* Arsenal’s results against Chelsea will not ultimately decide their final position in the league table. Yet to call this “just another game”, as Arsene Wenger did in his press conference on Thursday, is at best wilfully blind. Chelsea continue to hold the Indian sign over Wenger and his team. The departure of Jose Mourinho has not rid Arsenal of their bluephobia.
Arsenal had won just five of their last 30 fixtures against Chelsea before Sunday, a laughable record against a close rival. They were without victory in nine competitive matches. This is a remarkable hoodoo.
Sunday was their chance to make amends. Chelsea’s only away wins since April 2015 had come against West Brom, Walsall, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Crystal Palace. Their Achilles’ heel was primed for corrective surgery. They simply went over on the other ankle.
Twice this season Arsenal have faced a Chelsea team close to their lowest ebb, chronically undermined by wholescale under-performance during their defence of the title. Twice Arsenal have fallen short; they haven’t even scored a goal.
It is on afternoons such as this that the doubts come surging back, and why Arsenal are so utterly frustrating for the near-neutral. Sunday was the chance not just to get back to the top of the Premier League table, but to right the wrongs of September. They simply made the same mistakes. That’s Arsenal for you, Arsenal to the power of infinity.
* While Arsenal truly were architects of their own downfall, Chelsea were magnificent. While home supporters moan about their club’s performances against one particular opponent, those in the away end must be thinking the opposite. Where have these Chelsea displays been in their other games?
Guus Hiddink may be hauling Chelsea in the right direction at a medium pace, but the Dutchman still deserves huge praise. Even before the sending-off, Chelsea were the more lively. They made Arsenal pay for their ill-discipline.
The anomalies of this bizarre Premier League season continue to crop up. Despite the worst title defence in many years, Hiddink’s Chelsea now boast the longest unbeaten run in the top flight, standing at seven matches. Only three clubs can beat that all season: West Ham, Leicester and Spurs. Ridiculous.
* The big story of the team announcements was the lack of Alexis Sanchez in the Arsenal line-up, the Chilean having to make do with a place on the bench.
“For Sanchez, the next two days will be decisive though, this time, I think he will make it for selection,” Wenger said on Thursday. “I’m cautious with him because we cannot afford a setback, which would mean a very long period out. We don’t want to take this risk. But the signs he’s shown in training this week are positive.”
While Sanchez’s place on the bench was predictable despite the magnitude of the fixture, that was an indication of how little they have missed their attacker. In other seasons, supporters would have been counting down the days to Sanchez’s return like a child waiting for Christmas. Well done Joel Campbell, in other words.
* Bearing in mind Arsenal’s recent record against Chelsea, and Chelsea’s recent away record full-stop, the expectation was for a tense, nervous opening to the game.
Not a bit of it. Arsenal surged forward with Mesut Ozil in the centre and Campbell and Theo Walcott swapping flanks, but it was Chelsea’s ambition that was most striking. Cesc Fabregas had more touches than any other midfielder on the pitch in the first 15 minutes, while Willian and Oscar both enjoyed space in wide areas.
After a number of disappointing high-profile Premier League matches (#PrayFor16Conclusions), it was a wonderful surprise.
* Some fouls are described as “clever” or “tactical”, generally a euphemism for breaking up a dangerous attacking move with a cynical act. The offence that brought Oscar the first yellow card of the match was the diametric opposite of “clever”.
Quite what possessed the Brazilian to fly into a tackle on Campbell on the far right of the penalty area is unclear, but thought and logic were nowhere to be found. It was not a dangerous challenge per se, with both feet sliding along the floor, but Campbell had knocked away the ball long before Oscar’s arrival. Stupid.
* Before the match, Wenger spoke to Sky Sports about the important aspects of the 90 minutes ahead.
“We have learned from the last incident against Diego Costa,” Wenger said. “Since then, we have improved. We know the importance of our discipline.”
Nobody quite does pride before a fall with the flourish and timing of Arsenal’s manager. Only 18 minutes had been played when Willian found Diego Costa with a wonderful through ball, the Spanish striker catching Per Mertesacker flat-footed. His first touch took the German out of the equation and sent him through on goal.
At such times, decision-making always becomes ultra-difficult. Adrenalin runs through the veins, and presumably made Mertesacker believe he should dive in and try to win the ball. He was mistaken.
As soon as Mertesacker had made contact with Costa – which he did – there was only going to be one conclusion, despite Wenger’s post-match annoyance. Arsenal have had three red cards this season – all of them against Chelsea.
Diving into the challenge at all was foolish, of course. Mertesacker had no chance of winning the ball, even with the longest legs in Germany. Leaving Costa one-on-one with Petr Cech (and Arsenal with 11 men) was the preferable outcome.
* There were two other elements of blame attached to Mertesacker:
1) It was his lack of speed that caused the issue in the first place. Pointing out that Mertesacker is slow is hardly ground-breaking, but it cost him his chance of redeeming the situation.
Arsenal 40m tests: Bellerin/Theo fastest Sanchez esp quick at 15m, Welb/Ox better over longer sprint. Ozil/Gnab also up there. Mert NOT last
— Jeremy Wilson (@JWTelegraph) April 8, 2015
The Daily Telegraph’s Jeremy Wilson’s tweet about Arsenal’s speed tests damns Mertesacker with faint praise. By pointing out the surprise at him not coming last over short sprints, the reputation is laid bare. Costa merely needed to hang on the German’s shoulder, before switching over to Laurent Koscielny on set-pieces.
2) Watch again Mertesacker’s challenge on slow-motion replay. Just before he commits to the tackle, he looks across to the assistant referee to see if the offside flag has been raised. It was too late for Mertesacker to pull out of the tackle at that point, but merely delayed his stretch for the ball.
What on earth possessed him to look across at that point? Concentrate on getting the ball first, and then worry about the decision of the officials.
* The dismissal forced Wenger into a substitution, with Olivier Giroud the player sacrificed to allow Gabriel Paulista to make up the defensive numbers. His removal brought disbelief – if not quite boos – around the Emirates.
The explanation may have been simple. Giroud was rumoured to be suffering with an ankle injury in the build-up to the game. Although passed fit to start, perhaps Wenger did not wish to risk having to make two substitutions before the final half hour.
That said, there was also a tactical logic to the move. With ten men, Arsenal were more likely to play on the counter-attack, soaking up pressure before hitting Chelsea on the break. With Wenger having to remove an attacking player, perhaps he felt that Campbell, Walcott and Ozil were better options on the counter. Whatever the reasoning, Giroud (understandably) looked thoroughly p*ssed off.
* Within five minutes of being reduced to ten, Arsenal conceded. Who else but Costa?
Branislav Ivanovic deserves immense credit for his ball into the box. After the original cross had been cleared, there seemed little danger with the Serbian running on the ball. Nacho Monreal merits criticism for his lack of attempt at cutting out the cross, which had just enough whip to cause panic.
The run and finish from Costa was magnificent, indicative of a player rejuvenated under Hiddink. It’s six goals in as many matches since the new manager arrived, following four goals in 24 games for club and country.
Arsenal’s defenders were not without blame, however. Koscielny failed to either spot or react to Costa’s front-post run, while Gabriel was understandably slow off the mark. Arsenal supporters would not be reassured by the statistic that Chelsea are the only Premier League team not to drop points from winning positions away from home.
* With Arsenal struggling to penetrate at all during the early stages of the second half, Chelsea were able to camp out in the opposition half, forcing four consecutive corners within a 30-second period.
(This might be an odd arena for revelations, but for a period of about a year I had a regular dream where I was playing a football match that got locked into a constant cycle of corners. The ball would be crossed time and time again, headed behind by the man on the front post on each occasion. It’s nice to share.)
The cycle was finally ended by a Chelsea penalty appeal; they can consider themselves highly unfortunate. Fabregas surged into the box, his run halted by Koscielny’s barge. Mark Clattenburg waved away the appeals with Mike Dean levels of over-exuberance (which is not a compliment), but it’s unclear what else the defender would have to have done to be penalised.
Chelsea’s annoyance was compounded minutes later, when Nemanja Matic was given a yellow card for a similar challenge in his own half.
* Arsenal did have their chances to respond, but their two best opportunities before the break both fell to Mathieu Flamini. The Frenchman might have been one of only two Arsenal starters to score a league goal against Chelsea (Walcott the other), but the groans of the Emirates crowd indicated his success with both chances.
Following the break, Arsenal’s only real opportunities came in a ten-second window when a scramble in the Chelsea area was finally thwarted by a Kurt Zouma block. The home side finally had their first shot on target after 85 minutes, Flamini’s flick deflecting off Zouma and allowing Thibaut Courtois to save with ease.
That weak effort saved Arsenal from failing to record a shot on target for only the second time in the league since August 2004. Even considering the inequality in numbers, final-third fluency lost out to bluntness.
* It is an appropriate time to discuss Walcott’s performance, made captain for the day on the occasion of his tenth anniversary at Arsenal and given a vote of confidence through Giroud’s substitution. Walcott’s display left us in a similar frame of mind to the majority of the other few hundred: Fits and spurts, but always leaving you wanting more. You can add the punchline to that yourselves.
Before kick-off, Thierry Henry spoke of his desire for Walcott to be something more than Mr Nice Guy. Politeness is a virtue, but on the field Henry wanted a bit more oomph. One suspects he is barking up the wrong tree.
Perhaps it is fitting that Walcott is Arsenal’s longest-serving player. He has won two major trophies in his decade at the club, promising much but actually delivering far too little of note. Throw in his midweek claims of communal mental strength and resilience within the squad, and your Arsenal bingo card is close to completion.
Therein lies the challenge: Prove us wrong, Theo. Prove to us that you have the fortitude and ability to help Arsenal to the title. Fail to do so, and his career risks entering the bracket of ‘just not quite’.
* Despite the unfavourable reception he received upon his return to the Emirates, Fabregas was superb. Hiddink made the decision to move his midfielder further up the pitch with Matic returning to the side, and it was a masterstroke. If Matic was refreshed after a break from the starting team, Fabregas thrived in a more attacking role.
It is impossible to overstate Fabregas’ importance to Chelsea’s victory. It was he who dictated the tempo of Chelsea’s play. It was he who had more touches, made more passes, completed more tackles and won possession more times than any other player on the pitch. It was he who was also fouled twice more than any other player, relieving any danger by shielding the ball and winning free-kicks.
Man of the match, Cesc Fabregas 107 touches 83 passes, 84% completion 6 tackles 12.29km covered pic.twitter.com/JSJ5IpfVvO
— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) January 24, 2016
“I’m nearly there, I’m feeling very sharp,” Fabregas told Sky Sports after the game. “My brain is much quicker than the last few months, I struggled a bit.
“I don’t know why it left, but the sharpness is back. Under pressure I’m much more in control, I’m not shaky, but of course my team-mates make it easier for me.” Nice to have you back, Cesc.
* A word too for John Obi Mikel, who was again supreme at the heart of Chelsea’s midfield. The Nigerian must wish that Hiddink could pop him in his pocket wherever he manages. The feeling is probably mutual.
It’s easy to underestimate Mikel’s job in that Chelsea midfield. With Fabregas forward and Matic roaming from side to side, his role requires great positional discipline without the ball. When the ball is won, Mikel is the calming influence, playing the ball simply to a teammate. He completed 70 of his 74 passes against Arsenal, having completed 78 of 82 in Chelsea’s last away game. It’s close to metronomic.
Finally, we all dream of injuring a player just by the quality of our first touch. Check.
Mikel just snapped Ramsey's ankles pic.twitter.com/KD5GzLP0tU
— Patrick (@Carlosophy) January 24, 2016
* I’ve spent most of this transfer window wondering why clubs aren’t falling over themselves to give Loic Remy a chance. He’s not yet 30, should be raring to go and he’s already proved he can score goals at two Premier League clubs.
I will spend the remaining days of this transfer window castigating myself for wondering why clubs aren’t falling over themselves to give Loic Remy a chance. He might not yet be 30 and have proved he can score goals at two Premier League clubs, but he also doesn’t look like he’s able to score past a small child in the garden at the moment.
Twice Eden Hazard provided Remy with the chance to seal victory. Twice the striker tried to hold up the ball in order to take it past the onrushing defender. Twice he lost the ball. Let him never be seen wearing the blue of Chelsea again.
* For the last word, we can only turn back to Wenger, and his Chelsea curse. “The team was resilient after the red card and fought until the last second,” he said after the game. “We should have belief in ourselves.”
Perhaps they should, but Wenger must now re-convince his players. Petr Cech picked up three of his teammates from the turf after the final whistle, and many Arsenal players know this feeling only too well. Their last six results against Chelsea read: 0-1, 0-2, 0-0, 0-2, 0-6, 0-0.
When asked pre-match whether Arsenal’s recent results made the game a psychological hurdle, Wenger agreed with the assessment. “Yes of course,” he said. “When you have not beaten a team for a long time it demands a special performance.”
Wenger did not get his “special performance”. In fact, he got exactly the same performance as before. Arsenal are now on a run of three league games without victory, January in danger of becoming the new November. A title challenge rests on their response to this adversity.
This is a title race in which Arsenal really should be victorious. Manchester United and Chelsea are flawed far beyond expectation. Leicester’s lack of squad depth and quality in comparison with Arsenal should make them surmountable. Tottenham have never been in this position before, while Manchester City seem to have at least one eye on Pep Guardiola. It might not be now or never, but this feels a vital season in finally assessing Wenger’s lasting legacy. Yet his side still make it so bloody hard for themselves.
It’s not that Arsenal were beaten by Chelsea again, but that they beat themselves. Again. That’s why we can’t bring ourselves to believe that Arsenal can win this marathon until they’re over the line and wrapped in tin foil. Three steps forward, another one back; take the floor for the Arsenal dance.