What should have been the peak of both finalists’ seasons ended up overshadowed in the run-up to this game by off-field factors. Difficulties in even making it to Baku meant that neither team managed to sell their paltry ticket allocations, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan opted not to travel due to concerns over his safety amid tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The result was a strange atmosphere more akin to a friendly than a European final, broadcasted using a top-down camera angle that’s great for analysing the match but you can’t help but feel was used to disguise the empty seats.
Maurizio Sarri sent out his team in a 4-3-3 formation, while Unai Emery opted for a 3-4-1-2.
The first half did little to liven the mood. Arsenal initially defended in a narrow 5-2-1-2 shape with man orientations. The strikers would keep central with the centre-backs, Mesut Ozil stuck very tight to Jorginho, while Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka would generally follow Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante respectively and the back five ensured plenty of cover against Chelsea’s attacking trio.
This left Emerson Palmieri and Cesar Azpilicueta free on the wings, so when the ball was inevitably played out to them Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac would sprint out to close them down, with the four remaining defenders shifting across to cover, still keeping a man advantage.
As a result, Chelsea struggled to find any rhythm in the first half. The ball would go wide to Emerson, who would immediately be closed down by Maitland-Niles and have all his passing options closely marked, he would pass backwards and the ball would be cycled over to Azpilicueta, who would be closed down by Kolasinac and have all his passing options closely marked and so on.
David Luiz would send long balls forward to Olivier Giroud but against five defenders it had limited effectiveness.
The positioning of Kovacic helped Chelsea gain some control of the match though. The Croatian would pull out to the touchline on the left to pick up the ball in space, with Torreira reluctant to follow him too closely and risk leaving an open pass into the feet of Eden Hazard. Kovacic would have the ball free in space and Chelsea could overload the left – Emerson would push forward down the flank, Hazard would drift around to either pick up the ball or at least drag Sokratis Papastathopoulos away from the wide area, opening up space for Emerson to attack, and Jorginho would come across to combine with Kovacic and work the ball forward, with Ozil’s defending starting well but getting worse as the game went on. Even if these combinations down the left didn’t work, it would drag Arsenal across, opening up space for Kante, Pedro Rodriguez and Azpilicueta on the right , always just a cross-field ball away.
Towards the end of the half, the centre-backs began to position themselves wider and Kovacic would drop back to collect the ball with Jorginho pushing forward into midfield. Torreira was still reluctant to move too far away from Hazard, so the Croatian had time on the ball and it just allowed Chelsea to build attacks with greater ease.
While they generally defended quite well in the first half, Arsenal didn’t really look like scoring. Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pinned the centre-backs well so, while Emerson bombed up and down the left, Azpilicueta preferred to stay back and help the central pairing, leaving it to Pedro to provide the width on the right. The threat of the forwards meant the Chelsea defence tried to keep narrow, which opened up space for Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac out wide.
Although this attacking strategy made sense on paper, it never really translated into much threat on the pitch for Arsenal. The Chelsea back four would stay narrow, Arsenal would give spread the ball out to their wing-backs in dangerous areas in the final third, and then the Chelsea full-backs would rush across and defend the cross.
Like Chelsea, Arsenal also frequently resorted to just hitting it long to their strikers, although it was slightly more effective due to the pace of Lacazette and Aubameyang compared to Giroud. It still didn’t result in a goal though.
Shortly into the second half, Chelsea took the lead. They played the ball down the right and then spread it out to the left to Emerson in space. Having to move out from the back five, Maitland-Niles failed to get close to the Italian, giving him time to pick out a cross for Giroud, who expertly squeezed home a header at the near post against his former club.
Chelsea then doubled their lead ten minutes later. Attempting to counter, Maitland-Niles is tackled in his own half and the ball finds its way to Kovacic and then Hazard down the left. Xhaka moves across to cover the gap Maitland-Niles left but as a result no one is protecting the centre in front of the defence: Torreira, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles barely mustering jogs in their “attempts” to track back. Pedro recognises the space available and checks his run to receive a pull-back by Hazard, Nacho Monreal spotting his run too late to stop him scoring.
Chelsea’s third is even worse from Arsenal. Kovacic picks up the ball on the half-way line and dribbles forward, Torreira (possibly injured given he’s substituted in tears immediately after) simply giving up and walking away when the Croatian runs at him, while Xhaka and Maitland-Niles make no effort to get back and aid their defence as the midfielder runs at them. To his immense credit, Laurent Koscielny manages to cleanly tackle Kovacic, but, unsurprisingly given they don’t bother to track back, no midfielder is on hand to pick up the loose ball. Pedro gets to it first and plays in Giroud, who is fouled from behind by Maitland-Niles finally sprinting back at the last moment. Hazard converts the resulting penalty.
Desperately needing goals, Emery makes an immediate double substitution, bringing on Alex Iwobi and Matteo Guendouzi for Monreal and Torreira. This changes Arsenal to a 4-2-3-1, with Guendouzi partnering Xhaka in front of the back four, and Iwobi and Aubameyang either side of Ozil behind Lacazette.
Iwobi makes an immediate impact, looking to make things happen with the ball and then scoring a superb volley from a free-kick, but Arsenal’s comeback is over before it’s really started: Aubameyang is dispossessed in his own half and only Guendouzi tries to help the central defenders against Chelsea’s attack, meaning Hazard gets an easy second.
What was an even game quickly became a rout and the Arsenal players have no one to blame but themselves. Their lack of any effort to aid their centre-backs would be disgraceful regardless of the context, however that it came in a European final, gifting their opponents not only a trophy but the opportunity to play in the Champions League, means serious questions should be asked of whether they should continue at the club.