Chelsea away at Arsenal can never be classed as a friendly. No matter the stakes, no matter the competition, there will always be an edge when the two sides meet. And that was the case yesterday at the Emirates.
During the first half especially, the pace of the game resembled that of a must-win Premier League fixture. Passes were crisp. Tackles weren’t shirked. And the two head coaches bellowed instructions regularly from the touchline.
Changes came at the half-time interval and throughout the second period, which lacked the quality displayed in the opening 45 minutes. But there were two further goals.
The first was scored by Granit Xhaka; the Arsenal midfielder able to rise unchallenged from a corner and head beyond substitute goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalga.
Yet parity last mere minutes as a loose pass from Hector Bellerin arrived at the feet of Tammy Abraham on the edge of the penalty area and the Chelsea forward cooly slid his shot beyond Bernd Leno in the Arsenal goal.
The victory means the Blues remain unbeaten during pre-season. That may count for little when the 2021/22 campaign gets underway, but winning momentum is often very important. Tuchel emphasised that after the match.
There were plenty of other positives for the Chelsea head coach to take from the game too. And here are four things that we spotted during the 90 minutes at the Emirates.
Chelsea’s formation is set
It was on the plane from Paris to London in January that Tuchel and his coaching team made the decision to switch Chelsea’s shape from 4-3-3 to 3-4-2-1. To say it was a choice that paid off would be an understatement.
Not only did the alteration kickstart the Blues’ faltering campaign but it took them all the way to Champions League glory. It was a masterstroke.
Yet Tuchel is not a coach wedded to one system and that’s why there was intrigue ahead of pre-season as to whether the German would attempt to overhaul his tactical framework this summer.
The answer to that question is now known: a quite emphatic no. In every pre-season fixture, Tuchel has set his side up with a back three. There have been variations within that – Hakim Ziyech, for example, played as the false nine against Arsenal – but the core structure has remained.
If Tuchel had a full pre-season to work with his entire first-team group, perhaps there would’ve been a change of formation. But sticking with the tried and trusted feels the right call given the first-half performance produced by the Blues at the Emirates.
Werner’s inconsistencies remain
There is genuine hope among the Chelsea fanbase that Timo Werner rediscovers his best form in the season ahead, that the prolific forward that thrived in the Bundesliga will emerge.
However, the German’s 45-minute display at the Emirates may have dented that enthusiasm somewhat. Werner wasn’t poor, far from it, against Arsenal. He was a constant threat on the counter and exploited the space behind the Gunners’ defence time and time again.
The 25-year-old also claimed an assist for Havert’z goal with a square ball across the penalty area that his German compatriot finished expertly.
Yet when presented with a clear opportunity of his own, Werner was far less decisive. A poor effort that went into the side netting from a good position was the best the German managed.
It would be unfair to judge Werner harshly, especially given this was his first outing of pre-season. Yet Tuchel’s comments after the game were telling.
“It’s very hard with the first 45 minutes after a tough week that we put into the players, it’s not easy for the players to like at this kind of level. I was happy.
“He was dangerous and there were chances when he could’ve been more decisive. He could’ve scored and got another assist. So it’s a bit the same as last season. But we have just started, it’s not the moment now to worry.”
Tuchel’s half-time instructions
The opening 45 minutes of the contest was played at a break-neck speed. Chelsea carried a huge threat through the trio of Havertz, Werner and Ziyech, especially on the counter attack.
Yet Tuchel wanted more from his side – friendly or not – in possession and throughout the first half, he spun on his heel and complained to his coaching staff whenever a pass forward was turned down in favour of a safer ball backwards.
The half-time interval gave him an opportunity to get that point across. But with changes being made, he had to do so out on the pitch.
So before the action got back underway, Tuchel gathered several of his players, including Ruben Loftus-Cheek, substitute Danny Drinkwater and Ziyech, and spent a minute or so gesticulating exactly what he wanted when the ball arrived at their feet.
In truth, Chelsea were better in the opening period in possession. The changes made during the second period – no player who started finished the game – disrupted the Blues’ rhythm on the ball.
But the conversation at the interval is another example of the standards Tuchel is trying to ingrain into his squad.
Loftus-Cheek reclaims what’s his
Since breaking into the first-team set-up ahead of the 2014/15 campaign, Loftus-Cheek has had several squad numbers.
He started with 36, then moved to 14, before eventually settling on 12 at the start of the 2018/19 season.
It was in that shirt that Loftus-Cheek finally produced the level of performance expected of him on a consistent basis. He hit ten goals in all competitions and established himself as a key figure in Maurizio Sarri’s side.
Unfortunately, it was at the end of that campaign during a charity game in New York that Loftus-Cheek suffered a serious Achilles injury which ruled him out for over a year. On his return, he was clearly not 100% fit and struggled to make an impact. So it was decided the midfielder should spend last season on loan at Fulham.
Loftus-Cheek made more than 30 appearances for the Cottagers last term and regained confidence in his body. He returned to Chelsea this summer ready to reclaim his first-team spot…and his shirt.
He has done the latter. At the Emirates yesterday, Loftus-Cheek started with the number 12 emblazoned on his back. The challenge now is for him to keep it, something which Tuchel says is possible.
“It’s too early to judge Ruben. He has everything in his hands and it’s on him to decide his own future like every player. He has to keep on going 150% because 100% is not enough.”
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