Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta might be fearing the worst when he faces Chelsea on Sunday, but the Spaniard has a tactical plan up his sleeve to frustrate Thomas Tuchel’s side
It was only three months ago when Arsenal came away from Stamford Bridge with a shock victory and Mikel Arteta was lauded for pulling off a tactical masterclass.
Out of form and desperately needing to win to keep their European hopes alive, Mikel Arteta’s side dug deep to produce a performance that encapsulated their togetherness and character.
Emile Smith Rowe’s winner may have been scrappy, tucking home after Jorginho’s awful back-pass was somehow kept out by Kepa Arrizabalaga.
But as long as it meant taking three points back to north London, no one in a red shirt would have cared in the slightest about how they achieved it.
It was an unfamiliar feeling of failure for Thomas Tuchel. Losing 1-0 at home was not part of the German’s Hollywood script, which had seen him rescue this ailing team from the brink of failure to finals in the FA Cup and Champions League.
Chelsea did have bigger fish to fry in the grand scheme of things, resting Timo Werner, Edouard Mendy and Antonio Rudiger with an eye on their showpiece games.
But losing to a rival never feels good, and the team Tuchel fielded was good enough to extract a favourable result. The reality was they had been hoodwinked.
Arteta had set his team up to sit deep, keep possession and frustrate Chelsea, with the idea of hitting the hosts hard on the counter-attack.
The four members of the 3-4-3 formation in midfield that day have arguably never worked harder. Bukayo Saka was everywhere, Kieran Tierney refused to be outrun by anyone and Thomas Partey enjoyed his finest performance for the club since his transfer from Atletico Madrid.
They finished the game with 32 per cent possession, five attempts and just two on target. Chelsea had 19 shots, with five landing on Bernd Leno’s goal.
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But the crucial statistic was tilted in Arsenal ’s favour thanks to Smith Rowe’s strike.
Passion, grit and tenacity are not words normally associated with a typical Arsenal performance. But it showed just what the team could achieve under Arteta when the pieces came together.
After all, defeating a coach with Tuchel’s prowess should not be understated. The German had reached Champions League finals in successive seasons with different clubs — and certainly not by accident.
In doing so, he claimed scalps over some of the world’s most prestigious coaches. He stunned Pep Guardiola with three wins out of three last season, becoming the first to do so in a Champions League final.
On his way to the final in Porto, he did the double over Diego Simeone and outwitted Zinedine Zidane. He masterminded a win over Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool at Anfield too.
But there is something about Arteta that comes alive when facing London teams and, more specifically, Chelsea. It is not just Tuchel who he managed to defeat.
The Spaniard has only won 27 games from 59 in the Premier League as Arsenal boss. However, against the Blues he holds a respectable record.
Since he oversaw a narrow 2-1 home defeat on in December 2019, just days after he was hired as Unai Emery’s replacement, Arteta is unbeaten in his last three meetings with the west London side.
He ruined Frank Lampard’s Christmas in 2020 when his young Gunners outfought Chelsea to win 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium. He beat them again earlier that year to clinch the FA Cup and qualify for Europe.
This is a new season, though, and the pressure is already on Arteta to start delivering results amid suggestions he could be sacked.
There were many frailties exposed from their 2-0 defeat to Brentford on Friday. That team looked unrecognisable not just in personnel but the attitude from the one that emerged as victors at Stamford Bridge three months ago.
The Spaniard would argue that the absence of six first-team regulars had affected their preparations, with Partey, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Rob Holding all unavailable.
But if there were excuses for their lack of quality in front of goal, there could be none for the manner in which they were outfought by the newly-promoted Bees. They simply wanted it more. Ivan Toney bullied their £50m signing Ben White in aerial duals and pulled around the defence at will.
The worrying aspect for Arteta is that his fixture is just one of several tough fixtures to come throughout August and September.
What’s more, Chelsea will be much stronger this time around. Their £97.5m club-record signing Romelu Lukaku is set to make his second debut for the club, with the supporting cast of Mason Mount, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz creating chances behind him.
If they are to stop Lukaku and co. from picking up a victory at the Emirates on Sunday, they will to find every bit of extra motivation possible to repeat their King’s Road heroics.
But tactically, they will need to squeeze the Belgian and ensure he gets no space to run in behind on the break, otherwise he is primed to punish them.
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The prospect may be daunting, but as Arteta prepares for what it is likely to be a difficult match to win, he would do well to sit his squad down and show them what they did right at Stamford Bridge last time.
That could include switching to a back three again, which seemed to suit his players when defending deep in numbers. It could also provide some relief to White, who endured a tough debut on his first competitive outing for the club.
But having overcome Tuchel’s men once before, Arteta will be confident of repeating that trick to put their season back on track in front of their own fans this weekend.