“This competition is not about the Champions League” – David Luiz
And with that, the tone was set. Sarri and his men marched 2,500 miles across Europe to Baku, Azerbaijan; where they put a woeful Arsenal to the sword. The 4-1 victory saw Chelsea lift the trophy maintaining their unbeaten run, finishing 12-2-0 in the competition. Defeat for the Gunners meant a fourth consecutive European final defeat, a statistic they won’t need reminding of.
In this tactical analysis, we look at how Chelsea turned a tepid first half into a boiling second. We also use tactical analysis to identify opportunities missed by the Gunners, which might have changed their fate.
The Blues lined up in Sarri’s favoured 4-3-3 system. A late fitness test deemed Kanté fit to start on the right of a typical midfield three. The Frenchman’s energy and robustness is key to Chelsea’s progression through the phases, so his inclusion was a real boast for Sarri’s men. Giroud, who on the night took his tally to 11 in the competition, got the nod over Higuaín.
Emery true to form against premiership opposition started with a 5-3-2 shape, using a midfield triangle to accommodate Özil. The wing-backs played an important role in Emery’s system, which required them to be supportive in both the offensive and defensive phases. Veteran Petr Čech started in what would become a difficult final game for the Czech keeper. Noticeable absentee was Mkhitaryan, who sadly didn’t travel with the squad amid safety concerns.
A slow first half
The first half started in a slow, pre-season-like manner, with neither side able to inject any tempo into the match. Both teams were reluctant to unshackle their attacking inhibitions early on as the defensive structures nullified each other’s attacking threat.
|First Half Statistics||Chelsea||Arsenal|
|Aerial Duels Won||8||7|
As you can see above, neither team took the initiative in a cagey first half littered with duels. The organised defensive units of both sides, as we can see below, allowed little space for creative freedom leading to multiple turnovers in possession.
Arsenal’s defensive shape
Arsenal operated a medium block, which was implemented to channel passes into the wide areas, blocking pathways through the middle. The front three did very little in the way of pressing, their defensive duties were positional to obstruct passing lanes directly into the forwards.
As Chelsea advanced the Arsenal wing-backs dropped deeper to make a straight five across the back. This overloaded the half-spaces, which prevented midfield runners going untracked. The midfield triangle with Xhaka and Torreira at the base stayed narrow to funnel Chelsea into the wide areas. Their positioning was key to blocking passing lanes into Kanté and the playmaker, Jorginho. Chelsea eventually attempted the risky pass into the striker which is intercepted by Torreira, who is well positioned to cover.
The narrowness in Arsenal’s shape combined with their lack of appetite to press higher up allowed Chelsea to move comfortably into the wider spaces. Arsenal, however, had constructed a robust shape prepared to win the ball back deeper and burst forward in transition. The high concentration of players in the central zones made fast offensive transitions easier, as quick interchanges were immediately available on repossession of the ball.
Chelsea operated a different strategy to regain possession. Out of possession the Blues opted for a higher energy press, installed higher up the pitch.
Sarri ordered an aggressive man-to-man press, spearheaded by Giroud high up the field. Kanté played in a more aggressive midfield role, pushing up to support the front three in their attempts to pressure the ball.
As a result of Chelsea’s press, Arsenal struggled for options when they attempted to play their preferred short passing game through each phase of the pitch. As you can see above, the Chelsea midfielders have man-marked both of Arsenal’s midfield pivots. The spare man is Maitland-Niles, who could only be found by a long risky switch of play. If the pass is under hit or wayward, Chelsea would recover possession in a dangerous position. Arsenal, therefore, resorted to safer, longer passes into their strikers however these were dominated by Luiz and Christensen.
Once in stable possession, Arsenal had opportunities to play penetrative passes to their wing-backs, who took up threatening positions. These moments often went unseen or were refused for a safer option.
Kolašinac was the player most often in a promising position, but rarely ever used. As you can see above, an early switch of play is on, with a large area to deliver the ball into. Unfortunately, the pass never made it to the marauding Bosnian, who endured a frustrating evening. The attacking wing-back completed one cross, zero dribbles and had one shot at goal, disappointing considering his advanced positioning.
The one occasion Xhaka did manage to pick out his teammate (below) led to a great attacking opportunity. If Arsenal had found this ball earlier and more often, they would certainly have created more goal-scoring chances.
Unfortunately for Arsenal fans, this penetrative passing from holding midfielder to wing-back rarely occurred resulting in Arsenal going in 0-0 at the break.
Chelsea go left
The saying ‘its a game of two halves’ never applied more to Chelsea then it did on Wednesday night. The Blues came out from the interval a different side to the one that laboured through the first 45 minutes. Their attacks were fluid and more focused around Eden Hazard who came into his own in the second half.
The Blues directed their play in the direction of Eden Hazard, playing 45% down the left-hand side. They made 257 passes left compared to 214 right, indicating their preference to involve Hazard in build-up play.
Eden Hazard: A famous farewell
The threat is obvious once Hazard gets the ball. The map above shows the passes made by either team where the destination is into the opposition final third. The white oval displays the region where Hazard operated. You can clearly see a larger cluster of forward, dangerous passes into the Arsenal third came from Hazard’s left-hand side of the pitch. Compared to the middle, which has very few as a result of Arsenal’s 5-3-2 shape, the left-hand side was clearly where success for Chelsea came from. Hazard had 80 touches on the ball throughout the game, highlighting his influence on proceedings.
The Belgian’s increased involvement in the second half led to a constant barrage on the Arsenal goal as they were unable to handle his explosive speed and movement off the ball. As you can see above, Hazard’s incisive passing followed by sharp movement created a goal-scoring opportunity all by himself. An incredible farewell performance saw the Madrid-bound man make five key passes, attempt 10 dribbles (five successful) and score two goals.
This bizarre final will not go down in history as one of the greats. The highs for Chelsea cap off a good season which no-one predicted. Lows for Arsenal in desperate need of recalibration. It’s a shame that on this occasion UEFA got it wrong; what should have been a spectacle on a global stage was clouded by safety and travelling furores. Football got lost in the rough geopolitical landscape, hidden somewhere near the estranged beaches of Baku. Here’s to hoping logic decides the location next year.