Two managers, desperate for silverware in their first seasons at their new clubs. Unai Emery at Arsenal Football Club looking to make his first season a success, and Maurizio Sarri of Chelsea Football Club looking for his first trophy as a manager. Chelsea saw victory vs. Arsenal at Stamford Bridge but then lost on their travels at the Emirates. So Baku set the stage for an ultimate tiebreaker.
Unai Emery had Maurizio Sarri on the ropes in the first half. Emery’s prematch homework clearly did dividends as Arsenal were able to execute many aspects of the plan correctly with great success. Unfortunately, the same individual issues that have haunted Arsenal season after season would come back to haunt the Gunners in the final 45 minutes and would end with an embarrassing result.
Maurizio Sarri came out with his staple 4-3-3 formation. Through injuries and pour form Sarri has never flinched at the idea of changing his shape. Former Arsenal forward Olivier Giroud was at the spear of the attack. No player had scored more goals in the Europa League this season than the Frenchmen. Last time Arsenal and Chelsea met, manager Unai Emery lined up with a 4-3-3 matching Sarri. However, times have significantly changed since January 19th for the Gunners. Unai Emery’s lined up with a 3-4-1-2, surprising nobody. A lineup most would have predicted before kick-off.
EMERY’S FAULTLESS FIRST HALF
A huge part of Chelsea’s successful play has been vertical passing sequences and playing through pressure. So, Unai Emery being the tactically astute manager he is looked to remove this option of play for Chelsea. Whenever Chelsea would look to play out the back, Arsenal strikers Aubameyang and Lacazette would cover passing lanes into central midfielders, and attacking midfielder Mesut Ozil would man-mark Chelsea’s deep-lying playmaker Jorginho. This removed Chelsea’s threat through the middle and forced them to try and build up from wide which they are less successful.
This was highly effective, Chelsea centre back Andreas Christensen passed to right back Azpilicueta seven times, he didn’t pass to anyone else more times. Passes to the full backs invited pressure and pinned Chelsea back at times. Sarri’s men were forced to resort to playing long, goalkeeper Kepa specifically targeted forwards Olivier Giroud and Eden Hazard with four long balls.
Arsenal on the ball also executed their plan to great effect. A huge part of Arsenal’s 3-4-1-2 system has been the contribution from the wingbacks. Specifically with providing chances for forwards Lacazette and Aubameyang. However, on this important night, the Arsenal attack couldn’t click in many instances to provide clear-cut chances.
OLD PROBLEMS SAME RESULTS
Despite Arsenal’s great play in the first half, they were unable to fully capitalize and take an advantage into the second half. Chelsea threatened in the first half and the signs were there that Arsenal were in danger. Specifically in what has become Arsenal’s trademark problem: defence and defensive transition. Out of possession Arsenal lined up in a 5-2-1-2. A major issue with this was the compactness of the midfield line. There was loads of space for Chelsea to comfortably exercise their possession-based game and a lack of support for the defensive line. Sarri specifically had his team target the space between the wingback and centre-back. Arsenal’s pour defence struggled to defend this at times in the first 45.
In the Europa League semi-finals, Valencia CF targeted quick switches of play to their left side in order to attack the space between Arsenal’s defenders with crosses from wide. Given Arsenal like to overload the ball-near side, this can be very effective against Arsenal at times. This exact sequence from Chelsea leads to the beginning of the end for Arsenal.