Can Arsenal follow the Chelsea model of defending? Is counter-attack the answer for Arsenal’s big away games?
Sunday night we saw an epic encounter between the Gunners and the Champions Manchester City where Arsene Wenger’s men showed class and determination to stun their long time tormentors. This game was also a spectacle in a way because we saw Arsene Wenger dig deep and use tactics that he hasn’t used before. There was no “right” and “wrong” way in Arsene Wenger’s mind as a “feeble” Arsenal defence managed to keep a clean sheet in one of the most daunting grounds in the world, let alone in the country.
Arsenal’s back four is usually looked down upon as something that is too leaky and not worthy of the huge club name that Arsenal boasts off. After every loss or a disappointing result, there are fans lambasting the likes of Per Mertesacker or Nacho Monreal or ruing about the lack of depth etc and there are talks of lacking a defensive minded midfielder etc. and how Wenger has been stubborn to implement any defensive changes to his squad and improvise in the transfer window. But then no team is perfect and every player has his flaws. There is the Crystal Palace team last season which dug deep to get results and played on the break to stop some top teams from scoring and even scored plenty against teams that left spaces at the back (see Liverpool), so there is no real reason why a team cannot adopt a pure counter attacking style when they are certainly capable of it, at least for some crucial games.
The Chelsea Model of Defending: 2013 to The Arrival of Nemanja Matic
Well, only since the arrival of Matic have Chelsea really been dominant and not so much of a counter attacking team, but before that, Chelsea had gone into a nutshell trying to score goals off strikers. Fernando Torres was just not getting into his rhythm with injuries and Samuel Eto’o was far from clinical despite being mobile. Demba Ba was not seen as a quality flair player by Mourinho and there was only one real outlet of goals in Eden Hazard. Now we can compare that Chelsea team to the one Arsenal currently have.
Definitely Giroud has been a much better fit for Arsenal than Chelsea’s strikers of last season, probably Samuel Eto’o being the closest competitor to Giroud in terms of being the first choice for respective clubs. Then we have Lampard and Ramires in defensive midfield, who are not world class in that position and are more offensively talented than in defence. Bringing in David Luiz in defensive midfield is exactly what Arsene Wenger also did with Calum Chambers (had it not been for injuries to other main defenders, Chambers would have found himself playing that role more often). The central defenders are similar in style- Terry and Mertesacker being the slower, yet leaders at the back while Cahill and Koscielny making the defense a bit more mobile. We must notice that Arsenal were pretty good defensively last season until they played the big away games and leaked in goals after goals.
Arsenal yesterday drew comparison to Chelsea’s game against City in September, where Chelsea were compact and played on the counter. Arsenal don’t have to play on the counter against the midtable and the bottom clubs, but when they meet sides of better attacking quality than they have got, in the AWAY games, then they have to adopt the counter attack strategy to take the best out of their squad.
We know the central defenders aren’t the fastest on the pitch, so the best alternative in away games is to instruct the fullbacks to stay back and help, thus maintaining a strong and compact back four that is tough to bypass. That is just the basic. Arsenal at home can play any style they like, as they are formidable in the Emirates Stadium, but away from home against City, Chelsea and others, the more the back four remain in a straight line together, the better.
How did Chelsea play without their key man Nemanja Matic? – Well, what’s all the fuss about work rate and dropping Mata, eh? It was a key decision to include Oscar instead of Mata on a more regular basis. Mata’s hunger for the game is not as good as that of Oscar or as we saw Cazorla’s on Sunday night. It is to be noted that Mesut Ozil is similar to Mata in terms of his work rate, but he has great experience of playing in counter attacking teams like Real Madrid and Germany. In fact his game is a bit better in direct system. But Cazorla was perfect as he pressed and ran box to box, just like Oscar did last season when Chelsea’s main weapon was counter attack. Chelsea have Hazard, Arsenal have Sanchez.
Chelsea have Willian, Arsenal have Chamberlain or Walcott. Chelsea have Ramires, Arsenal have Ramsey. Arsenal also have an in-form Coquelin who seems to like the slightly defensive approach of the team. If a Chelsea team with a lot of similarities play the counter attack style regularly time and again in those tough away games and finish in the top 4 and get till the semi finals of the Champions League, Arsenal can do that regularly and protect their back four and get wins. Their style of play in their home games, just like Chelsea’s in their home games would make sure that they’ll be in the top four for the season and compete in the Champions League as well.
And then it would just take a calm and dominating defensive midfielder for Arsenal to get back to title contending ways.