While it might be a debate amongst fans regarding who is a bigger sufferer – Arsenal for missing Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Chelsea for Ruben Loftus-Cheek – the answer is pretty much a no-brainer. Unai Emery’s setup leaves very little task for Mkhi, something there is no reason others can’t execute.
Arsenal’s fortunes have surely changed in the last one year or so, although for better or for worse is something yet to be decided. The team has looked livelier in training sessions, stronger against the top five, and most importantly, more dangerous in the attacking third. Of course, there are a lot of things to be sorted out in terms of administration but Unai Emery did bring about a desirable change in the side in his very first season at the club.
One such change is already evident. Where Arsenal went on to lose against Atletico Madrid in the semi-final of the Europa League last year, they have overcome an equally capable opponent in Napoli to reach the final. And one of the biggest positives discerned from that has been Emery’s ability to play whatever hand he is dealt with. Despite Arsenal’s injury crisis being far less severe than what they have seen in the years bygone, Emery did have to deal with tricky situations at times where the side crucially lacked significant players ahead of important fixtures but the manager did get the job done on most such occasions.
Compared to that, the Armenian’s absence in the Europa League final is hardly a challenge for the Spanish manager – more so because they are facing a Sarriball entrenched Chelsea. Had Arsenal faced any other team, which doesn’t over-rely on attacking football and in the particular way that Chelsea do, Mkhitaryan’s absence would have been a hinging factor but Mauricio Sarri’s extremely one-dimensional style of play totally takes that out of the equation.
Arsenal have shared the spoils with Chelsea in the two times they have faced each other in the league and if a match needs to be taken into reference, it should definitely be the January 19 clash where Chelsea travelled to Emirates. While Arsenal were approaching the game losing three of their last six matches, Chelsea had lost just once in the same number of fixtures. And the lack of momentum didn’t lead the Gunners to a humiliating defeat, which has previously been the case under Arsene Wenger’s reign many a time.
Known for his industrious work with video analyses of opponents and tactical nuances, Emery was right on spot with his strategy against Sarri and it didn’t involve the extensive use of the flank offensively where Mkhitaryan usually plays for the Gunners. And the obvious reason has been Sarri’s flagrant disregard of their left wing. The Italian has been so absorbed with attacking through the left flank and left flank only that Marcos Alonso is often been given the free role to run up for Hazard’s. His defensive duties are exempted to such an extent that we often see Cesar Azpilicueta forming a back three in order to accommodate Alonso’s uber-adventures in the attacking third.
Chelsea lost 0-2 that match and not most of it to Emery’s tactical master-class as much as it was to Sarri’s stubbornness towards one philosophy. The perfect Sarriball is an amalgamation of a couple of machinery working together in absolute synchronization – open, attacking, fluid football, pressing opponents higher up the pitch, maintain possession for the most part of the game, and consequently passing the ball right from the back.
Clearly, all the above prerequisites haven’t worked simultaneously this season, hence this overwhelming season. And Emery has been able to break it quite successfully. The Spaniard had led a three-man attack of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, and Aaron Ramsey, the trio that destroyed Tottenham Hotspur, with Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira, and Granit Xhaka cushioning the midfield. It was a 4-3-2-1 narrow setup with the hosts pressing the Blues extremely high up the field which fetched them a goal as early as the 14th minute. Another goal by Laurent Koscielny at the 39th minute meant that the match was over before an entire half to go.
Arsenal had three things right. Throughout the match, Aubameyang and Lacazette stood at the two flanks pressing their opponents continuously and waiting for Chelsea’s attack to break down. They stretched Chelsea’s defence to great lengths for Ramsey to get in the middle and do his stuff. Opta had stated that Arsenal had won possession in the attacking third five times in the first half hour alone.
Of course, the defensive pair of Laurent Koscielny and Sokratis Papastathopoulos was extremely efficient on that evening, but the lion’s share of credit should go to Lucas Torreira. The Uruguayan had to play out his skin as he was deployed on the right midfield instead of the holding role, and he was at the heels of Chelsea players relentlessly. He had made nine tackles that match, the most by any Arsenal player.
Unlike Arsenal, Chelsea don’t adhere to mid-game modifications or modify their playing style according to their opponents. Sarri has been obstinate about playing the ball through Jorginho for years now and he wasn’t changing that anytime soon, and with Arsenal putting their finger on that ball supply, Chelsea players ran around clueless of the system they were trying to play in.
Mkhitaryan was sitting out injured for Arsenal that game but even if he was available, he would have hardly been a starter for the Gunners. The wide forward does have qualities in pace, dribbling, and finishing that most other players cannot match, but in beating Chelsea, Emery might not even need them.
Apart from his individual attributes, the flanks also play a huge part in Sarriball. While many might assume that Sarri is attacking more from the left flank only because of the exceptional talents of Alonso and Hazard, the truth is that the Italian has always had a special inclination for that wing. While a particular reason is difficult to point out, but Sarri had prioritized the left flank to attack 46% of the time in his last with Napoli and 40% back in the 2016/17 campaign.
Now, with Ramsey gone many might argue that Mkhitaryan could have been a livewire in the centre in such a situation, but, the Armenian has never been known for his defensive attributes. Instead, the ever-adapting Emery is highly expected to play a 4-1-2-3 with the predominantly defensive-minded Danny Welbeck start on the right flank across Aubameyang. The striker reportedly made an appearance in Arsenal’s closed-door match against Austrian side LASK Linz 6-0 and although his positional information wasn’t revealed, Emery is expected to tweak his side in the absence of his most effective player for the most important game on his debut season.
As far as covering Jorginho is concerned, Emery could easily put up either Guendouzi or Torreira for the task because unlike Sarri, the Spanish doesn’t rely on particular players to get the job done but focuses more on explaining his plan to his players and then banking on them to get the job done.