Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Both Arsenal and Chelsea exploit oppositon outside back in Champions League wins

Both Arsenal and Chelsea played some sparkling football on their way to comfortable Champions League wins Tuesday evening.

Arsenal dominated a Napoli side that currently sits second in Serie A and came into the evening unbeaten in all competitions this season. Goals from Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud in the opening quarter of an hour shell shocked the Italians who appeared at a loss for how to deal with the blistering tempo with which Arsenal started the contest. Up 2-0, Arsenal never looked like losing the control they'd asserted from the opening whistle. Their second half was professional and efficient- they sat deeper to ensure the game didn't become stretched and cautiously chose when to break forward on the counter. As a result, Napoli saw more of the ball than they had in the first half but never really looked like troubling Arsenal in the final third.

While Chelsea certainly had the easier of the two fixtures, their 4-0 away win to Steaua Bucharest was nevertheless impressive. The Romanian side's organization was extremely poor- when they got forward they left huge gaps in front of the back four that Chelsea were easily able to transition into when they won the ball back. Ramires netted twice from runs deep in midfield either side of a Steau own goal and Frank Lampard closed out the scoring with a vintage Lampard goal from just outside the 18.

The most interesting tactical feature of both contests was the rather peculiar use of width seen from both Arsenal and Chelsea. These are two sides known for frequently having both wide midfielders tuck into central areas and looking to break through the opposition defense by overloading the middle of the pitch.

At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho tends to use right footed players on the left wing and left footed players on the right wing so they can tuck into central areas and shoot on their stronger foot. In Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Willian, Andre Schurrle, Kevin De Bruyne and Willian, Chelsea have a slew of these inverted wingers that prefer to tuck inside from wide areas rather than take the ball to the end line and whip in crosses. As a result, Chelsea's play often tends to be quite narrow.

Similarly, Arsenal tend to use players on the left of their midfield that drift in field to offer an extra body in the middle of the pitch. The clearest example of this style is their 1-0 win over Tottenham earlier this season when Santi Cazorla drifted inside from the left to overload Spurs' holding midfielder Etienne Capoue. Cazorla has been out with an ankle injury since the Tottenham fixture and has been replaced by Jack Wilshere who also plays very narrow on the left. Theo Walcott is typically used on the right side of midfield. Although his blistering pace and the fact he's a right footed player used on the right wing are typical attributes of a more traditional winger, he often tucks inside high up the pitch to get on the shoulder of the last defender and make runs in behind the defense. In this role he's more of a second striker than an out and out wide player.

Walcott was also unavailable for the Napoli game due to injury as were wide midfielders Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski who both have long term injuries. As a result, Arsene Wenger's only natural wide player available was Serge Gnabry, an 18 year-old whose only Champions League experience is a cameo off the bench last season against Schalke. While Gnabry has played well in recent weeks in both the Premier League and League Cup, Wenger opted not to risk playing an inexperienced teenager in such a big match up. As a result, he was forced to field five different players whose main positions are in the center of midfield.

Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta played the holding roles. Mesut Ozil played centrally behind the striker. Aaron Ramsey played to the right of midfield, Tomas Rosicky on the left. Without any natural wide midfielders on the pitch, it was fair to expect Arsenal would look to overload the middle of the pitch in the attacking third and try to unlock Napoli with tight passing combinations near the top of the box. Napoli certainly looked as though this is what they expected- they defended in two very narrow banks of four and conceded the channels. Surprisingly, Arsenal were more than happy to take advantage of the space they were given out wide and continually looked to overload Napoli left back Juan Zuniga.

Ozil and Giroud both drifted towards Ramsey into Zuniga's zone on the right flank, forcing the Napoli left back into 1 v. 2 situations which created easy opportunities to play 1-2's around him. Sagna overlapped Ramsey intelligently meaning Arsenal consistently had a spare man open on the right channel. The Gunner's opening goal highlighted their intelligent movement down the right. Sagna received the ball on the flank. Ramsey checked back towards him on the touchline, forcing Zuniga into a wide position high up the pitch and thereby opening up space for Giroud in behind Zuniga in the channel. Giroud's wide run forced Napoli center back Miguel Britos into a wide position. He controlled Sagna's floated pass excellently with his chest. Ramsey burst in behind Zuniga with an overlapping run around the outside, dribbled towards the front post then cut it back for an unmarked Ozil to slam home at the top of the box.

For Arsenal's second, they managed to pin Napoli in on a throw in deep in the visiting side's left defensive corner of the pitch. Flamini won the ball and it fell for Giroud on the right channel. This time it was Ozil making the overlapping run past Zuniga. Giroud laid it off for Ozil then spun off his defender towards the six yard box. Ozil dribbled to the end line then cut the ball back for Giroud to finish easily at the front post.

By the final whistle, fifty percent of Arsenal's attacking moves came down the right third of the pitch. In comparison, 41% of their attacks have occurred down the right third in the Premier League this season.

Similarly, Chelsea's goals came from exploiting one of the wings. Their attacks however came down the left channel. Schurrle was given the start on the left and was instructed to keep a wide position near the touch line. Mata mostly played centrally in the #10 role with Oscar just to the right of him in a very narrow position though the two interchanged frequently. Chelsea's strategy was clear from the off- get the ball wide into Schurrle so that he could exploit the defensive weakness of Steaua's right back Daniel Georgievski. Georgievski's 1 v. 1 defending was woeful and time and again Schurrle was able to blow past him off the dribble, forcing Steaua center back Lukasz Szukala away from the Chelsea penalty area where the Blues were making dangerous runs from midfield.

For their opener, Chelsea broke quickly down the left through Schurrle who was able to easily skip around Georgievski's laughably feeble attempt at a tackle before playing the ball into the box for Eto'o. Eto'o mishit his shot but it fell kindly for Ramires who was making one of his usual lung bursting runs from deep in midfield. Chelsea's second was the result of a quick counter off a Steaua free kick. Mata provided a quick outlet pass for Ashley Cole and then played Eto'o in behind the Steau defense. His effort was saved but Georgievski put it into his own net as he was sprinting back to cover. The own goal would certainly have been embarrassing but was one rare example of the Steaua right back being unlucky rather than just bad.

In the 55th Chelsea again attacked down the left through Schurrle and again exposed Georgievski. This time he tried to close down Schurrle on the touchline near midfield. The German midfielder easily turned him and once again was free down the left channel. Schurrle played Oscar at the top of the box where he spotted Ramires making an overlapping run to his right. Ramires finished the move off with a powerful strike over the goalkeeper's arms.

Whereas Arsenal's strategy was to constantly move bodies in to the one of the channels to overload the opposition outside back and play quick 1-2's around him, Chelsea's was to clear out one of the channels to leave Schurrle with plenty of space to run at a fullback he could consistently beat with ease. In the end both strategies achieved what they were supposed to and resulted in a positive day for English clubs in the Champion's League.

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