Arsenal Must Improve on the Counter-Attack Ahead of Chelsea Clash

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2014

Arsenal's Tomas Rosicky, right, scores past Tottenham Hotspur's Jan Vertonghen during the English Premier League soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal at White Hart Lane stadium in London, Sunday, March 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Matt Dunham/Associated Press

It was close to being the perfect away performance from Arsenal. Smart organisation, defensive solidity, resilience and speed on the counter.

The Gunners had them all when they visited North London neighbours Tottenham Hotspur and came away with a 1-0 win. But perfection was missed thanks to the absence of one vital quality—namely, ruthless, clinical efficiency on the break.

Arsenal had it in their 4-1 FA Cup quarter-final win over Everton. But they didn't have it at White Hart Lane.

They simply have to have it when they visit Stamford Bridge to clash with league-leaders Chelsea this weekend.

Being wasteful on the break prevented the Gunners from beating Spurs more comfortably. Arsene Wenger's team did everything else right. They fashioned a handful of quick and clever counters that should have brought goals. But assured finishing continued to elude them.

That made the game far closer than it should have been, despite Spurs manager Tim Sherwood bizarrely claiming a 1-0 away win in a derby is "[papering] over a lot of cracks," per Jeremy Wilson of The Telegraph.

That Spus dominated possession is not in dispute. Arsenal were careless with the ball when they had time to build attacks.

But whenever they ventured forward with suddenness and reactionary instinct, the Gunners were deadly. Well, almost deadly.

Arsenal weren't ruthless enough on the break to dispatch Spurs more comfortably.
Arsenal weren't ruthless enough on the break to dispatch Spurs more comfortably.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

The lone goal came courtesy of a well-manipulated break. Sandro's pass was chested away by Olivier Giroud, the striker who can't finish, but whose defensive willingness and nous is priceless.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal's lone legitimate speedster in the absence of Theo Walcott, collected the lose ball and prodded it to Tomas Rosicky.

The veteran playmaker broke up the right flank at pace. He was joined by Chamberlain and Giroud in the middle, while Lukas Podolski matched their strides over on the left.

Arsenal had four forward-breaking runners charging at a thin Tottenham back line at top speed. Rosicky played the ball inside to Chamberlain, whose clumsy touch inadvertently positioned the 33-year-old to arrow a missile of a shot into the far top corner.

It was Arsenal's only quality end product on the break all day. Not coincidentally, it won the game.

The Gunners, armed with a smart game plan, continued to counter with speed and creative intent, everything Wenger stands for.

Unfortunately, Arsenal squandered every break. In the 15th minute, a cross from Andros Townsend was headed down to Chamberlain by the imperious Per Mertesacker.

Chamberlain passed to Bacary Sagna, who brought the ball out before passing wide to Rosicky. The Czech ace took a touch and fired a pass inside to Chamberlain, who had broken from deep as Sagna left the box.

Chamberlain skipped away from an imitation of a tackle and was in the clear. As he raced forward, Podolski kept pace on the left flank.

With the option to play Podolski in or shoot, Chamberlain fluffed his lines with an effort that is still difficult to identify. The young England international had wasted a glorious break and what should have been a certain two-goal lead.

The next crisp counter came in the 27th minute. Rosicky and Mertesacker combined to win possession for Mikel Arteta. The experienced Spaniard found fellow countryman Santi Cazorla, who instantly released Podolski with a subtle through pass.

As Podolski raced clear, Giroud bolted through the middle, while Rosicky, Chamberlain and left-back Kieran Gibbs sped behind in support.

Arsenal had a player in space with four forward runners to aim for. It was classic counter-attack stuff. Or at least it would've been if the Gunners hadn't conspired to botch it again.

Podolski smartly chose to pick out Rosicky's late-breaking run just inside the box. But his pass went behind the ageing schemer. Even then, Chamberlain sprinted onto the ball, but his shot was wayward, via a slight deflection.

Neither the initial pass nor the eventual shot was good enough here. These examples show two things.

The first is that Arsenal have the right ingredients to be lethal on the counter. The second is they are not yet dangerous enough.

The only quality Arsenal lack on the break is a more clinical edge.
The only quality Arsenal lack on the break is a more clinical edge.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

They weren't in the 51st minute when Rosicky stole an errant pass from Jan Vertonghen. As he broke, Podolski and Giroud charged ahead, while Cazorla and Chamberlain sprinted up to join him.

Arsenal had pounced on a mistake and supported the man in possession with speedy, forward-breaking runners. They are steps one and two of any credible counter-attack.

But Rosicky's pass to Chamberlain was poor and intended for the wrong runner. Meeting the breaking runs with the right pass is step three. The Gunners didn't do enough of that at White Hart Lane.

Step four is producing an assured, quality finish. Arsenal certainly didn't do that in this instalment of the North London derby.

Without the right pass and finish, everything that comes before is essentially moot. Getting those final two steps right is how a team can win even the toughest games with less than 50 percent possession.

Arsenal had 41 percent of the ball against Spurs and won, per stats from BBC Sport reporter Gary Rose. But they won't repeat that trick at Chelsea unless they make better use of their counters.

Chelsea, despite lacking a centre-forward as dynamic as Emmanuel Adebayor, have more overall firepower than Spurs. They have enough goals in midfield and supporting areas to punish Arsenal at least once if they see as much of the ball as Spurs did.

But it won't matter if Arsenal barely exceed 40 percent possession at Stamford Bridge, as long as they are more ruthless and efficient with the ball.

Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho knows this better than anyone. When he won the UEFA Champions League in 2009-10, his Inter Milan team beat Bayern Munich 2-0 in the final, despite mustering just 30 percent possession, per ESPNFC.

Although Bayern owned the ball, Inter's forward players, particularly Diego Milito, were deadly on the counter. If Arsenal set up to play on the break at Chelsea, and they certainly should, they must be as clinical.

The Gunners have already proven they have defensive resolve strong enough to win the title. But they cannot be as wasteful on the break as they were at Tottenham.

Arsene Wenger will remain winless against Jose Mourinho unless Arsenal are more efficient on the counter.
Arsene Wenger will remain winless against Jose Mourinho unless Arsenal are more efficient on the counter.Getty Images/Getty Images

Mourinho's Chelsea won't be as open as Spurs were. But let's not pretend the English Premier League table-toppers are not under as much pressure as Wenger's Gunners.

The recent 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa puts Chelsea's title bid on shakier footing. Their rivals, including Arsenal, have games in hand.

Mourinho's team also lost Willian and central-midfield terrier Ramires to red cards. While he'll never ever go gung ho, Mourinho knows his team needs a win to keep the circling pack at bay.

He'll also likely relish the chance to signal the death knell for Arsenal's title ambitions.

But Wenger can signal a chorus of optimism if he can coax more clinical efficiency from his team's counter-attacks.


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