Nobody will talk about anything but Diego Costa’s sh*thousery, and Gabriel walking into his trap like an amateurish mouse, but there is more to discuss. We promise…
* Nothing is certain but death, taxes and Arsenal somehow contriving to shoot themselves in the foot against Chelsea. Theo Walcott recently said: “We’re going to push on and when we hit our peak, people will be more and more worried.” Congratulations Theo, you boys have officially reached Peak Arsenal. Again. We would indeed be worried if it wasn’t so sodding predictable.
* Diego Costa is Jose Mourinho: A horrible, conniving, despicable, manipulative genius. From the very first minute he was hitting the floor hard and appealing harder, shaking an imaginary yellow card with seasoned panache. But the real genius came in those few minutes before half-time when he twice hit Laurent Koscielny in the face, then chested him to the ground, then exchanged body slaps and insults with Gabriel and then – finally – snitched to teacher when the gullible Gabriel flicked out with his foot in the least violent act of the whole exchange. Bingo. Job done. Absolute genius from an utter, utter sh*thouse.
* ‘I ain’t gonna lie…I enjoyed that…Good ‘ol fashioned bruiser…’ was the Instagram message from Crystal Palace defender Damien Delaney after he went into battle with Diego Costa three weeks ago. Years of wrestling with nasty strikers in the Championship and below prepared the 34-year-old Delaney to deal with the nastiest of nasty b**tards. What did he do? Ignored the sneaky, wind-up tactics and simply nailed both him and the ball in every 50-50 challenge. Perhaps if Gabriel had spent a spell at Mansfield Town on loan, he would have known to simply laugh at Costa’s pure kn*bbery. Costa set a very obvious trap and Gabriel walked straight into it like a mouse on his very first day of being a mouse.
0 – Diego Costa did not commit a single foul against Arsenal in today's match. Zero.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 19, 2015
* Chelsea fans will argue that they should have already beeen 1-0 up at that point via an Eden Hazard penalty after Gabriel tangled with the Belgian in what initially looked like strong defending but was revealed – on replay – to be Brazilio-Belgian wrestling. If it takes a replay to see the true nature of the challenge, we have to forgive Mike Dean for that mistake at least. For the record, he got the Santi Cazorla red card right, even if it’s difficult to admit that the lovely little Spaniard (who bizarrely looks like a Geordie Shore cast member) should have seen red. We wanted to hold him a little bit.
* If Arsenal had been smarter, it would have been Chelsea reduced to ten men before half-time. In the eighth minute, Branislav Ivanovic was a stumbling duck as Alexis Sanchez accelerated past him; why did it take another 20 minutes of football to force the Serb into a second foul? And why did it take another 20 minutes of football to force him into a third foul that earned him a yellow card? If Sanchez had stayed wide and targeted the Chelsea captain, he would have been trudging slowly off before the interval. Martin Keown recently said that the Gunners are ‘too nice’ – any other side (and certainly Chelsea) would have intructed Sanchez to run at Ivanovic until he was begging to be taken off, sent off or simply put down.
That Ivanovic was making his 61st straight Premier League appearance should have surprised nobody; he has not started a league game on the bench since April 2013. The eagle-eyed amongst you will note that April 2013 came before the return of Jose Mourinho. Despite being made to look like the top-flight’s worst right-back by Jefferson Montero and Yannick Bolasie, perhaps Mourinho knew that Arsenal would not have the balls, nous or killer instinct to continue the theme.
* It was billed as a shock that John Terry was not involved against Arsenal but when Mourinho said this before the game – “I try to read the game. I try to read the opponent” – he might as well have simply said “Theo Walcott is dead quick”. And when Kurt Zouma slipped and still managed to dispossess Walcott in full flight rather than opt for the traditional Terry approach of a rugby tackle, yellow card and free-kick, it looked very much like the right decision. Walcott is really not clever or creative enough to thrive when his pace is not a weapon and against Zouma, his pace was decommissioned.
Just before the half-hour, Walcott was put through by a sumptuous ball from Mesut Ozil, who began the weekend as the most creative player in Europe’s top five leagues. How he must curse that it is Walcott – who weighed up his options and chose a curled effort straight into Asmir Begovic’s arms – on the end of his lovely balls.
* Beyond the Costa arseholery, this was much, much better from Chelsea. They were pressing, they were tackling, they were squeezing the space in which Ozil, Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey like to operate. There was a wonderful tackle from Oscar in the 11th minute that indicated that this was a very different Chelsea to the one that has started the season lying down with their legs in the air.
This looked very much like a side who have been hurt by this week’s incessant talk of crisis. The combative Nemanja Matic made a return, Cesc Fabregas looked rather less like he was carrying white goods on his back and Eden Hazard showed glimpses of still being Eden Hazard. After beating just 15 players in five Premier League games, he skipped past eight tired Arsenal bodies at Stamford Bridge.
Beating ten and then nine men does not scream “we’re back” but it does whisper “you know what, we’re not that bad”.
* When it was still 11 v 11, Pedro, Costa, Hazard, Fabregas and Oscar were all drifting left and getting some real joy there. For about ten minutes, it looked very much like Hector Bellerin would be the Arsenal player designated to self-combust. There was some very cute interplay between the Chelsea players that had been missing so far this season, though it should worry Mourinho that they still struggled to create chances even with Arsenal very much on the back foot.
When the opportunity finally came, it was on the counter-attack, with a sumptuous ball from Fabregas finding Pedro pushing Arsenal’s defensive line and getting in behind Nacho Monreal. It was a warning that Fabregas was starting to find his range but the smart money was still on a half-time 0-0 stalemate. As long as Arsenal stayed compact, Chelsea were looking much prettier but ultimately toothless.
* The sight of Francis Coquelin on the ground and gesticulating towards the bench sparked a wave of worry amongst Arsenal fans that reverberated around the internet. Who was on the bench? Mikel Arteta. Get up, fella – a wobbling, one-legged Coquelin is still better than Arteta on two sturdy legs. He returned to the fray but his half-time withdrawal – coupled with Chelsea having space around the edge of the box – told the story: He had been struggling.
We have banged this drum until we have calluses on our hands but once again we must pick up the sticks to pick out the rhythm of that old classic ‘Why the f*** didn’t they buy a defensive midfielder and a striker?’ Like all the best earworms, it’s catchy but it ultimately grates. Would a better striker have taken one of Walcott’s half-chances? Would having a better defensive midfielder than Arteta on the bench have allowed Coquelin to come off when he was clearly injured? Mike Dean, Diego Costa and Gabriel are at the top of the blame list for Arsenal’s defeat but a place at 4) should be saved for Wenger and his summer malaise.
* There was a look on Santi Cazorla’s face just after the break – as Hazard started to think that he could really have a lovely afternoon against ten men – that said ‘this is going to be a hell of a long 45 minutes’. As it happens, Cazorla himself only had to suffer for another 33 minutes while his teammates chased shadows.
But for all the extra space afforded by Gabriel’s red card (and Coquelin’s withdrawal), it was from a set-piece that Chelsea typically opened the scoring. Fifteen of the 41 PL goals Arsenal have conceded since the start of last season have now been headers, and it’s little surprise when they are giving away an average 4cm a man to the opposition. Arsenal’s diddymen got absolutely nowhere near Zouma as he headed past Petr Cech. So far, so Arsenal.
* That was Fabregas’ first assist of the season. Only 17 more to go to match last season’s efforts.
* Something is not quite right with Alexis Sanchez. He’s now had 31 shots this season without scoring a Premier League goal, and his effort – hit with his studs – after a rare mix-up between Zouma and Gary Cahill made us feel a little sad. After the busiest of summers at Copa America, was he rushed back too quickly because his enthusiasm makes him a difficult man to keep on the bench? Certainly, the sharpness of last season is not quite there. Against Chelsea, he was dispossessed five times; it wouldn’t have happened if he had stayed wide and scared the bejesus out of Ivanovic.
Is he a little fatigued? Or has he now been at the club long enough to be full Arsenal?
* While Sanchez is being not quite the full Sanchez on one flank, Aaron Ramsey really is floundering on the other side. Quite why Wenger did not put Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the wing and test Cesar Azpilicueta is a mystery. Or it would be a mystery if it wasn’t entirely predictable that while Mourinho ‘tried to read the opponent’, Wenger simply played the same team that had beaten Stoke. Bizarrely, the players and tactics good enough to beat Stoke at home were not good enough to make an impression on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Talking about anything other than the red card that changed the game will inevitably lead to cries of ‘Diego Costa is a c***. Full stop’ but there were enough clues in the opening 40-odd minutes that Arsenal were going to struggle to score against Chelsea. They were way too narrow and walked into Chelsea’s plan of trying to make them operate in a packed midfield.
* Even at 1-0 up against ten men, there was still time for a wonderfully Mourinho-esque substitution. Off came Oscar and on went Ramires. The result was that Chelsea’s players lost their urgency, having heard the clear message from the bench that they were to protect their narrow lead. They had been sweeping forward and cutting through at will, but were now passing the ball sideways and looking more like the Chelsea that finished last season at walking pace. Arsenal sniffed an opportunity and for a few minutes at least, an equaliser would not have been entirely surprising.
* Where does this leave Chelsea? Certainly with pride restored, and nobody would be shocked to see them put together a sequence of victories against Newcastle, Southampton, Aston Villa and West Ham. By the end of October, talk of ‘crisis’ could be long forgotten, to be replaced by ‘transition’, which has become a byword for acceptable failure. Hazard and Fabregas in particular will sleep rather easier after that 90 minutes, while Costa will sleep like an overgrown, ugly baby, gently snoring and dreaming of the joys of tempting a grown man into kicking you like a petulant child.
* As for Arsenal, the injustice of Costa escaping with a yellow card will propel them through the next few weeks. Will it propel them towards a title challenge? Sorry but no. “No one is going to remember the start of the season. It’s all about how we finish,” said Walcott last week. He’s right; we will have forgotten this defeat – like every other defeat to Chelsea – when they finish third. We are going to need a new drum.