In this Capital One Cup tie, the greatest challenge facing Arsene Wenger was getting his selection right. Unfortunately, in this instance, Wenger’s gambles didn’t pay off.
Rotating the back four
Rotating a back four is always problematic, and Arsenal paid the price for affording rests to the likes of Wojciech Szczesny, Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna and Per Mertesacker. The first goal Arsenal conceded was typical of the disorganisation that can be engendered by fielding an unfamiliar defensive unit.
When Samuel Eto'o's attempted pass deflected high into the London sky, Carl Jenkinson ought to have dealt with it straightaway. However, unlike first-team regular right-back Bacary Sagna, Jenkinson is poor in the air. Although he is several inches taller than Sagna, he struggles to time his jumps and make clean contact with the ball. Just a few minutes prior to this incident, he had badly miscued a headed clearance.
Perhaps that mistake contributed to his hesitancy. Instead of rising to clear the ball, Jenkinson allowed it to bounce, contravening one of the first rules of defending. Suddenly, a harmless long ball had become a threat. With the Arsenal defenders struggling to read the flight of the bounce, Jenkinson and Jack Wilshere became engaged in a moment of mutual misunderstanding, with each assuming the other would take responsibility and clear the ball. Eventually Jenkinson did decide to nod the ball back toward Lukasz Fabianski, but his header was poor and underpowered.
Sensing weakness, Cesar Azpilicueta tore forward, racing on to the loose header and poking the ball beyond the stranded Fabianski.
Arsenal’s first-choice back four would not have made this error, chiefly because of the cohesion provided by playing together regularly and the organisational excellence of Per Mertesacker. However, individual error is also to blame: Jenkinson’s aerial ability is inferior to that of Sagna, and the 21-year-old's inadequacy cost Arsenal dear.
Arsenal will also be concerned about having been caught on the counter-attack so easily. The goal actually stemmed from an Arsenal corner. The Gunners looked vulnerable to swift breaks in their last Premier League match with Crystal Palace, and this match was no different.
Upsetting the midfield balance
Arsenal’s central midfield also seemed unusually unbalanced.
Arsene Wenger named a trio of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky. There’s no problem of quality—they’re all outstanding footballers, blessed with fantastic technique.
However, none of that trio could be called a true holding player. With Mikel Arteta suspended and Mathieu Flamini injured, Arsenal did not have a natural ball-winner in the middle of the park. Arsene Wenger confessed in his post-match press conference that he had wanted to add the tenacious Emmanuel Frimpong to his squad, but the Ghanaian had been struck down by a bout of illness.
Ramsey and Wilshere both seemed to want the license to bomb forward. Without a senior partner to regulate that vertical movement, Arsenal’s back four became dangerously exposed.
A pure defensive midfielder might have cleared the long ball that was launched forward to bring about Chelsea’s opener, or he might have closed down Mata on the edge of the box before he thumped home the clincher. Moreover, he would have helped Arsenal win the ball back swiftly and ensured the home team enjoyed more possession and interrupted Chelsea’s momentum.
With Arteta and Flamini absent, Wenger opted to change his midfield shape to facilitate the inclusion of regular first-team players. However, perhaps his team would have benefited from the introduction of a more conservative player such as youngster Isaac Hayden.
Hayden, who can also play as a centre-back, impressed as a holding midfielder in the previous round against West Brom. Although inexperienced, he is an inherently intelligent and defensive-minded player, and he would have offered the Arsenal midfield a platform of stability on which to build.
Weakness out wide
Arsenal went in to this game without four of their speediest wingers. Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski and Serge Gnabry were all absent with injury.
In their stead, Wenger opted to field Santi Cazorla and Ryo Miyaichi. Cazorla prefers to drift infield from the left, whereas Miyaichi is not a natural right winger. The best football of his career was played at Feyenoord, where he was able to start from his preferred position on the left. Neither player had the capacity to stretch the play.
A lack of width is always a problem against a Jose Mourinho team. Mourinho is an expert at building a compact defence. Without effective wide players, Arsenal were forced to try to play through the centre. Inevitably, they were met with a tightly congested and fiercely organised wall of blue. Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel patrolled the area in front of the back four with authority, in stark contrast to Arsenal’s gung-ho midfield.
Arsenal fans will hope Arsene Wenger and his team are able to learn from their mistakes for this season’s Premier League clashes with Chelsea. Those matches will be certain to play a huge role in the story of this season’s title chase.
Arsene Wenger has never yet beaten Jose Mourinho; the Premier League iteration of this fixture in December would be a fantastic time to start.