By Naveen Maliakkal, Footnote Impresario
An Ideal Day for Jose Mourinho
With the Premier League title almost secured, and the fatigue present in the side due to a lack of rotation, it seems likely that Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea will play Sunday’s match with a desire to just not lose. They approached their last fixture, against Manchester United, in a similar fashion. United had 70% possession and only 22% of the game was played in United’s defensive third. While they attempted fifteen shots to Chelsea’s seven, they attempted eight of those shots from outside of the box, and their only two shots on target were from distance. This is the type of football Mourinho enjoys playing, defending in a deep defensive block, and exploiting the space teams concede due to their attacking shape.
Against United, Chelsea looked to exploit their defender’s inability to play the ball up from the back, particularly targeting Chris Smalling. Out of possession, Chelsea would sit in a kind of 4-4-2 with Didier Drobga and Cesc Fabregas looking to deny passing lanes from the center backs into midfield. With Drogba’s age and Fabregas’ fitness/fatigue, it would seem too much to ask of the duo to take part in a pressing game, which may have been necessary if United had center backs with an ability to play more like midfielders in possession, allowing them to competently advance with the ball. But with United playing one midfielder deep, in Ander Herrera, Fabregas and Drogba would cede United a numerical superiority at the back to obtain a numerical superiority in the area around Herrera. With the lack of comfort the two Manchester United center backs have playing in wide areas, the option of dropping Herrera into the back line, spreading the players out to create more passing angles behind Chelsea’s front two, and creating a more effective numerical superiority, was not in play. This meant that Chelsea could deny passing lanes into the Spaniard, forcing Manchester United into wide areas.
With Antonio Valencia at RB, United did not pose of a threat to Chelsea’s left side. This led to United’s attack having a significant left-sided bias, with 41% of their attacks coming from that flank (as per, Whoscored.com), as Luke Shaw represented a superior option to Valencia in building attacks from deeper positions.
When United want to attack through the center, but find it difficult to break their opponent’s lines, they usually look to use Fellaini’s size and brutishness to win aerial duels, allowing them to advance the play. With Nemanja Matic looking quite fatigued, Chelsea could not rely on him to control as much space as they could earlier in the season. Also, the physical contest of going up against Fellaini could have exhausted Matic. With Chelsea lacking the proper depth to replace what he does, especially in possession, it could make their limited opportunities to counter too inept.
Mourinho opted to field Kurt Zouma in midfield as a kind of man-marker against Fellaini. While young, not sophisticated in his understanding of the game, and lacking the technical ability to solve the problems that come with defending in midfield, Zouma’s impressive athleticism made him a fine candidate to mark the Belgian out of the game. Fellaini’s only recourse was to drift into wide areas, which did leave Chelsea vulnerable, as Zouma could get dragged out of the center, forcing a fatigued Matic to control too much space. This proved particularly effective when Fellaini drifted towards United’s left.
Overall, Chelsea had no problem with United’s center backs passing the ball back and forth between themselves or building down the flanks. The former involved Manchester United failing to move the ball into dangerous areas. The latter played right into Chelsea’s center backs strengths. While John Terry and Gary Cahill are rather incompetent defending in a high line, the simpler task, on both the mind and the legs, of defending in their box, comes naturally to them. Having to pay attention to 180 degrees of space rather than 360 degrees of space, combined with their size, made them more than able to win aerial duels and make clearances on balls played in from wide areas.
Arsenal’s Potential Problems in Possession
Arsenal have a similar problem to Man U with their ability to play a possession-based game against Chelsea . With Gabriel replacing Per Mertesacker, Arsenal have replaced one of the best line-breaking passers at center back, with a player who lacks any identifiable quality on the ball, at this point in his career.
Arsene Wenger desires a more vertical passing game from the back. This way, Arsenal can break a defensive line, and then break another, before the opposition can retreat and get men behind the ball. Arteta represents Arsenal’s best option at holding midfielder, if they want to build from the back, especially in the Wenger manner. His movement and positioning can work to make him an option for the center backs, but, more importantly, it works to create passing lanes into more advanced midfield areas.
For any the talk of the downgrade from Arteta to Coquelin in terms of what they do on the ball, it is this lack of quality out of possession, when the team has possession, that represents the biggest drop-off in quality that Arsenal experience with Coquelin on the pitch instead of Arteta. Coquelin often looks lost when his teammates have the ball. He does not understand how to free himself up to consistently provide an option for his teammates, nor does he show an understanding of how to create those vertical passing lanes for his center backs.
(Examples of the forthcoming passage from Reading v. Arsenal)
Debuchy passes to Cazorla, Cazorla turns inside. Coquelin is watching the ball, like a hawk!
Cazorla turns upfield and passes to Ozil:
Ozil is in double coverage but he beats both men with his touch:
And immediately turns up field to find Welbeck:
Reading are forced to foul Welbz — look at the space in front of him and the positioning of Alexis, this is a goal-scoring chance snuffed out by a foul:
This became quite problematic for Arsenal against Reading, in the semi-final of the FA Cup. In the beginning of the match, one can see Coquelin watching the ball, but not playing a role in Arsenal’s control of space in possession. He is not wont to drop into the back line to create a situational back three, allowing Arsenal to spread out at the back, giving them more passing angles to bypass Reading’s front two. He is not a threat to receive the ball, execute a proper turn, and either move forward or immediately play the ball to another teammate in an advanced position. This forces Santi Cazorla to move wide into the build-up, which does create space for Mesut Ozil to drop into, so to receive the ball however, it reduces the number of options in more advanced areas. Ultimately, Arsenal could not control central areas of the pitch well enough, forcing them wide, hoping to move the ball into the interior, forcing Ozil drop deep, or calling for Koscielny to hit speculative long balls. Fortunately for Arsenal, Reading are not Atletico Madrid, defending more like an English side than a proper defensive side, and Mesut Ozil is a phenomenally intelligent footballer, meaning that the lack of verticality in this type of build-up, allowing Reading to get men behind the ball, did not prove too problematic, as long as Arsenal reduced the verticality in their build-up.
A more worrying example came in the second half, after Mertesacker left with an injury. In this passage, Arsenal are trying to build an attack from the back, while maintaining a more Wenger-like level of verticality in midfield. Again Coquelin shows his ability to watch the play unfold, but not much else. The result is a passage of U-shaped passing, a common sign of an a team’s inability to control the center of the pitch in possession, with the ball moving from fullback, to center back, to center back, to full back, and back again.
While Arsenal could get away with this with a ball-carrier at fullback, like Hector Bellerin, having Mathieu Debuchy and Kieran Gibbs at fullback meant that Arsenal had problems advancing the ball down the flanks. Even Bayern Munich, a team that dominates wide areas and half-spaces better than any side in the world, rely on the likes of Juan Bernat and Rafinha to push the ball forward, commit defenders, and either beat them or exploit the space the committing defender concedes with the right pass. The passage of play ends with Debuchy losing the ball. Reading create a chance on a counter attack led by Pavel Pogrebynak and Jamie Mackie playing the same role, in the counter, that Eden Hazard will on Sunday.
If Arsenal do persist with a kind of 2-4-4 build-up, with two central midfielders and the two fullbacks spread out in front of the two center backs, then Arsenal will have to rely on Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil’s close control to work in tight spaces, beat defenders, and open things up so Arsenal can advance the ball through the center. While Kurt Zouma is not the right type of player to use in a man-marking scheme against Cazorla, as Cazorla challenges a defenders’ quickness and sophistication of thought rather than their physical ability, Mourinho could opt to take Cazorla out of the game with a man marker (he likes to use Oscar for this, Tim). And unless Hector Bellerin plays, having the full backs carry the ball forward seems like a recipe for disaster, as Chelsea can use the sideline as an extra defender, isolate the fullback, win it back, and sprint towards Arsenal’s goal.
Compactness in Possession: Reject the “English” Desire for Expansive Shapes
While the commentators for the FA Cup semi-final talked about Arsenal needing width and Walcott being the man to provide it, it was less Walcott coming on and more Coquelin coming off that improved Arsenal’s possession. By having Aaron Ramsey in that deeper midfield role, Arsenal had a player with the intelligence off the ball and the ability on the ball to allow for greater control of the center of the pitch. With Theo Walcott on the pitch, who struggles to provide value in the build-up play against a deep defending side, it became crucial that Arsenal could control the center of the pitch better, due to the substitution reducing their effectiveness in one of the wide areas.
This greater potential for control manifested itself almost immediately after the substitution. With Ramsey in the deepest midfield role, Arsenal had someone who defenders have to worry about. This allowed the fullbacks to tuck inside, keeping the line compact, as they did not have to space themselves out as much to find free space, which gave Arsenal three men close enough together to exert a numerical advantage over Reading’s defensive front. With the line of three able to play into the next line, both Ozil and Cazorla stayed higher up the pitch, staggering themselves so to not be directly in front of their teammates. One could classify this more as a 2-3-2-3 kind of build-up. This allowed Arsenal to comfortably work the ball down the left, with Ramsey giving Arsenal a numerical advantage, ultimately leading to a shot on goal from the Welshman.
(Here is Ramsey taking the ball forward for a shot from the holding midfield role – note that Cazorla’s on the right, Ozil’s on the left, as Naveen points out, they get to go forward more where they are more effective. On a side note, if you look in the upper right corner, like “Where’s Waldo?” you’ll see Gibbs, hiding behind the defenders, in a great position to get caught out on a counter attack. -Tim)
So, while there are obvious costs of not playing with Coquelin, particularly apparent when Arsenal lose the ball, the gains in possession from having someone who has even the smallest idea of what to do, both on and off the ball, (or in Ramsey’s case plenty of ideas on what to do) are immense. Not only did having Ramsey in that role help Arsenal control central areas but, their ability to maintain a more narrow shape played a positive role as well.
By keeping a narrow shape in possession, the ball can change direction more quickly, making it harder for the defensive unit to ideally solve resource allocation problems, and it allows for a better ability to gain control of important spaces and exploit important spaces at the right moment in time. This is why sides that play a narrow shape in possession require intelligence and technically gifted players who can work in tight spaces, along with identifying and exploiting transient opportunities to control more desirable areas of the pitch.
Maybe most importantly, a narrow shape in possession facilitates counter-pressing and better control of space by the unit, if possession is lost. Counter-pressing may also help Arsenal score goals against a stubborn Chelsea.
To score goals, a team needs to bait the opposition out of position, so to gain control/exploit the spaces they want. Some teams do it with possession. Some teams do it by giving their opponent control of possession and waiting for their opponent to get into a poor defensive shape. With counter-pressing, a team combines both approaches.
First, the attacking team uses their possession to advance the ball into a space that serves a purpose in possession, but also allows for effective counter-pressing. If the attacking team loses possession, the opponent potentially moves into a bad defensive shape, as they try to execute an attacking transition. The counter-press then wins the ball back, and with the opposition defense out of shape, the side that started with the ball now has a greater ability to exploit/control space than they did when the passage of possession happened.
With long balls to Giroud having lowered effectiveness against the likes of Terry and Cahill, counter-pressing could prove Arsenal’s best way of breaking down Chelsea’s defense, as their attempt to start an attacking transition leaves them ill-suited to control space, if they lose the ball. Therefore, as was observed against Manchester City, Liverpool, and Manchester United this season, Arsenal may need to show proficiency in an aspect of football they have rarely showcased under Arsene Wenger, if they wish to earn all three points.
 It seems like the Chelsea strategy for winning the EPL was fly and die, where they hoped to build a large enough lead at the start to not have to worry about the title during the final quarter-season, when the physical attrition would manifest
 Against teams that understand positional play with respect to controlling space with possession and controlling space in the event of a loss of possession, defending in a deep block can lead to a side being pinned into their penalty box, hoping for luck, an insane ability to block shots, an immense goalkeeping performance, to obtain a desirable result. See Chelsea’s entire 2012 Champions League run in which all three of those factors were in play, in that order of importance
Unless Arsenal plan on getting a 0-0, they will be forced into a possession based game. If they score though, it could prove problematic for a Chelsea side whose XI could be ill-suited to controlling space with possession.
One can see how important it is to build a side of eleven players who understand what to do with the ball at their feet and when they do not have the ball at their feet to allow a team to control space in possession.