1. Selection & Tactics
The Blues made 2 changes from the side which drew the FA Cup Quarter Final earlier in the week; Steven Pienaar came in for the injured Seamus Coleman and Tony Hibbert replaced skipper Phil Neville. The system was the usual 4-4-1-1 with Cahill initially pivoting between midfield and attack in support of Jelavic. The Gunners only significant change was to bring back the talented Aaron Ramsey from injury with the Welshman deployed in an attacking midfield berth from the left drifting inside onto Hibbert’s left foot– something the fullback struggles to cope with. Wenger’s side lined up in more of a 4-2-3-1.
2.Gunners In the groove
The opening 20 minute spell was a complete non starter for the Toffees. Arsenal, clearly coming into the game with great confidence on the back of recent results, were pinging the ball around with some aplomb and repeatedly carving open a back four which had conceded just 1 Goodison goal in its last 9 hours of action. The hallmarks of the recent slayings of the league’s top clubs were not on show with virtually no pressure on the ball and an increasingly deep defensive line standing off and inviting pressure from the Gunners. The below image shows Arteta unmarked in acres of space in the build up to an early chance which the away side spurned.
Despite some really fluid play it was a corner that witnessed the Londoners take the lead as the ever productive Van Persie whipped in a left footed in swinger which was nodded home by the impressive Vermaelen after he wrong footed his marker Fellaini by fainting to run near post and then angled his run centrally. It was a criminal goal to give away by the Blues but in truth given the opportunities they missed we were lucky to still be in the game at the midway point of the first half.
3. Cahill / Fellaini Switch
With Arsenal and especially our old friend Mikel Arteta swelling possession in the centre the Blues continued to toil which led to Moyes swapping Cahill and Fellaini. The big Belgian is our best presser but in the early stages was out manoeuvred as his aggressive darts were being bypassed by quick triangular passing movements by the Gunners. As Moyes did with 30mins to go in the Sunderland game, Fellaini was pushed forward – playing pretty much as a central striker to occupy the Arsenal centre-backs – with Cahill dropping deep.
The bonus this had was twofold; firstly Fellaini (circled) was able to press the Gunners CB’s to stop them playing out from the back to Arteta and secondly it enabled us to get from back to front quicker using his significant height advantage and upper body strength to hold up play. This enabled the Blues to move further up the pitch and push our defensive line up a tad. The tactic now was to play more direct diagonal balls from Howard and Heitinga to the Gunners right side and specifically Sagna in the hope of winning flick ons or second balls. Sagna is decent in the air and won 14 aerials – 4 more than our team put together – but we did collect a lot of the second balls with Sagna dispossessed more times (4) than any other player on the pitch.
The only negative impact of this was that our bypassing of the middle ground with longer passes negated the offering from Leon Osman who was thus on the periphery of things for most of the evening before eventually getting the hook.
4.Gunners Defensive Line
As noted in the preview, both side’s high lines in the early season fixture at the Emirates led to the most offsides (15) in a prem game this season. The Gunners defensive line was such an obvious tactical approach last night that even the auto-pilot corpse that is Alan Hansen on motd would have been able to pick it out….or not! The Gunners caught us offside a whopping 10 times (average per team per game in the prem is 2). Moyes questioned 5/10 of the calls and it’s clear that Drenthe was at least 2 yards onside when he stroked the ball into Szczesny’s net following good work from Cahill. The Blues were now at least asking questions of the previously un-worked visitor’s backline. The high line dynamic continued in the second period and despite a greater intensity from the Blues as the game went on the equalising goal just wouldn’t come.
This was a strange game that we could easily have been 0-3 down in at one stage yet by the close of play we could count ourselves a tad unlucky not to take a point. Credit to Arsenal, their passing and movement in the fist 20mins was something to behold and we couldn’t handle them. Defensively they restricted us to few clear cut opportunities, albeit with some help from the officials on the Drenthe ‘offside’ goal.
With the momentum of the 9 game unbeaten run now compromised the worry is that our season has already peaked as we head to Swansea on Saturday for a very tricky looking fixture. A positive result would be a real boost before heading to the Stadium of Light on Tuesday for a game which will ultimately define the remainder of the season.