The Curse of Chelsea: Why do Arsenal continue to struggle?
Written by Ben on October 4, 2010 11:15
Chelsea 2, Arsenal 0. A casual follower of the Premier League could be forgiven for dismissing Sunday’s result as just another Arsenal defeat in a long line of losses against the top teams in the league. Same old Arsenal: playing pretty possession football, losing key physical challenges, displaying defensive naivety and ultimately tasting bitter defeat.
Most people who watched last night’s game, however, will agree that Arsenal acquitted themselves fairly well against the Blues. Not only did the Gunners control possession, they also fashioned a succession of decent chances and rarely looked under pressure. They were committed, energetic and definitely “up for it”. As the Match of the Day crew agreed, they were by far the “better side”. Yet they still lost.
In light of this, a number of questions can be asked: why do the Gunners lose so often against the top teams? Was this performance any different to the status quo? What does this mean for the title challenge? I will focus on answering the first two of these questions.
Arsenal against United and Chelsea
Since the Invincibles era, Arsenal have performed abysmally against Chelsea and Manchester United. In all competitions, their combined record against these clubs reads:
Played: 17 (17) = 34
Wins: 2 (3) = 5
Draws: 5 (4) = 9
Losses: 10 (10) = 20*
* Results against Manchester United are in parentheses.
That there is a problem against these sides is beyond dispute. Why do the Gunners consistently struggle?
Mentality, creativity and physicality?
Do Arsenal simply play badly against these sides? I don’t think so. Arsenal will almost always have more possession in games against Chelsea or United- even when playing away- and they are often the “better side” as well. By this I mean that they create more half-chances, control the game and stretch their opponents more regularly. They are almost always “up for the game” and complacency is never a problem against the bigger sides. It seems that Arsenal usually do play well, or at least fairly well, but that this performance almost never translates into a good result.
Do Arsenal fail to create chances against the big clubs? While it is true that there aren’t many clear-cut chances created, the Gunners do create a lot of decent opportunities to score. Since the 2006-07 season, games against Chelsea and United have seen the Gunners take an average of 15.5 shots per match. Their opponents average was just less than 15. While this does not account for the quality of chances created, it does pour cold water over the idea that Arsenal can’t create scoring opportunities against the big boys.
Another common argument is that the Gunners are simply overpowered- they are bettered in the physical exchanges and struggle to get a foothold in the game. This has been true on occasion. Last year’s game at Stamford Bridge really did look like men against boys, and the Champions League semi-final against United in 2008-09 was similar. Then of course there is Didier Drogba, who has plagued the nightmares of every Arsenal centre half since he arrived at Stamford Bridge in 2004 on his way to scoring a ridiculous 13 goals in 12 games against the Gunners.
However, I am not sure that this is as consistently decisive as the media make it out to be. Using tackle success rate as a proxy for how well each side is doing in the physical exchanges, I looked at EPL games between Arsenal, United and Chelsea over the past three and a bit seasons. The Guardian’s chalkboard confirms that in fact Arsenal’s success rate of 62% is slightly higher than the 58% of United/Chelsea. Of course, this is not a perfect indicator of how the teams are competing physically. At the same time, I do think it demonstrates that the physical difference between the teams is less clear-cut than people make out.
Finishing and defence?
So where is the game won and lost? One point should be apparent from the shooting statistics: Arsenal players take more shots but score less goals. This means their finishing is relatively poorer than both Chelsea and United. While it is always going to be difficult to beat Van der Sar or Cech, the players have to be more clinical in front of goal if they are going to win these kinds of games. Sunday’s game saw Chamakh miss two gilt-edged opportunities, Nasri one and Koscielny head over from two yards out. While Anelka missed an open goal, Chelsea were far more efficient in putting the ball away.
The flip side of this is that Arsenal concede too many goals. Individual mistakes have plagued the side, but especially against Chelsea and United. I think most of us would have to admit that- especially compared to Chelsea and United- the Arsenal defenders and goalkeepers have made more mistakes, more often. While Sagna is exceptionally consistent, Clichy, Almunia, Fabianski. Gibbs, Vermaelen, Squillaci and pretty much every Arsenal defender over the past five years (think Senderos) has made costly errors in top-of-the-table clashes. By way of contrast, Van der Sar, Evra, Vidic, Cech, Ivanovic, Bosingwa, Terry, Alex and Cole are far less error-prone.
Perhaps more worryingly, there seem to be chronic problems in the Gunners’ defensive systems. Both Chelsea and United play Arsenal in the same way- sitting back, getting men behind the ball and breaking quickly and decisively. This tactic is very successful because Arsenal will generally have 7 players forward when they are in position, with the centre halves and one of the fullbacks staying back on the halfway line. That means that there can be 18 players within 30 yards of the opposition goal. This gets extremely congested, and it’s very difficult to get a clear-cut chance with so many bodies in such a small space. If the ball breaks to a Chelsea player, then the counterattack is on and there is 70 yards of space for them to move into.
An example may be useful. On Sunday a cross into the Chelsea box was headed semi-clear. Malouda got a foot to it and suddenly there was thirty yards of space between him and the three Arsenal players camped on half way. He broke forward and thirty seconds later Ashley Cole had slotted the ball in from a marginally offside position. This is not an uncommon occurrence; the amount of space Arsenal leave between their defenders when on attack leaves them prone to a sucker punch. Because both Chelsea and United have compact, strong defences and attacking players with a lot of pace, they will be comfortable sitting back and waiting for the opportunity to hit on the break. Arsenal’s brittle defensive systems mean that they will invariably get a few good opportunities throughout the game.
As such, it seems then that Arsenal are profligate in front of goal, have a strong propensity for defensive mistakes and a fragile defensive system. In light of these problems, an Arsenal win against United or Chelsea requires at least three things to occur within the same match:
a.) Arsenal must play well
b.) the opposition must not play well, or at least not to take most of their chances, and
c.) Arsenal gets a bit of luck
It is pretty unlikely that all these things occur, which might explain why they only win 15% of these games.
As I mentioned before, the Gunners were probably the ‘better side’ on Sunday. They played well, and no supporter would question their commitment, effort or desire to win the game. They also managed to hold their own physically: Clichy was knocked out of the way by Drogba once, but Wilshere battled tenaciously, Koscielny held his own for the most part and Chamakh was a real nuisance upfront. Alex and Terry certainly had their hands full with crosses into the box. The team created a number of very good opportunities, as well as a couple of decent ones, so we can’t accuse them of playing ineffective passing football.
However, the same old problems raised their head. Poor finishing: of 16 shots taken, only 4 were on target. In particular, Koscielny, Chamakh (twice) and Nasri had guilt-edged chances and should have at least worked Cech in the Chelsea goal. Defensively, they were carved up time and again by simple balls over the top, and by quick breaks after losing possession in the attacking third. Despite Arsenal being saved by two or three marginal offside calls, Chelsea always looked dangerous on the break.
Individual defensive errors were also prominent. Apart from being caught in possession and allowing Anelka a free run on goal, Squillaci was also at fault for the first goal- you should never pass the ball back to an opponent to take a quick free kick in that position. Poor, poor, poor. From there, Ramires and then Cole played two lovely passes and Drogba pirouetted to score an outstanding goal. The free kick for the second goal came from Nasri giving the ball away in a very dangerous area, forcing Koscielny to foul Anelka. Again, schoolboy stuff. The wall for the free kick was also inadequate- did anyone actually expect Malouda to stay in there for the free kick? Great players will punish you for those mistakes, and the finishes from Drogba and Alex were truly sublime.
Arsenal’s problem on Sunday- as it has been for a while in these games- was making more defensive mistakes than their opponents and being punished for them, while not taking advantage of the opportunities they did create.
I began by saying that Sunday’s result was not a fair reflection on the Arsenal performance. In some ways, it wasn’t- they were incisive, creative and contributed to a pulsating match of football. But in another, more important way, a 2-0 defeat was exactly the result the team deserved. Despite the performance, this really was a case of “same old Arsenal”. The Gunners may have played well, but against the big teams playing well isn’t enough to win. You have to play smart as well, and that’s something that Arsene’s Arsenal has patently failed to do for the last five years against Chelsea and United.
Wenger is fond of speaking about “efficiency” in his squad, but they fail again and again to be efficient in attack or defence. Defensive errors- both individual and systemic- continue to cost the team goals every game, while poor finishing remains a blight on the side. The results against the big teams from the last five years show that even when the Gunners play well, they are still far more likely to lose than win. This is a truly alarming conclusion, and it was confirmed yet again at Stamford Bridge. If the team don’t learn to play smart and be more efficient, then their abysmal record against the top clubs will continue and they can kiss goodbye any lingering hopes of challenging for the title.