* “Boring, boring Chelsea.”
That was the chant ringing around the Emirates after the final whistle had sounded. That was the message to the players in blue who dared to celebrate the rubber-stamping of their first Premier League title in five years.
The home support were angry that Chelsea had come for a point and got that point. “Booo! Achieving your goals, boooo! And you’ve got more points than anyone else. Boooo! We wanted goals and you didn’t score any. Booo! We won’t mention the fact that we were incapable of doing so either and actually only had one shot on target. Booo!”
Presumably the fans who chanted against Chelsea’s aesthetics are a new breed of Arsenal supporter? Certainly not the same ones who triumphantly chanted “1-0 to the Arsenal” in the George Graham years, that’s for sure. Because that would be incredibly one-eyed.
Were those same fans chanting “Boring, boring Arsenal” in 1997/98 under Arsene Wenger, too? That’s when a team containing Ian Wright, Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Nicolas Anelka and Patrick Vieira scored 19 goals in 16 league games between November and March on their way to winning the league? Were they left embarrassed by their club keeping 12 clean sheets in 14 matches late on in that season? Did they vomit in the stands following their fifth 1-0 win in six matches, the other being a 0-0 draw with West Ham?
I’m going to go ahead and guess that they didn’t. Which is probably because they were deliriously happy that their club was going to win the league. Nothing else mattered, and nor should it.
“But they only came for a point,” you can sniff, muttering something about football aesthetics as if the style of another team affects something deep inside your soul. I can just about understand people getting annoyed about their own team’s strategy, but that of another team? No.
“I don’t care where and when, I just want to be a champion,” said Jose Mourinho before kick-off, and he will get his wish for the eighth time in 13 seasons. The relevant conclusion is this: You can afford to play for a draw when a draw is all you need.
* Mourinho may have claimed this week that such things were trivialities, but don’t for one minute think he isn’t proud of his record against Arsene Wenger.
Arsenal had only won two of their last 12 league matches against Chelsea. Wenger had never beaten Mourinho in 12 attempts; Jose’s satisfied grin must be scorched into Wenger’s retinas by now. You can make it unlucky 13 on both statistics now. Furthermore, in the 1,170 minutes Wenger has faced Mourinho, Arsenal have been in the lead for just 73 of those. Same old story, then. Another season passes by without victory.
Wenger this week attempted to slur Chelsea’s style in last weekend’s victory over Manchester United. “It is easy to defend,” was Wenger’s simple view. You’d have to be a fool to expect Mourinho to keep quiet.
“It’s not easy,” was the Portuguese’s reply. “If it was easy, you wouldn’t lose 3-1 at home to Monaco. If he defends well he draws 0-0 against Monaco and wins in Monte Carlo. It’s not easy to prepare a team to defend.”
Point made, and a valid one at that. Perhaps if Arsene had plumped for the “easy” option more often, Chelsea wouldn’t be on the verge of celebrating their fourth title since Arsenal last won one?
* Much of Chelsea’s pre-match discussion concerned the return to fitness of Diego Costa, but the Spaniard predictably failed to make the squad. Of greater surprise was the lack of Didier Drogba in the starting line-up, the Ivorian kept on the bench by Mourinho. Drogba has scored eight times in 11 Premier League appearances against Arsenal in his career, joint highest with West Brom.
“Didier was almost fit to start,” Mourinho revealed before the game. “But we have a game on Wednesday too and I have many doubts that Diego or Loic Remy will be available. I have to think about that too.”
It raised the question of who would be Chelsea’s designated striker, with nominations for Eden Hazard, Willian and Cesc Fabregas. In the end, all were wrong; it was Oscar who started in front of the other three.
For Arsenal, Per Mertesacker recovered from injury in time to take his place in defence, whilst Nacho Monreal was again preferred to Kieran Gibbs for the bigger matches. Jack Wilshere was part of a Premier League match-day squad for only the second time since November.
* The pattern of the game started as expected, with Arsenal on the front foot and Chelsea happy to sit back and drop off. Alexis Sanchez again entered into fruit fly mode, buzzing around and landing upon every attacking move.
Yet again, however, Chelsea’s opponents struggled to create clear-cut chances. Mourinho’s side may may have started pressing from a deeper position, but they did harry and hassle the man in possession when 30-40 yards from goal to great effect.
Behind Giroud up front, Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey lost possession on 35 occasions in the first half alone, with Willian winning back the ball ten times in 45 minutes. Such tenacity made Arsenal progress difficult, and reveals why the Brazilian is so highly regarded by his manager.
Sanchez did drag a shot wide from the edge of the area and Mesut Ozil shot straight at Thibaut Courtois from 15 yards, but that was the only time the Belgian was called upon before the break. As ever, Chelsea proved that they are the experts at drawing the sting out of even the most creative and dangerous attack. It was to be the home side’s first and last shot on target.
* In fact, it was Chelsea who created the best chance before the break, indicative of their counter-attacking ability. Willian again won possession in his own half, exchanging passes with Hazard further forward. Willian then surged forward before threading a through ball to Ramires that left Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny scratching around for 30p to call their mums. It was a sumptuous pass.
Chelsea’s fluid attacking shape could have left any one of four players on the end of Willian’s ball, but Ramires would be Mourinho’s last pick of the bunch. The Brazilian’s toe poke was comfortably saved by David Ospina.
It was a move reminiscent of Hazard’s goal at Stamford Bridge last week, a fast counter-attacking break followed by a low stab at goal. Both came in the 38th minute too. Mourinho must have wished that Hazard could have been the recipient again.
* Oh hey there penalty controversy fans! Come on in, welcome. Take a seat, we’re just about to get started.
Michael Oliver’s first decision came after just ten minutes, and it’s important to say that he got it right. That’s the port for him to cling to in the ensuing storm.
Oscar surged into the penalty area, tracked by Hector Bellerin. Bellerin did put a hand on his shoulder, but the contact was minimal and insufficient to award a penalty. If there had been a tangle of legs as well, an argument could have been made for clumsiness, but that was entirely absent. The clichéd claim of “it’s a contact sport” rings true.
From then on, however, Oliver’s half only went one way.
* There is a strange but regular occurrence in football whereby if you pass the ball and are challenged late a foul is given, but when that occurs after you take a shot, the same does not occur. It’s as if taking a shot creates a vortex in which traditional regulations do not apply. Instead prison rules reign, and everything is fair game.
How on earth referee Oliver failed to see David Ospina charge into Oscar we can only guess. The goalkeeper rushed out rashly, and collided into the Brazilian at least half a second after Oscar had looped the ball over him. There was no attempt to claw after the ball in mid-air, nor to avoid contact with the player. The Colombian simply barged into his opponent body first.
It was dangerous and it was reckless, but no penalty was given. The suspicion that goalkeepers have carte blanche to do as they please in such situations continues.
* The damage to Oscar was also long-lasting, the Chelsea player removed at half-time after displaying symptoms of concussion.
As this video indicates, questions about why he was instantly allowed to re-enter the field of play by medical staff must be asked.
It was reported that Oscar was taken to hospital at half-time. That’s almost half an hour too late. When are people going to start taking this seriously?
* Chelsea’s next penalty claim added insult to literal injury. Fabregas collected the ball on the edge of the area and weaved past Cazorla, falling over his international teammate’s challenge. Time seemed to slow down as Michael Oliver put his whistle to his lips, but the official pointed to award a free-kick to Arsenal. Fabregas was booked for ‘simulation’.
The replays didn’t help Oliver’s cause. Fabregas may have fallen slightly theatrically (although who doesn’t these days?), but there was clear contact from Cazorla just above the knee on both of the Chelsea midfielder’s legs. That contact impeded Fabregas’ progress, and therefore a penalty should have been awarded.
The referee’s position could only have been better had he been sat on Fabregas’ thigh to feel the contact. A weekend in the Championship will undoubtedly be the perfect magic cure for his inaccuracies.
* And onto the last one, mercifully.
Oliver’s decision not to penalise Gary Cahill for handball was the most understandable of his three contentious first-half calls.
When Cazorla struck his shot from 15 yards out, it was always likely that the central defender would slide in to try and make the block. There will be argument and counter-argument regarding arms being in ‘natural positions’, but the reality is that no defender dives in with their arms by their sides. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a penalty, though. The law has more grey than black or white.
However, watch the replay again to notice something crucial. The ball did not strike Cahill’s arm straight from Cazorla’s boot, but instead bounced up off his knee and onto his hand. That may have made up the referee’s mind.
* The second half followed a similar pattern to the first but, if anything, Chelsea kept Arsenal even further at arm’s length. It was not until the 68th minute that Mertesacker had the home side’s first shot after the break, and they failed to have a single shot on target in the entire half.
Mertesacker’s chance stemmed from a set-piece, the first time Chelsea had been ruffled from Arsenal’s crosses into the box. Courtois came out to claim Cazorla’s free-kick, but was blocked off by the presence of his own defenders. He could only punch weakly. The ball fell to Mertesacker, but his shot was skewed comfortably wide.
Arsenal’s only other notable chance came in stoppage time, when Monreal cut the ball back to Ozil. The German’s shot was scuffed and misdirected, almost falling into the path of substitute Danny Welbeck. He was also unable to get sufficient contact on the ball to direct it at goal.
* If you were to trust one Premier League player to carry out a defensive strategy, you’d be a fool not to select John Terry for the task. At the age of 34, he remains the best central defender in the country. It’s not even close.
Against Arsenal, Terry was at his imperious best. Four duels, four duels won. Two aerial duels, two aerial duels won. Thirteen clearances made, more than any other player on the pitch. He also lost possession just five times in 90 minutes.
“I was telling John [Terry] in the dressing room out of all the performances he’s given me in six years that was the best performance I’ve ever seen from a defensive point of view,” said Mourinho after the game. “His defensive performance was absolutely amazing.” No arguments here.
Terry has played every minute of this Premier League season, a fine achievement for someone of his age and a tribute to his professionalism. In 2970 minutes he has committed just ten fouls and been booked once.
He’s as good now as he has ever been, and will captain Chelsea to the title for the fourth time.
* I’d like to offer my congratulations to those Arsenal supporters who applauded Fabregas when he came off the pitch late in the game, and shake my head at those booing fervently.
Of course fans may be unhappy in the manner at which Fabregas left Arsenal, but joining the then-best team in the world who were also his boyhood club isn’t the most serious of football crimes, especially when the Spaniard made it clear the year before that he wished to move on.
“There would be congestion,” explained the Arsenal manager this week on his call to not sign Fabregas last summer. “Once you have bought another one with the same qualities and then he wants to come back, it is not obvious to spend so much money on a position that is exactly the same.”
Fabregas’ decision to join Chelsea was at least partly based on Wenger’s choice to ignore the midfielder. What else was he meant to do?
He played over 300 matches for your club, went to join his mates in his homeland and played for the European champions, and then wasn’t signed by your club. So stop being so bloody silly.
* One of the accusations labelled at Arsenal (largely from their own supporters) is their infuriating naivety in not breaking up play, so there were genuine celebrations when Ramsey, Monreal and Cazorla were all booked for stopping Chelsea counter-attacks.
‘We’re finally learning!’ was the overwhelming response when I pointed out the cynical nature of the bookings on Twitter. Supporters are delighted to see some darkness to match the airiness of Arsenal’s attacking creativity.
Still, it does raise a smile. Football: Where defending impeccably can be met with boos but players receiving yellow cards for s**thousery can be cheered.
* I feel like it’s a statement I could copy and paste from at least six or seven other editions of this feature, but there are reasons for great positivity at Arsenal. Their results against the rest of the likely top four this season (P5, W1, D2, L2) are not exceptional, but a great deal better than in previous campaigns.
There is also hope that a soft underbelly has been, and can continue to be, hardened. The progress of Francis Coquelin and Bellerin is encouraging, as is their continued qualification for the Champions League.
Finally, there is a renewed sense of goodwill from home supporters, not mutiny. That’s a decent start.
But Arsenal cannot afford to stand still. A defensive midfielder and goalkeeper are priorities, and transfer targets must be attained before the mad rush of late August. Their fingers have been burnt too many times to go near that fire again.
Finally, the mindset of those supporters after the final whistle must change. Of course it is frustrating to watch an opponent stifle the life out of a game, but no English team is dominant enough to demand style as well as success. Being aesthetically sated is an enjoyable thing, of course, but there is nothing as sweet as the taste of victory. It’s Chelsea, not Arsenal or anybody else, who are quaffing the champagne.
* And Chelsea deserve their moment in the sun, however many shadows others try and cast over that success. When the PFA Team of the Year was announced on Sunday morning, my initial thought was to wonder why Fabregas and Cesar Azpilicueta had not merited inclusion, and yet over the half the team already wore Chelsea blue. That indicates their dominance over this title race.
Mourinho may have resorted to stifling the opposition in their biggest games recently, but their early season form earned them that right. Chelsea have been top of the table from the moment the final whistle blew in their opening match.
I’ll leave the final words to their manager: “When you lose crucial pieces, the team loses certain qualities. The switch in style was just a consequence of things. I hope to start next season the same way we started this season. This is the way we want to play, this is the way we played during the season, and the team we enjoy more. But it’s also very enjoyable to deal with a difficult moment, to deal in a strategic way. In football, team spirit and team ethics and strategy is this. If we manage to win the Premier League, we did everything right.”
“Boring? I think boring is 10 years without a title. That’s boring,” was Mourinho’s parting shot after the match. He couldn’t resist the jab at Wenger. After a week during which his side have been criticised from those both outside the club and below him in the table, can you really blame him?