If Arsène Wenger and Arsenal can take a page from Sir Alex Ferguson’s book, the Gunners can replicate last year’s result at Stamford Bridge.
Then – November 30, 2008 – Arsenal got two goals from Robin van Persie, winning 2-1 at Stamford Bridge.
Ahead of Sunday, with van Persie recovering with a long term ankle injury, Arsenal is on the verge of falling out of the title race, and after last Sunday home loss to Manchester United, a replication of last year’s victory may seem unlikely. Without those three points, Arsenal will be six or nine points back, with league-leading Chelsea crossed-off the fixture list.
But while Arsenal finds itself in this position because of its poor showing against United, the Gunners can find hope within that loss.
In the first half of their 3-1 win at the Emirates, United effectively “tilted” the pitch to their right flank. They near-exclusively attacked down Nani’s flank, a tactic that often allowed left wing Park Ji-Sung to play inside Arsenal right back Bacary Sagna.
This deployment helped narrow the midfield, allowing United’s central mid trio of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher to control play while patrolling less ground.
Sagna and other players on United’s left flank (Patrice Evra, Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky) were non-factors in the first half, while Park’s presence was best felt when supporting in the middle or by jumping in to attack from the far, left side.
With this tactic, Ferguson pummeled Arsenal at their weakest point while neutralizing the Gunners’ biggest advantage. The left side of Arsenal’s back line – Gael Clichy and Thomas Vermaelen – were shown unfit, lacking form, or both. With play being funneled to that side of the pitch, United’s three central midfielders were more readily able to congest the middle and inhibit Cesc Fabregas’s effectiveness. Of particular note, the Spaniard was unable to consistently link-up with Andrei Arshavin, who was forced to create chances on his own over the first forty-five.
United went into half time with a 2-0 lead, with one goal coming through their right flank entries. Two more gasp-inducing balls across the six were generated from this advantage.
While Chelsea possesses no weaknesses like last week’s Clichy-Vermaelen deficiency, Arsenal would be well-served to emulate United and tilt the pitch to their right flank. This will allow Arsenal to play away from the left side of their defense and prevent Chelsea left back Ashley Cole from liberally pushing forward.
After last Sunday, the virtues of playing away from the left side of their defense (while Clichy and Vermaelen regain their form) should be clear. So, let’s focus on benefits to keeping Cole pinned back.
Cole getting forward has been one of the keys to Chelsea’s season. His wide play has helped mask the sacrifices Carlo Ancelotti’s made with his narrow midfield, where left-sided midfielder Frank Lampard plays as more of a left-center mid. With Cole’s ability to barrel up the flank, the choice to keep Florent Malouda (and his left wing play) out of the starting XI is more palatable. Just as we saw from José Bosingwa on the right before injury took Cole’s counterpart out of Chelsea’s XI, the width provided by the Blues’ make-shift wing backs is an ever-present danger for an opposing defense.
Against Arsenal, this danger would be manifest when Cole’s advances forcing Sagna wide. If Joe Cole or Frank Lampard fill the vacated space or go near post, William Gallas has to account for him, leaving Thomas Vermaelen isolated at the far post against Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack, or both.
Arsenal can help prevent Ashley Cole’s pushing forward by pinning him back: providing a constant threat on their right – a threat that will force the all-world left back to consider the risks of being caught out. If Theo Walcott got the start on the right or if Andrei Arshavin shaded toward that flank, Cole would have to maintain his defensive positioning.
Additonally, if Fabregas shaded to that flank and tried to keep the attack flowing through that side, there would be a congestion in front of Cole that would prevent him from getting forward. Combined with the threat that Fabregas, Arshavin, Walcott and Sagna would present, the benefits Cole provides Chelsea’s attack could be neutralized.
The down side to going at Cole is in the forms of John Terry and Frank Lampard. John Terry, Chelsea’s all-world left-center half, would be supporting Cole, and the strong defensive play of Frank Lampard will be prominent ahead of the left back’s position.
At first blush, these defensive strengths could offset the benefits of pinning Cole. Couldn’t it be better to work through a middle that is missing Michael Essien? Or a left side that’s the natural flank for Arshavin?
Both options may be better, though overloading and going through the right comes with one additional virtue.
While the Gunners may not be able to work through Cole, Lampard, and Terry directly to goal, they should be able to use their numbers to get to the behind Cole for crosses. As Cole and Terry account for Walcott and Arshavin, Sagna’s overlapping could spring the right back for crossing opportunities.
With Terry stretched to account for the overload, the pressure will be on Petr Cech, Ricardo Carvalho and Branislav Ivanovic to deal with Sagna’s service. Throughout the season, Cech has been suspect in these situations, and while Ivanovic is good in the air, Carvalho is still struggling to return to the form he had prior to last season’s injury problems.
The question is who Arsenal would target with this tactic, given the overload on the right. There are not that many options left to target.
This is why Nicklas Bendtner may be this match’s most important player.
Returning to health, Bendtner has played as substitute’s role in Arsenal’s last two league matches. If he is healthy enough to start at Stamford Bridge, his size will give Arsenal an option to try and isolate against Carvalho. In addition, Bendtner has the skill set to play isolated on the left and – should the Gunners switch play from the overloaded right – give Arsenal another option, isolated against Ivanovic.
If Arsenal can maintain enough possession before sending crosses in from their right, the Gunners could also get Vermaelen forward from his position in central defense, with Alexander Song dropping back to cover while the Belgian improves Arsenal’s target options.
Winning at Stamford Bridge is always difficult, and even if Arsenal were to find a consistent avenue into attack, players like Cole, Terry, Lampard and Ballack will force Arsenal to play one of their best matches if they are to take three points. But if Arsenal takes a hint from the tactic Manchester United employed Sunday – tilting the pitch to their right flank – the Gunners can offset one of the Chelsea’s advantages, keep play away from the weak points in their defense, and improve their chances of staying in the title race.