LONDON — A fast-paced London derby between Chelsea and Arsenal finished goalless, but the figures with the most long-term significance here were 3-4-3, not 0-0. Two sides organised in an identical manner fought a simple but intriguing tactical battle.
Chelsea famously switched to that formation midway through their 3-0 defeat at Arsenal a year ago and enjoyed such success that Arsene Wenger felt compelled to use it himself, breaking a run of over 1000 games with a four-man defence.
Arsenal’s back three has been exposed in recent weeks — they were ripped apart in a 4-0 defeat at Liverpool and looked somewhat nervous in Thursday’s 3-1 victory over Cologne — but Sunday’s 3-4-3 vs. 3-4-3 battle saw Wenger’s side come out on top in terms of dominance, if not scoreline.
Having outplayed their cross-city rivals in winning the FA Cup final and blunted them in the Community Shield game as well, it feels like Arsenal now know how to play against this Chelsea side, which must worry Conte.
This formation battle, combined with Arsenal’s heavy press, meant every player had a direct opponent. It was, as Wenger said afterwards: “A game of high intensity, with battles all over the pitch.”
Danny Welbeck shut down Cesar Azpilicueta, Alexandre Lacazette was on David Luiz and Alex Iwobi watched Gary Cahill. The two wing-backs, Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac, tracked Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses respectively, while Aaron Ramsey closed down Cesc Fabregas and Granit Xhaka was on N’Golo Kante in midfield.
Meanwhile, at the back, Laurent Koscielny was deployed on the right and marked Pedro, allowing the more physical Shkodran Mustafi to stick tight to Alvaro Morata; Nacho Monreal was left to follow Willian.
And when Arsenal had the ball, the reverse occurred; Chelsea sat deeper and allowed their opponents more time in possession, but it was the same all over the pitch with one-against-ones everywhere, or 3 vs. 3 at either end and 4 vs. 4 in midfield. Outfield players chased around after a specific opponent, then were pursued themselves.
In the opening minutes of the game, players struggled to find time on the ball: There was no free man and nobody was allowed space to look up and pick a pass. The few notable first-half incidents, therefore, came on the rare occasions that players got themselves free.
The first was a curious example and demonstrated the extent of this man-marking system. When an overhit Chelsea pass found its way to Petr Cech, Arsenal’s goalkeeper could have picked up the ball and immediately kicked downfield but, instead, waited with the ball at his feet.
That provoked Morata to come forward and shut him down and, when the Chelsea striker did, Cech picked the ball up and threw it to Mustafi — Morata’s man — who was now unmarked. Arsenal were having to get a numerical advantage wherever they could.
The next minute, Cech uncharacteristically dummied a clearance when Morata shut him down and again fed the unmarked Mustafi. As Chelsea’s players were dragged out of position to compensate, Bellerin got free and whipped in a cross to Welbeck, who headed over.
Bellerin had another good moment shortly afterward, when Ramsey drifted right and away from Kante to overload Chelsea down the right, then played a good ball towards the Spanish right-wing-back, who aimed a pull-back to Lacazette.
But the same was happening in the other direction. When Koscielny was tempted out of position to win a header in the central midfield zone, Pedro found freedom to run in behind. Staying onside, he collected a through- ball from Fabregas and was presented with the game’s best chance. Cech, however, made a fine-one-on-one save.
After a long-range shot from Xhaka flashed narrowly wide, Arsenal’s final and best first-half chance came from one of the game’s only notable dribbles. Ramsey beat Fabregas by simply bundling his way past and also evaded Azpilicueta, before his scrappy shot hit the post and Lacazette couldn’t turn in the rebound.
But this emphasised the key to the game: To get a chance, someone had to get past their direct opponent. Arsenal were the better side in the opening period and such a tactical battle suited them, given the type of four vs. four and six vs. six, small-sided games they play in training.
Chelsea’s training sessions are more about positional discipline and, here, they weren’t able to match Arsenal’s quick passing through the lines. Unsurprisingly, Conte changed things at half-time. Defensive midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko replaced Pedro, with Fabregas moving forward.
Immediately, the tactical battle was altered: Xhaka was attracted to Fabregas’ movements and Kante had more license to close down higher up the pitch, but Arsenal continued to threaten. Welbeck, enjoying a good game on the left, played one marginally overhit ball to Ramsey, then a pass to Kolasinac was met with a poor piece of control from the otherwise excellent wing-back.
The starting line-ups had seen both teams’ best players on the bench. Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez emerged first, going up front in place of Lacazette in what was effectively a straight swap. By contrast, Hazard’s introduction for Willian saw Chelsea’s shape change dramatically.
The hosts were now in a 3-5-1-1, with Hazard finding space between the lines in a No. 10 position and Fabregas, significantly, moving into his third position of the day as a quarterback behind Kante and Bakayoko, essentially the runners who occupied Ramsey and Xhaka.
Fabregas and Hazard had space and, because of Chelsea’s midfield diamond and lack of numbers out wide, so did Kolasinac and Bellerin. The game opened out, the pace remained high and players were trying to get in behind.
Wenger, likely realising Arsenal risked being overrun in the centre as they got closer to a worthy result on a ground where they had not win since 2011, made a cautious substitution, inserting Mohamed Elneny as an extra midfielder and sacrificing Iwobi.
“With more freedom and less inhibition we could have won this game with one or two goal difference,” said Wenger after the game. “But it was important not to lose today and you could see that, in the last 20 minutes, we played with that in our mind.”
And so, though Arsenal might not have won the game, they certainly prevailed in the tactical battle, while Conte’s late switch to 3-5-1-1 points the way for Chelsea in similarly big games.
Before this match, Arsenal club captain Per Mertesacker suggested that his side had sussed out Chelsea’s “habits” in build-up play and knew how to play against them. If Wenger’s Arsenal can manage that, you’d think that two other opponents of the champions this month, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, will be able to do the same.
Conte has helped to revolutionise English football with his 3-4-3 but, to stay ahead of the chasing pack, he needs an alternative.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.