Chelsea outplayed Arsenal on Saturday evening. In large part, it was due to their play in possession in midfield. Specifically, Jorginho exposed his counterparts.
Football is changing. The rise of tika-taka, primarily driven by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester City, led to teams attempting to find a countering tactic to deal with the incessant pressure that the approach forces. That gave rise to the high press, where teams would try to suffocate the opponents of time and space on the ball and diminish the control that the tika-taka style prioritises.
As a result, having the ability to play through the high press, which has increasingly used the goalkeeper as an eleventh outfield player to aid with the possessional play deep in the defensive territory, is critical for teams when they have the ball.
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This requires midfielders to have the composure, the intelligence and the skill to collect the ball from the defence, turn, often when under pressure, and then playing passes into more advanced zones of the pitch, forwarding the play by doing so. For Arsenal, that man used to be Santi Cazorla. Unfortunately, injury and now an exit has laid those plans bare and, last season, his absence was noticeable with the opposition’s high press consistently causing the Gunners strife.
And on Saturday, in Chelsea’s 3-2 victory over Arsenal, the disparity in the two team’s ability to play through pressure and forward play into higher positions on the pitch was stark, to say the least.
At the base of Chelsea’s midfield sat Jorginho. The latest midfield recruit for the Blues was masterful, simply dictating play with deft passes, quick one-twos, almost lending the ball to other players only to late to establish his mastery of it when he received the return pass. What was particularly striking was the number of passes he played first time. There were no wasted touches, no moments of meandering, slowing down the pace of play, growing ponderous and lethargic. This was a quick, sharp player, full of intent, decisive in nature and consistently excellent in execution.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Arsenal’s deep-lying midfielders. Young Matteo Guendouzi was the best of them. He didn’t fail to complete a pass in the whole of the first half and provided a key element of impetus and tempo when on the ball. But even the 19-year-old did not move the ball at the same pace as Jorginho, oftentimes taking one or two extra touches to control the ball and set himself before unfurling a long, raking pass that soared from one touchline to the other. The pass may have been excellent, but he was still too slow to release it.
But Guendouzi was far from the worst and at his tender age and relative inexperience, it would be harsh to criticise him too intensely. He was Arsenal’s best player overall, this was just a little, added wrinkle that it would be nice to see him incorporate in the future.
Granit Xhaka, on the other hand, offered little to nothing in this department. Admittedly, Arsenal were far worse at advancing play against the high press in the second half after he was substituted at half-time. But I feel that was more coincidence than cause. Xhaka was, for the second week in a row, extremely poor in the tempo of his distribution. Not only is he slow in his legs, but he is also slow in his mind. He does not make a decision with what he will do with the ball until he receives it. By that point, it’s too late.
Jorginho was brilliant on Saturday. He was the best player on the pitch, and by some distance. And what he showed as the deepest-lying distributor at the base of the Chelsea midfielder painfully exposed what his Arsenal counterparts cannot do. This could be an issue that runs and runs for the remainder of the season.