Eden Hazard scored one and Cesc Fabregas got another, making it 3-1 to hand Arsene Wenger his fifth straight defeat at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea wing-backs cause imbalance
If there are aspects of Conte's 3-4-3 that opponents never seem to figure out entirely, the role of the wing-backs is certainly one. Rivals need their wingers to track Moses and Alonso in order not to get exposed, as Pedro and Hazard drift out wide to worry the full-backs; when this isn't the case, the full-backs have to stop the wing-backs, leaving Hazard or Pedro free to challenge the centre-backs.
In this respect, Wenger surely did not help himself by starting Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil out wide. In a 4-3-3, the Arsenal manager fielded Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alex Iwobi ahead of Francis Coquelin, but expecting Ozil to chase Moses down the line was always overly optimistic.
On 13 minutes, disaster struck for Arsenal. With Ozil nowhere, Moses got the ball out wide and released Pedro down the line, who drew out Laurent Koscielny and crossed for Costa. With Hazard also in the box, Arsenal were two-vs.-two in front of goal: Shkodran Mustafi marked Hazard, while it was Bellerin who had to deal with Costa. The latter won the header and hit the crossbar, before Alonso rose above Bellerin to nod home. Like Ozil, Walcott was positioned further upfield, which meant both wing-backs had gone unmarked in the same attack.
Chelsea would continue to build down the flanks. Later in the half, they won the ball deep and released Alonso, with Walcott again on the wrong side; because of that, Gabriel (Bellerin's replacement) had to push up on Alonso, who could now set up Hazard against Mustafi just behind.
The concept was identical to the one leading to the goal and, on this occasion, Mustafi cut down Hazard and got booked.
Arsenal nullified in open play
Without the ball, Chelsea defended deep in a 5-4-1 in which the presence of the three centre-backs enabled the wing-backs to close down the Arsenal full-backs while still retaining cover. Perhaps their greatest concern was down their left, where Bellerin faced Alonso, with Walcott potentially able to set up a sprinting duel with Gary Cahill just behind. But that threat was diminished when Bellerin was replaced by Gabriel, a natural centre-back, on 17 minutes.
That was bad news for Wenger, as Arsenal generally had few options. Centrally, Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante had control, while the centre-backs closed down whoever threatened the tiny space between the lines. Lone striker Alexis Sanchez had to drop deep to get involved: looking at where he received the ball, you can make out the zone Chelsea wanted to protect.
This left Arsenal hoping for mistakes and set pieces. After two minutes, Ozil intercepted a pass from Thibaut Courtois and set up Iwobi who fired just wide; seven minutes before half-time, a short corner enabled Oxlade-Chamberlain to cross for Gabriel, who drew a reflex save from Thibaut Courtois.
The story remained similar in the second half, even if Ozil had missed a decent chance just before the break. On 77 minutes, Arsenal had a sequence of corners that involved substitute Danny Welbeck testing Courtois with a downward header and Mustafi nodding wide unmarked at the near post. In total, five out of their nine efforts came from set-plays.
Conte's counter-attacks seal win
Unfortunately for Arsenal, Chelsea were 2-0 up at that stage. At the start of the second half, a series of turnovers had taken place in which Chelsea won the ball in midfield and launched counters.
Kante robbed Ozil inside the Arsenal half and played through Costa, only for the offside flag to go up; a minute later, Hazard intercepted a pass and moved forward to collected Costa's flick, before shaking off Coquelin and skipping past Koscielny to finish off a superb solo goal.
Other counter-attacks materialised. At one stage, Hazard led a three-vs.-two move ruined by a misplaced pass, while Sanchez gave the ball straight to Costa, whose first touch wasted a potential opportunity. Having made three interceptions in the first half, Chelsea made no fewer than 14 in the second.
Monreal's delivery a lone threat
As for Arsenal's attack, it improved in open play. With Bellerin out, Monreal became more involved down the left, particularly in the second half, and, with Pedro often positioned further infield, the full-back was able to attack Moses and swing in eight crosses in total.
One of the most dangerous came on 58 minutes, when he cannoned in a ball at the near post that Walcott nearly reached. Soon after, Monreal put in another low cross that zipped past the goalmouth with nobody there to convert.
That suggested Arsenal needed a stronger presence in the box and, less than a minute later, Giroud came on for Coquelin. The two combined in stoppage time, Giroud heading in Monreal's cross, but Fabregas had already punished Petr Cech's error to add Chelsea's third.
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