The plan from Jose Mourinho was simple: don't lose.
Having played to a similar style when they drew 0-0 at Manchester United earlier in the year, the Chelsea manager again ensured that his side avoided defeat (even at the expense of victory) as they drew 0-0 with London rivals Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Monday.
The tactics aren't necessarily to be scoffed at; Mourinho knew the importance of staying close to the top of the table and understood how valuable one point was.
Chelsea executed the plan to perfection—setting up strong at the back and giving their back-four plenty of cover through midfield—and nearly managed to sneak all three points on the counter-attack when Frank Lampard's volley hit the crossbar in the first half.
Still, the Blues rarely allowed Arsenal a sight of goal throughout the match, and they finished with their desired point in the end.
“It was a tactical match,” Mourinho said after the match whilst talking to Sky Sports. “A match that Arsenal wants to win but didn't want to lose and Chelsea wants to win but doesn't want to lose.”
Jose: "I'm not unhappy with the result, we came to win but it was important not to lose the game." #CFC— Chelsea FC (@chelseafc) December 23, 2013
While there might not have been any goals to talk about on the night, there were still plenty of highlights and talking points to emerge from the fixture.
Let's break down the film and examine the strengths and weaknesses of both clubs on the night and how this one turned out the way that it did.
Ramires Flexibly Dominant in Chelsea's 4-3-3
On a wet and miserable night in London against a team looking to preserve their clean sheet more than press forward for victory, winning the battle of the middle was always going to be the key for Arsenal. They'd been exposed in this regard by playing a slightly adventurous team against Manchester City, and were desperate to ensure that they didn't repeat that performance here—choosing to instead consolidate the middle of the park with Mikel Arteta playing alongside Aaron Ramsey.
Having Ramsey playing from a deeper lying position would allow Mesut Ozil the freedom to shift to wider areas, where he is perhaps more effective than in the middle.
Yet while the focus might have been on Arsenal's balance in the middle of the field, what wasn't expected was an all-conquering performance from Ramires.
The midfielder was deployed in a far more advanced role that usual (something which Mourinho has done from time to time with him this season) and his free-running role in the middle of the field essentially nullified Ramsey's potential impact.
The line-up from Chelsea might have been a 4-2-3-1 on paper but in reality (as even their official Twitter account suggested) it was more like a 4-3-3 formation.
Team to face Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry (c), Azpilicueta; Mikel, Lampard; Ramires, Willian, Hazard; Torres. #CFC— Chelsea FC (@chelseafc) December 23, 2013
Chelsea have begun in a 4-3-3 shape. Mikel is holding, Ramires and Lamps ahead of him, Willian and Hazard the wingers. #CFCLive— Chelsea FC (@chelseafc) December 23, 2013
John Obi Mikel filled the hole in the middle of the field, and that allowed the likes of Frank Lampard and Ramires to player wider and ahead of him at the same time.
The impact that Ramires had in both attack and defence was exceptional.
In attack, his late movement into the box meant that he acted as a second striker alongside Fernando Torres from time to time. Here we can see Willian crossing the ball into the box from the right, and while Thomas Vermaelen has picked up Torres, the other centre-back (Per Mertesacker) has picked up Ramires. The midfielder's header flies over the bar in the end, but it's important to note here the difference that his "free-running" role had on Chelsea's attack and Arsenal's defence.
Instead of taking up a more common position on the edge of the box for a central midfielder (where Tomas Rosicky is looking to defend), Ramires pushes higher and forces the defence to pick him up.
That allows Eden Hazard to push into the box unmarked at the bottom of the screen, who would have been a perfect target for the cross had Willian spotted him.
His most telling impact, however, came in defence.
Arsenal spent a lot of time in possession on the night but were rarely able to convert that into completed passes inside the attacking third or shots on goal. They had their first attempt in the waning minutes of the first half and took until the 85th minute of the second half to register a shot on target at all; such was the Blues solidity at the back in shutting down whatever attacking presence the Gunners created.
The biggest key in doing this was eliminating the presence of Ramsey.
Deployed as a defensive central midfielder alongside Ozil, Ramsey was to be the player to push forward when Arsenal had attacks and act as a false No. 10 in many ways. That would allow the likes of Rosicky and Theo Walcott to make their runs at defenders and, in turn, create additional space for Ozil and Olivier Giroud. However, what Ramires did was eliminate the presence of Ramsey in the middle of the field by not allowing him the space across midfield to pick up the ball and run.
Unusually quiet half from Aaron Ramsey: 67% pass accuracy, 0 interceptions made and 0 tackles won.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 23, 2013
As Ramsey looked to pick up the ball in defensive areas, Ramires was there. When Arsenal tried to find him in advanced areas, Ramires was there as well.
In the image below, Ramsey drops deep as he seeks to pick up possession from Arteta. However, Ramires (who is playing as high as both Torres and Willian here) is too close for the Spaniard to force the pass so he knocks into space for Vermaelen to run on to—allowing Ramsey to press forward.
Yet as Ramsey presses forward, Ramires tracks him the entire way, and if we fast-forward the tape a little, you'll note just how advanced the Welshman now is.
But there still isn't space for him.
Ramires has tracked him all the way back and essentially "dropped him off" with the defender in Branislav Ivanovic. He's maintained a good line with Mikel (acting as a more regulation double-pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation) and importantly, has allowed both John Terry and Gary Cahill to hold their line and eliminate the presence of Giroud as both a target coming back to the ball or getting in behind the line.
Ozil tries to force the pass into Ramsey, having noticed the run that he's made, but the space simply isn't there and Chelsea force win the interception at the back.
Ramires constantly pressed Ramsey right across the field until Chelsea adjusted their tactics in the second half by bringing on their substitutes, and it was hardly surprising that he forced one of the star players of the Premier League this season into arguably his most ineffective half all year.
He simply dominated in defence, and played a crucial role in attack. This, as we'll see later on, almost saw the Blues steal all three points on the night.
Best Goal-Scoring Chances of the Evening
Before we get to that, though, it's important to note the job that Cahill and Terry did on Giroud. The French international came into the match as the Gunners' biggest threat at the top of the attack but he was rarely given a chance to affect the match at all.
Giroud's good ball skills mean that he's a threat coming back to the ball and playing a flick-on or quick pass just as much as he is pushing forward behind the line. However, given the close proximity that the two centre-backs kept on the night, they eliminated the presence of Giroud from in front and behind.
Their constant tracking and solidity in defence meant that Giroud was forced out to wide areas to try and win possession and affect the match, which reduced the effectiveness of Arsenal's attack because it meant that they didn't have anyone in the box to target.
Look at how many passes Giroud attempted from wider areas.
Yet as strong and commanding as the Chelsea defensive duo was, they did slip up for one moment in the match and it almost saw the Gunners steal victory.
Truthfully, it was a chance that should have been buried by Giroud.
That Giroud miss had Van Persie vs Liverpool written all over it. More finesse needed. A calm composed head.— AdamAFC (@Arsenal_Fanzone) December 23, 2013
After winning a turnover from the Blues playing it out of their own end, Ramsey quickly finds himself on the attack with multiple options at his disposal.
Ozil, Arteta and Walcott are all running alongside of him, and the presence of these attackers puts the Chelsea defence in two minds.
Given that they are outnumbered with no help from central midfield in Ramires or Lampard, Terry opts to hold his ground and try and pressure Ramsey on the ball. It's the only real time in the match that he and Cahill were out of alignment and didn't have Giroud squashed in between them, and the French international took full advantage of it.
Well, almost full advantage.
A superb pass over the top from Ramsey exposed the space on the right as Ivanovic laboured to get back into position, and Giroud was suddenly clean through on goal.
He couldn't, however, hit the target.
Arsenal: Failed to score at home in the PL for the first time in 11 matches, the last time a 0-0 vs Everton in April of this year #AFC— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) December 23, 2013
Chelsea's best chance to win the match came in the 31st minute when Lampard hit the crossbar after picking up a delightful ball over the top from Hazard.
Again, the key was two centre-backs who opted to split apart.
With Laurent Koscielny out injured, captain Vermaelen was brought back into the starting line-up here to partner Mertesacker, whom he has rarely played with all year.
As Lampard passed around Arteta, that fact was obvious indeed.
Vermaelen rushed up out of the line to put pressure on Hazard (who had plenty of space to receive the pass and pick out the best option), leaving a huge hole in defence.
A great forward run from Ramires put pressure on Kieran Gibbs to tuck into the back-line and act as Vermaelen's "replacement," and that created the space in behind the Englishman for Lampard to run into.
As the shot was taken, Vermaelen wasn't even inside his box.
Fortunately for the Gunners, the ball rattled off the bar and was eventually cleared by the North Londoners as they settled for a 0-0 draw in the end.
But it certainly was a heart-in-mouth moment for Wenger's men indeed.
26 Dec.—Chelsea vs. Swansea City (EPL)
26 Dec.—West Ham United vs. Arsenal (EPL)
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