Why Arsenal should go long, how Drogba apes Torres & should Kenny axe Downing?

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses the StatsZone app – from FFT and Opta, available now – to preview the big weekend fixtures...

Chelsea versus Arsenal looks like the biggest game of the Premier League weekend, and with Chelsea’s attacking style under Andre Villas-Boas combined with Arsenal’s perennial open football, there should be goals here.

Indeed, if the meetings between the Premier League’s ‘big six’ so far this season are anything to go by – including Manchester United 8-2 Arsenal, Tottenham 4-0 Liverpool, Tottenham 1-5 Manchester City and Manchester United 1-6 Manchester City – we should be in for a good game.

Both managers will look to get the better of the midfield zone, but the real interest in this game is at either end of the pitch. One of the most obvious impacts of Villas-Boas’ style so far is how high up the Chelsea side plays, looking to press the opposition.

The obvious result is a high defensive line, as shown by them catching the opposition offside 4.33 times per match, rather than 1.67 per match under Carlo Ancelotti last season. Note how many times Everton were caught offside at Stamford Bridge recently, compared to the same fixture last season:

Those are examples of the offside trap working well, but it’s clear that the high defensive line causes discomfort for John Terry in particular, and arguably Chelsea’s other centre-backs too. They don’t have the mobility or pace to turn and run, and that’s where Arsenal will surely look to prosper, with through balls to Gervinho and Theo Walcott.

That duo’s ‘passes received’ chart from their most recent game against Stoke shows that the majority of passes into them are over a distance of roughly 15 metres; if Arsenal are to exploit the high Chelsea line, they might think about hitting longer direct passes from deep positions.

It also seems that both players like a diagonal pass towards the corner of the box in the opposition left-back zone; although Ashley Cole means Chelsea don't lack pace in that area, Arsenal attacking that area may curb Cole's forward runs.

At the other end, Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba seem to be alternating with their suspensions – the Spaniard returns just as the Ivorian is unavailable. Arsenal will probably be pleased that it’s this way around: Drogba has an excellent record against them over the years.

The two have clearly different styles, but Chelsea’s game won’t change significantly with the return of Torres. Compare the two’s received passes in two home games and it’s surprising how similar the balls are: both are working the channels, come to the left a little more, and get a couple of crosses in from the left wing.

The real interest, however, comes when you compare Drogba’s received passes in that same match, against Everton, to the same diagram from the previous season. There’s a huge difference there – last season the passes were much longer and more likely to find Drogba in a central position:

In other words, Drogba has been forced to adapt to the way Villas-Boas wants to play; for the last couple of weeks, he has essentially been playing the ‘Torres role’.

Elsewhere, having drawn their last two home games 1-1 and averaged only 1.5 goals per game this season, Liverpool have faced questions about their potency up front. The game against Norwich last week was interesting, as it showed how much their attack revolved around Luis Suarez. Of their nine attempts on target, six came from Suarez – who couldn’t score despite having 11 shots, a high for the Premier League season from any player.

Of equal interest was where those chances originated. A couple of weeks ago we looked at how Liverpool were dependent upon creating from the left for goalscoring opportunities – but in the game against Norwich, more shot assists came from the right.

Having played against Wolves on the left wing, where he seemed to be combining well with Jose Enrique and Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing was switched to the right against Norwich – and his shooting was predictable: his attempts all came from the right after cutting onto his stronger left foot, and five of the six were blocked by visiting defenders.

It will be interesting to see whether Kenny Dalglish considers dropping Downing. The winger has started all nine games in the league this season, but is yet to contribute either a goal or an assist. That said, his crossing was accurate against Norwich, and as Liverpool’s only real natural winger, he’ll probably get plenty more chances – and like his team, he needs to take them.

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