So… Your favorite football club forgot how to defend. Premier League Saturday #2 came to a close with Chelsea defeating Arsenal by 3 goals to 2, in a thriller at Stamford Bridge. The Blues took an early 2-goal lead through Pedro and Alvaro Morata (Shocking!), but Arsenal roared back, erased the deficit and the match went into halftime tied 2–2. The game remained deadlocked until the 81st minute when Marcos Alonso made a surging run forward to net the winner through Petr Cech’s legs.
Its been forever since the last time Chelsea Football club was synonymous with fluid, attacking football. It was probably the 2009–10 season and Carlo Ancelotti was at the helm. Chelsea won the league and scored 103 goals in the process. Today, we seemed to channel that energy, as the team played sublime attacking football for most of the game, especially in the first half. Our midfield dominated. The passing and Industry of Jorginho was unmatched while Ross Barkley and Kante’s forward runs from midfield caused problems in the final third. Jorginho was superb. His metronomic passing and movement controlled Chelsea’s attack and dictated play beautifully. He was everywhere and always available for a pass. It was this brilliance that led to the first Chelsea goal.
In the 9th minute, Willian cut inside dragging Hector Bellerin out of position. He then found a wide open Jorginho, who in turn hit a perfect pass into the path of Marcos Alonso, who had made a great run behind Henrikh Mkhitaryan into the space Bellerin vacated. Alonso was able to find Pedro in the middle of the box who finished a great move to make the game 1–0 to Chelsea.
This kind of play was the story of the game for Chelsea. Unai Emery’s decision to play with a high line was blasted to smithereens as the diagonal ball over the top of the defense was a constant threat. We continually exploited defensive mistakes that Arsenal made, and an effective team press forced opposition players into uncomfortable situations that led to turnovers. Pedro was also brilliant as he continues to play the “Callejon Role” in this version of Sarri-ball. His direct running and pace caused numerous issues for Nacho Monreal and the Gunners’ back line. This along with Alvaro Morata’s off-ball movement and timing, made for an effective attack and was essential in the buildup of our second goal.
10 minutes after the opening goal, Arsenal had a golden opportunity to level the match. Instead, Aubameyang skied the chance. On the ensuing goal kick, the ball made its way to Cesar Azpilicueta on the right flank. Pedro ran back as if to receive the ball and Monreal followed him, opening up space down the wing and leaving Alvaro Morata with one less defender to beat. Morata ran off the shoulder of Mustafi as Azpilicueta plays him in with a ball over the top. Alvaro showed good strength and skill to cut inside of Mustafi and finish at the near post.
Halftime didn’t slow Chelsea down as we searched for a winner. We enjoyed even more possession as Arsenal laid off and attempted to hold on to the 2–2 draw. Chelsea poured it on and continued to ask questions of the Arsenal defense, creating chance after chance. Ross Barkley and Willian had faded from the game after starting well and were substituted after 60 minutes. We improved and the interplay between Eden, Kovacic and Jorginho started to open holes in the Arsenal midfield, allowing Hazard to operate in the half-spaces and wreak havoc. The breakthrough came after 80 minutes.
A poor Alexandre Lacazette backward pass to Lucas Torreira was intercepted by Hazard and he received the ball in his favorite spot on the left flank. He easily glided past Lacazette who had come out to defend him, and got to the touchline where a perfect cross found the foot of Marcos Alonso who calmly nutmegged Petr Cech for the winning goal.
This performance was something that Chelsea fans have not become accustomed to seeing over the last few years. Being positive and seeking out the winning goal at home is an encouraging sign. There were many watches last season where we would score and immediately back off, allowing the other team to grow into the game and eventually draw or win. It’s a welcome sign and hopefully, we’re seeing just the tip of the iceberg of what this Chelsea team can do.
Just the first half of this match felt like a full 90 minutes. To a neutral, it was incredibly entertaining, but as a fan, I’m sure I shaved 4 years off my life just from the range of emotions I experienced from watching. Chelsea attacked extremely well, which is something I can’t say we’ve done in months probably. But our defensive woes continued, and if not for some bad juju on Arsenal, we easily could have lost this match 5–3.
Yes, in sports you cannot debate hypotheticals, but it’s important to bear in mind the issues so that the total performance can improve and those problems don’t persist. I feel like I’ve watched Chelsea concede different variations of the same goal for years now and it was no different in this match. Closing down the ball in the areas just outside the corners of the box, and cutting off crosses from wide areas just seems to be something that our players have a mental block on.
“Defending from the front” is a staple of Sarri-ball and Chelsea did it well for most of the game. Our pressing was a thorn in Arsenal’s side as they tried to play out from the back and most of the time it led to turnovers in possession. But when Arsenal were able to get through our press, they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted offensively. There were warning signs even before we opened the scoring.
Here, Arsenal work the ball through midfield well to Alex Iwobi. He finds the overlapping run of Monreal who carries the ball to the touchline and crosses to Mesut Özil who was running free in the box. This was a result of our pressing. Kante was caught too far upfield and was unable to track the run of Özil. Ross Barkley is in no-mans land and none of our defenders turn to see Özil. It was fortunate that his volley attempt went wide.
It was more of the same as crosses and cutbacks started to create chances for Arsenal. It was a bit of luck for us that Arsenal didn’t tie the match sooner as Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan bottled chances.
This was Arsenal’s first clear cut chance which came from some poor defending. Guendouzi collects the ball behind the midfield line and runs forward unmarked. Ross Barkley takes too long to close him down and in that time Hector Bellerin makes a forward run off the shoulder of Marcos Alonso. Both Alonso and David Luiz are caught ball-watching and don’t see the run until it’s too late. Bellerin gets behind the defense and cuts the ball back to Aubameyang who had made a secondary run into the box and was wide open from about 7 yards.
By some miracle, the shot flies over the goal and the chance goes begging. It was this kind of defending that resulted in Arsenal’s second goal as well.
Arsenal recycle possession and Bellerin cuts inside dragging Marcos Alonso out of position. Mkhitaryan simply moves into the space and this time it’s Jorginho who is caught in no-mans land and is too late to close down the ball. Alex Iwobi loses Azpilicueta with a run to middle of the box from the back post. Once again, our defense is ball-watching and Kante is unable to pick up Iwobi as he smashes home from 6 yards.
Sarri-ball has arrived at Stamford Bridge. With it, the promise of quality football. It’s been far from perfect and there’s a LOT we have to work on as a team. Nevertheless, we’re just midway through August and #ItsStillEarly. The most important thing right now is collecting 3 points. Good thing we still know how to do that.