Arsenal – Chelsea: Arteta’s Young Guns Provide the Boxing Day Punches (3-1)

Boxing Day brought a much-needed win for Mikel Arteta. Not only does it buy him time, but the convincing way his Arsenal side dispatched their unflattering London rivals provides a blueprint for the future. His team showcased a functional system, combinations, and a balanced framework in an entertaining affair. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.

Throughout the Premier League years, Arsenal versus Chelsea always promised a high-quality tactical affair. Mikel Arteta and Frank Lampard have played plenty of these games, but as both teams attempt to replicate former glories, this London Derby does not always promise the high level game one would expect, at least on a consistent basis.

Arsenal’s diabolical form did not promise much. Having won just two wins since the start of October, prior to this game they sat in fifteenth place. Arsenal currently find themselves in a carousel of problems on and off the pitch and desperately needed a morale-boosting three points.

Meanwhile, Chelsea are in a much better place, but the progression they have made is up for debate, just with a much bigger wage bill. Frank Lampard seems set on the 4-3-3 formation to build his team around, but still faces big issues when trying to play through a compactly organized defensive opponent. Nonetheless, they are a lot more organized defensively themselves, whilst having the assets to destroy teams when they catch their opponents out of shape. 

Arteta made six changes compared to the team that lost to Everton. This included Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe starting in the forward positions, two youngsters who could provide more exciting movements in the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. in comparison to other personnel. Lampard made two changes following their 3-0 win over West Ham, with Reece James and Mateo Kovačić in for César Azpilicueta and Jorginho.

Arsenal’s organized defending

Arsenal showed promise from the start, with a number of attacks down the left enabling them to enter some decent crossing positions. After these moments, Chelsea began to take control of the possession, but their limitations made their attack more bootless than productive.

When building up from goal kicks, Arsenal set themselves up in a high 4-2-3-1 formation, which marked the space between receivers before pressing the player in possession. Though not directly creating turnovers, it was effective at funneling Chelsea’s buildup down one channel. The only way they could properly progress the ball forwards would be from a long ball into James’ path, unoccupied as Martinelli would often mark the space between center-back and right back. 

Chelsea’s 4-3-3 buildup structure fails to progress through Arsenal’s 4-4-1-1 defensive formation. 

Once Chelsea moved into the middle third, Arsenal transitioned into a 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2 medium-to-low-block. A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half.  This system matched their opponent’s midfield shape effectively, and was organized in a space-orientated manner: Arsenal covered the zones that Chelsea aimed to drop into. They were rarely pulled out of position and were effective at covering space for each other when one would press.

As a result, Chelsea would fall into some well-known tactical problems.Lampard’s 4-3-3 structure is very basic, Mason Mount or Mateo Kovačić dropping next N’Golo Kanté is the only movement that changes their shape or offers any form of dynamism in midfield. 

With very limited rotations or changes of direction to create space for others, Lampard’s team failed to build combinations to access good areas of the pitch. They were forced down the channels, incapable of breaking lines in the center, and once again relied on the craft of their fullbacks to churn out chances. Other than a few chances from distance, Chelsea’s attack was blunt and the shot count was low and the chances of little quality.

Overload right to progress left

When trying to access the final third, Arsenal’s game plan was to enter through the left flank. This could be seen by their goal kicks continuously being aimed towards the right channel, tilting both teams’ shape down that side, for more space to open for Martinelli and Kieran Tierney to target James once play would filter through. 

With new personnel in their 4-2-3-1 set-up, Arsenal were a lot more balanced than what had been seen in recent months; Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe’s central positioning gave their team some genuine midfield occupation. Although passing sequences were limited, due to their opponent’s control, they were able to flow the ball through Chelsea’s counterpress   After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. easily and move possession into the left channel on a consistent basis.

15th minute: Arsenal play through a mistimed counterpress, on the second phase of a transition; with an up-back-and-through, from Kieran Tierney to Pablo Marí, up to Granit Xhaka, then through back to Tierney.

Arsenal had not directly created a top chance up to this point but had threatened from a number of decent passing moves to get the ball down the left, before crossing. This trend would continue after Chelsea failed to deal with the second phase from a corner. Arteta’s team were able to play possession across the field with two passes, from Héctor Bellerín to Granit Xhaka, before finding Tierney with an excellent pass between the winger and fullback. Tierney chopped and changed before being taken down by James, allowing Alexandre Lacazette to convert from the spot ten minutes before the break.

The hosts kept momentum after the first and kept piling on the pressure with long balls from the box, into the same channel where Martinelli and Smith Rowe would operate. Chelsea were pinned back in their half, other than a half chance for Timo Werner before Arsenal added another crucial goal to their tally in the last minute of the first half. This time, an excellent free-kick from Granit Xhaka, swerving past Edouard Mendy and into the top corner from range.

Playing past Chelsea’s counterpress

Lampard made two substitutions at the start of the half, in response to his team’s collapse before the first forty-five had concluded. Jorginho and Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Mateo Kovačić and Timo Werner, although shuffling personnel around, the lack of systematic change failed to make an impact.

Though Chelsea reclaimed control of the ball, they were not able to pin Arsenal back in their half for long periods, due to them forever evading their press in the transition. Movements between players contradicted themselves, one or two would collapse onto the ball, whilst the others would drop back, which resulted in space behind for Arsenal to play into.

Chelsea’s counterpress was passive and inconsistent. Furthermore, Arsenal also had the wall pass combinations to break through the lines of pressure.

This could be seen in Arsenal’s third goal, built from deep and genuinely one of the most well-constructed goals under Arteta’s reign. A number of short verticals in the defensive third baited an unbalanced Chelsea press, with a pass from Rob Holding to Xhaka having taken five Chelsea players out the game. A sharp one-two with Lacazette opened space on the right before the ball was fed back to Saka’s feet. Whether it was a shot or a cross, the ball’s flight over Mendy and off the post of the far corner was appeasing enough, a deserved goal from the hosts.

54th minute: Buildup to Arsenal’s third. Rob Holding’s pass to Granit Xhaka takes out five Chelsea players, into space, due to their opponent’s unbalanced pressing scheme.

Crosses, crosses, and more crosses

Arsenal’s third goal pretty-much wrapped things up by this point, but Frank Lampard took a leaf out of Mikel Arteta’s book when chasing the game, in the form of crosses – and lots of them.

The hosts continued to defend in their 4-4-1-1 medium-to-low-block, which was effective at shutting off central areas and shuttling their opponents out wide. In the phases that Chelsea built, there were very few line breaking passes, and Lampard’s team rarely broke through Arsenal’s midfield line. As a result, the game state did not change much; Chelsea got the ball out the defensive third down to the channel, unable to get the ball out of the channel into the center, so crossed aimlessly towards the box, and repeated.

Lampard’s decision making in his final substitution made this process even weirder. After Olivier Giroud, the Premier League’s ultimate plan-B target man, warmed up with twenty minutes left, Lampard deployed Kai Havertz in the midfield as his final change, to get Chelsea into the same crossing positions even quicker.

Chelsea attempted 27 crosses throughout the second half, mostly through James and Hudson-Odoi down the right flank. Without much alteration, their attack became painfully predictable and all Arteta’s men needed to do was keep their shape.

Fortunately for Chelsea, there was a late cavalry charge, sparked on by a goal with five minutes left. Following a transition, Christian Pulisic was able to dribble through a number of recovering Arsenal players, before passing to Hudson-Odoi in space. Tammy Abraham was able to flick the ball in from a few yards out, subject to VAR review, which only led to a couple of more crosses as Lampard’s team desperately urged for a late comeback. 

With more players getting into the penalty area, this resulted in a few of these crosses having a higher probability of connecting with a Chelsea shirt. They were handed another chance to get back into the game, Mason Mount controlling a low ball into the area, before being bundled over by Pablo Marí inside the box. Jorginho stepped up, only to find Bernd Leno’s gloves.


A mammoth three points for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal. Not only is the win important, but having done it in a convincing manner, ignited by a number of younger players back in the attack, who provided balance and genuine threat. The win buys Arteta crucial time, especially with more comfortable opponents, at least on paper, ahead at the start of the new year.

Chelsea have recruited one of the most loaded squads in Europe, as well as having a crop of exciting products to increase their depth. This defeat definitely falls onto the manager and whether or not he can provide the structure needed to give Chelsea’s self-proclaimed future successes. Lampard may have done exciting things in his first year, but the cohesive plan and framework has dropped massively in a short amount of time. The situation is not dire on the blue half of London, but there are elements that need improvement. 

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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