Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
Arsenal's win over Chelsea shows a winning formula for Unai Emery
Alexandre Lacazette and Laurent Koscielny were on target in Arsenal's 2-0 win at the Emirates Stadium
Last Updated: 20/01/19 11:59am
Unai Emery has spent much of his Arsenal tenure searching for a winning formula. Did he find it in the 2-0 win over Chelsea? Nick Wright was at the Emirates Stadium to assess the changes which made the difference.
Front three set the tone
When Arsenal destroyed Tottenham in the second half of the north London derby here at the start of December, with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang drifting towards the flanks and Aaron Ramsey causing havoc through the middle, it seemed Emery had struck upon an attacking formula to stick with.
It is unclear why it then took him six weeks to return to it, but the effects against Chelsea were much the same as they were against Spurs. Amazingly, this was the first time since September that Lacazette, Aubameyang and Ramsey have been named in the same starting line-up. This time, surely, Arsenal supporters will not have to wait so long to see them again.
The trio were excellent in the first half, their industry overwhelming Chelsea as they charged down every ball and pinned the visitors deep inside their own half. According to Opta, the hosts won possession in the attacking third five times in the first half hour alone. That's only two fewer than in any entire game all season.
Arsenal got the goal their blistering start deserved when Lacazette expertly controlled Hector Bellerin's awkward cross and lifted his finish high into the net, and they created other chances before Koscielny's second. Every time a Chelsea attack broke down, Aubameyang and Lacazette were waiting on the left and right respectively, creating gaps in Chelsea's stretched defence for Ramsey and the rest to exploit.
It was from one such counter-attack that Aubameyang almost scored just a few minutes after the opener, nicking the ball from Cesar Azpilicueta in the full-back position before forcing a fine save from Kepa Arrizabalaga, and Arsenal's front line continued to threaten right up until the break.
Aubameyang was the only one of the trio to last the 90 minutes, while Lacazette was the only one to score, but Ramsey's performance was perhaps the most impressive of the three given the circumstances. The Welshman has agreed to join Juventus at the end of the season after Arsenal withdrew their offer of a new contract in September, but his attitude and work-rate were exemplary.
From his seat on the substitutes' bench, the watching Mesut Ozil should be under no illusions about what it will take to work his way back into Emery's plans. Right now, however, it seems there is no place for the German in Arsenal's best attack.
A solid centre
Arsenal's victory owed as much to their defence as it did to their attack.
Emery reverted to a back four, with Shkodran Mustafi dropping out of the team and Koscielny and Sokratis Papastathopoulos playing as centre-back partners for only the second time in the Premier League all season. On this evidence, they should be Emery's first-choice pairing from now on.
The pair combined for Arsenal's second goal, Sokratis' looping pass into the box bouncing in off Koscielny's shoulder, but it was their defensive work that made the difference. Together, they were invaluable in clinching Arsenal's first Premier League clean sheet since early December and only their fourth all season.
Koscielny was particularly impressive. The Frenchman has had a tough time of it since being parachuted into a shambolic defence following his return from injury, but this was a timely reminder of just how important he can be. He dealt with everything Chelsea threw at him, making more than twice as many clearances (13) as any other player. It was fitting that the final action of the game was him heading a Chelsea free-kick away from Arsenal's box.
Sokratis shone alongside him, swiftly shutting down Eden Hazard at every opportunity and using the ball smartly, too. His 92 per cent passing accuracy was the highest of any Arsenal player, but the moment that best typified his performance came when he celebrated a perfectly-executed slide-tackle on Willian with a fist pump and roar of delight soon after the break.
Bellerin's knee injury is a potentially significant blow to Emery's defensive plans, but for now he will take comfort from Arsenal's most assured centre-back performances of the season so far. In Koscielny and Sokratis, he might have finally found a platform to build on.
Emery spoke about his search for defensive balance in his exclusive sit-down with Sky Sports earlier this week and there can be no disputing that Lucas Torreira is key to finding it. The Uruguayan had only started two of Arsenal's previous five Premier League games, but this was further evidence that they are far better when he is in the team.
Torreira was not deployed in a traditional holding role, instead lining up on the right of a midfield three with Mateo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka, but his energy and battling qualities were still invaluable. Time and again he could be seen snapping at the heels of Chelsea players. According to Opta, he made nine tackles - the most by any Arsenal player in any game all season.
Torreira nullified Marcos Alonso's attacking threat and his overall performance was reminiscent of his man-of-the-match showing against Tottenham in December. Despite being the smallest player on the pitch, he competed more duels (17) than any of his team-mates. Premier League tracking data showed that only Xhaka covered more ground (12.1km).
Torreira helped with the ball as well as without it. There were stray passes at times, but his set pieces were a constant source of danger. Koscielny's goal came from a Torreira free kick, and the Frenchman should have scored from another earlier in the first half. If Arsenal are to build on this win, Torreira is likely to be key.