Best of Three: An Arsenal-Chelsea special
On Arsenal's off-ball strategy, Chelsea's errors and what it all means
How did Arsenal’s aggressive off-ball strategy help them beat Chelsea?
Arsenal’s comprehensive 4-1 win over Chelsea was clearly the story of the weekend in the WSL, as the Gunners ended the WSL Champions unbeaten start to the season and drew level on points with them. It was both a dominant and clinical performance from Arsenal who scored three times from three shots on target in the first half. Despite not managing a lot of shots on target, they repeatedly manoeuvred themselves into dangerous areas, attacking Chelsea’s right hand side in particular.
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This was in part thanks to their aggressive off-ball strategy which helped them pin Chelsea back defensively as well as force turnovers in the midfield. Arsenal attempted 13 tackles in the middle third and won 14 across the whole pitch, their second highest of the season after their game against Aston Villa. Their press forced Chelsea into playing long, meaning they could attempt to win the ball in the air or duels in the midfield. Arsenal then played the ball forward as quickly as possible, with their second fewest short passes attempted this season (147) and second highest long passes attempted (78). That left Chelsea constantly under pressure with defenders in 1v1 situations and eventually forced into errors.
What did Chelsea get wrong?
For all of Arsenal’s excellence when it came to their game plan, Chelsea’s midfield, on paper, should have been able to do something very similar. By playing Erin Cuthbert, Jessie Fleming and Sjoeke Nüsken, they were using three very capable ball winners. Cuthbert and Fleming put up fairly strong passing numbers (their 4th and 3rd best accuracy of the season) but Nüsken struggled and ended up being hooked at half-time. But unlike using Arsenal’s tactic of playing quick long balls, Chelsea attempted and completed their fewest of the season (60 and 30 respectively, also their lowest completion percentage).
We also saw Chelsea’s shape exposed the most it had been this season. With the use of a back three in possession and a back four out of possession, Chelsea were vulnerable to quick the changes in terms of who was on the ball and the shifting that they needed to make. Arsenal used Caitlin Foord and Beth Mead in the gaps between the fullbacks and centrebacks as well as the fullbacks and wide players. The half-time substitution that saw Kadeisha Buchanan come on for Maren Mjelde helped Chelsea shut down those runs more with her speed but by then it was far too late.
What impact will this have on the title race?
Arsenal are now level on points with Chelsea at the top of the league, although Chelsea still have a slight advantage on goal difference. Given their pedigree when it comes to winning the league, it would be hard to write them off here, even if Arsenal’s lack of Champions League football is going to be an advantage the deeper we get into the season.
Chelsea have also made mini-meltdowns such as what took place on Sunday a bit of a habit. Whilst hardly ideal they have also been quite adept at bouncing back from them. In fact Chelsea have not lost or drawn more than two games consecutively since December 2021 when they drew with Juventus and Brighton as well as losing to Reading and Wolfsburg in a four match period. They will be able to guarantee being top at Christmas if they beat Bristol City next Sunday with Arsenal not overturning the goal difference against Tottenham.
But crucially for Arsenal, this has given them the emotional confidence boost they thrive off. For all of Jonas Eidevall’s tactics, it is clear that the psychological aspect is very important to him. In a recent interview on the ‘Wrighty’s House’ podcast, he referenced Arsene Wenger, Diego Simeone and Jose Mourinho as managerial inspirations. With this being his biggest margin of victory over Chelsea, it could be the spark that truly sets Arsenal’s season alight.