We gravitate towards simple explanations, so the reason Chelsea lost 2-0 away to Arsenal at the Emirates is simple: Maurizio Sarri played his two best players (N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard) out of position. Easy, right?
Wrong. For a start, Chelsea had no divine right to win at the Emirates, not when they were one place ahead of them in the table. Not when they’d actually beaten them just once in their seven previous encounters, and not when they hadn’t played particularly well since long before the holidays.
Beyond that, Unai Emery won the tactical battle, lining up in a diamond with Aaron Ramsey deputized to harass Jorginho and the front two going wide to pin back the full-backs. And once they were 2-0 up, Arsenal focused on managing the game, intelligently ceding possession of the sterile kind in areas where they couldn’t be hurt.
The victory doesn’t paper over the club’s issues — Mesut Ozil is still on the bench, Sven Mislintat is still leaving, Emery is still saying he can only make loan signings in January — but it’s wins like this that help build belief in Emery. And as any manager will tell you, the more buy-in he gets from his players, the better equipped he is to affect things positively.
Whatever happens, this will be a transition season for the Gunners. Arsenal losing their chief executive and head of recruitment in the space of a few months, with a new manager to boot and the hangover of some big contracts, Ramsey packing his bags after a decade at the club: all of this matters. What Arsenal fans need to remember, I think, is that this is a process. And if/when Emery finally gets the side he wants, it may look a whole lot different than the one he currently has.
As for Sarri, he was evidently out-coached. We’ll get to his post-match comments below but the notion that Jorginho getting pressed causes such disruption and havoc is overplayed. You don’t need to be some kind of super-scout to realize so much of the play goes through him and that if you park someone on his backside, it’s harder for him to do his job.
But it’s not the first time opponents have keyed in on him, dating back to his time at Napoli. And that’s when you need to deal with it in different ways, like moving him wide to drag his marker with him, getting one of your ball-playing center-backs to step into midfield (at Napoli it was Raul Albiol) or one of your wingers to drop. There are ways to deal with it but against Arsenal, whatever he tried did not work.
Whatever it is, as I’ve written before, those who simply urge Sarri to flip Jorginho’s and Kante’s positions don’t seem to understand how he plays.
Put Kante in front of the back four, and you have a guy in a playmaker role without the skills to do it. Put Jorginho in Kante’s role, and you’re asking a guy to go and press high and run around who evidently doesn’t have the athleticism to do it. The only way it works is if you change the game plan entirely and move away from Sarri’s style of football; if you’re going to do that, though, you might as well appoint a different manager.
Some coaches are pragmatists, others are system managers and everyone else falls somewhere on that continuum. Sarri is a system guy; that’s what got him the job at Chelsea. If you are not satisfied with the way he plays, you’re better off changing managers than asking him to change his system.
The other point concerns Hazard deployed in the center-forward role. Alvaro Morata is out the door and Olivier Giroud hasn’t played 90 minutes of Premier League football since mid-September. You need another solution up front and since it worked with a small, tricky Belgian winger at Napoli — Dries Mertens was drafted in from the wing to play center-forward and scored 56 goals in two seasons — he figured it would work with another small, tricky Belgian winger.
Except it doesn’t. Hazard may be a better footballer than Mertens, but his movements are all different. Mertens stayed in the penalty area and only drifted to create space for teammates. Hazard goes wide and drops deep to build play, leaving a hole in the middle. Time and again we saw it. It might be something that works if you have a full pre-season to test it, but Chelsea doesn’t have that luxury.
While they wait for Higuain to rock up, a better solution might be Pedro through the middle.