* Antonio Conte was careful not to use the particular word in the build-up to this match, but Chelsea headed into Saturday’s fixture at Stamford Bridge with a one-track mind. It was time to exact revenge.
It will go down as perhaps the most important result of the Premier League season. When Arsenal embarrassed Chelsea with a 3-0 win at the Emirates in September, everything changed. Not for the Gunners – Bill Murray is still presenting the weather – but for Chelsea, that was the turning point, the moment which has put them on the brink of a second Premier League title in three years. They have won 16 and lost just one of the 18 games since.
Conte’s role in this phenomenal run of form is well-documented, the Italian initiating both a change in playing system and in the players’ attitude. The result is that Chelsea hold a nine-point lead over their nearest challengers just five months later. The question has to be whether Arsene Wenger is capable of bringing about a similarly drastic wholesale change at Arsenal; the answer is obvious.
* As if to showcase the stark difference in mentality between these two sides, Conte’s starting line-up actually came in for criticism ahead of the game. It was the tenth time the Italian had named said XI, and Chelsea had won eight of those games. Yet the absence of Cesc Fabregas drew widespread disapproval.
The Spaniard is no stranger to the bench, of course. He has started just five Premier League games this season, and the six-minute cameo he was afforded here at Stamford Bridge means he has played just 54 minutes across the last five league games. After 12 seasons of regular first-team football across three clubs and two countries, the difficulty in transitioning to a bit-part player cannot be understated.
But the 29-year-old is ensuring not to waste any opportunity to impress, as his wonderfully-taken goal proves. Fabregas has played just 526 minutes this season, fewer than 13 Chelsea players, including Branislav Ivanovic. He has directly contributed to eight goals – more than all but Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Pedro. He deserves a consistent run of starts ahead of Nemanja Matic.
* As for Arsenal, there was only one real talking point when their side was announced: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would start in central midfield.
“The position where he really looks like blossoming is in the middle. I like his game,” said Arsene Wenger earlier this week. “He could perform in big games there and that means his real qualities are there,” he added.
From an admittedly small pool of contenders, the 23-year-old was perhaps Arsenal’s best performer. He created two presentable goalscoring chances, completed four dribbles, made four tackles, and registered the highest passing accuracy of any player on the pitch (93.2%). It would be a shame if the collectively shoddy performance of his teammates detracted from a generally positive display on his part.
* Chelsea headed into this game having conceded as many first-half goals in the defeat to Arsenal in September (3) as they had in the following 17 Premier League games. Many might have expected a plodding, tepid and nervous start from both sides, neither willing to risk making a mistake, but what they produced was a frenetic, energetic opening ten minutes.
After Wenger conceded that his players were not “mentally prepared” before their defeat to Watford in midweek, it must have pleased the Frenchman, surrounded by Chelsea fans in the home end due to his touchline ban, that the Gunners started with purpose and fervour. Alex Iwobi’s first-minute effort forced a corner, and every player looked motivated. Chelsea were caught by surprise, with Thibaut Courtois and even N’Golo Kante making early mistakes. The opportunity was there for Arsenal to capitalise, but the killer instinct was lacking. It would not be the last time.
* Chelsea, having made a poor start, responded emphatically. Gary Cahill almost scored from a free header on 11 minutes after Francis Coquelin conceded a free-kick for a mistimed challenge on Eden Hazard. The warning was not heeded, and the hosts took the lead through a header just two minutes later.
Debate will rage on over Marcos Alonso’s goal, the Spaniard deemed to have led with his elbow in challenging countryman Hector Bellerin for the aerial ball. Some insisted it was a foul – how could an elbow in the face not be? – while others saw no issue – Alonso kept his eyes on the ball and was simply using his arms for leverage.
It obfuscates the actual problem, which is that Arsenal had clear forewarning of Chelsea’s threat in the air. That Bellerin was left to mark Diego Costa for the initial header was laughable; that the right-back was once again stranded as the sole challenger against Alonso with three other Arsenal players in the penalty area was unforgivable.
* The main culprit in the concession of the goal was Theo Walcott, who watched Alonso’s run, but allowed the Chelsea wing-back free passage to goal. It would be an injustice if his crimes against defending went unpunished due to a contentious referee call.
It really does feel like back to square one for Walcott, who started the season in such wonderful form. He had no shots and made no key passes. Danny Welbeck was afforded 21 minutes and had more shots; Olivier Giroud was afforded 26 minutes and scored a goal; both had far more of a positive impact on the game than Walcott ever did.
The 27-year-old headed into the game with history in his sights. He had 99 career goals and had been substituted 99 times in the Premier League. That he reached the latter milestone first is a fitting summary of his career.
* Arsenal’s midfield was the talking point ahead of the game. Granit Xhaka’s stupidity, Aaron Ramsey’s lack of durability and Mohamed Elneny’s nationality forced Wenger into an uncomfortable position, particularly as he was responsibly for Jack Wilshere’s unavailability.
His solution was to debut a three-man central midfield of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Coquelin and Alex Iwobi, with Mesut Ozil on the left. It worked briefly, putting Chelsea on the backfoot, but the hosts soon adjusted. Once they did, Wenger’s only response was to move Ozil back to the No 10 role which he was failed to impress in for months. The Frenchman stepped briefly outside his comfort zone before reverting to the norm. And why has the three-man central midfield never been truly tested with Xhaka, a player whose skills and flaws would surely suit it?
* The crass way to describe Arsenal’s first half would be to liken it to a sh*t sandwich. They started excellently and posed a considerable threat in the ten minutes before half-time, but the filling was awful. Heads dropped after Chelsea’s opener. No leadership, no authority, no guidance, no aggression, no discipline. No surprise; we’ve been here before.
If Alonso really did foul Bellerin for the goal, it should surely have instigated a response from the players. A feeling of injustice can be a powerfully motivating thing. But there was no fire or emotion.
“We have to bounce back, it’s a big game against Chelsea, we will try to be there from the first minute to the last second,” said Shkodran Mustafi, who also used the word “mentality” on a number of occasions in an interview earlier in the week. If they tried, they didn’t show it.
* But, as said, they did end the half as brightly as they started it. Ozil squandered a decent chance in stoppage time when played in by Coquelin, the German taking too long to test Courtois. But Arsenal’s best chance came a few minutes earlier, when the Chelsea keeper kept out Gabriel’s free header. A delightful cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain caught the defence off-guard, and the substitute really should have scored.
It was very much the theme of the game, with Chelsea having only one more shot on target than Arsenal. It is not that the visitors did not have chances to equalise, simply that they were not ruthless enough in taking them.
* So, how many points does Petr Cech guarantee his club a season now? Any number up to 15 has been mooted in the past, but that is no longer the case. It is difficult to attribute blame on the Arsenal keeper for either of Chelsea’s first two goals, but his assist for Fabregas’ third was delightful.
Cech made two saves on Saturday, both of which were regulation, and neither of which were made convincingly. It was a performance that was made more underwhelming by Thibaut Courtois, who produced wonderful saves from Gabriel, Ozil and Welbeck.
A good keeper exudes calm, while a bad keeper fosters panic. Cech does neither. He is not a bad keeper by any means, but there are at least five better than him in the Premier League right now. A more ruthless manager would already be looking for an improvement.
* Eight minutes after half-time, the result was secured. So was the embarrassment: Eden Hazard sauntered from his own half, bamboozled three defenders and fired past Cech. It was a moment of brilliance aided by bewildering ineptitude.
Unlike one of his most recent predecessors, Conte has afforded Hazard a free role. Chelsea’s system eases the defensive burden on the Belgian, who is relied upon to cause havoc in attack rather than track back. Some players are simply too good, too talented to shackle, and when Hazard performs as he did on Saturday, one can only sit back and applaud. He completed ten dribbles – no other player completed more than five – and Arsenal could not handle him.
* Fun fact: Hazard was fouled three times at Stamford Bridge – more than any other Chelsea player. He has been fouled 67 times this season – more than any other player. So Coquelin would have been forgiven for stopping the forward in his tracks when given the chance. The Arsenal midfielder was the first firefighter called onto the scene, but he fled because the flames were too hot. Laurent Koscielny was also culpable for the goal, the Frenchman constantly backing away as Hazard bore down on goal, but Coquelin’s attempt at a tackle was laughable. Arsenal’s midfield enforcer was swatted away by one of Chelsea’s smallest players. It was the crowning moment in the humiliation.
* It turns out that Neil Ashton was just two years, 11 months and one newspaper early. Now at The Sun, Ashton published an article in March 2014 accusing Mesut Ozil of ‘nicking a living’ at Arsenal. A shiny gold star for anyone who can remember just one of his 87 touches.
This website has often lobbied against the claim that Ozil is a hindrance to his club in big games, but the evidence is mounting. In five games against Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal this season, he has scored one goal and assisted another. His last Premier League goal came against Stoke in December. He was completely anonymous here, as he was against Everton and Manchester City in December and Watford earlier this week. For a player attempting to justify a much higher wage, he’s doing an awfully bad job.
* Ozil’s contract negotiations took a hit, and while Alexis Sanchez is in a far better position than his Arsenal counterpart, this game did him no favours either. The Chilean was handed the unenviable task of occupying three Chelsea defenders, and was often forced to drop deep in search of the ball. But that does not account for a completely ineffective performance. He did not manage a single shot or key pass, and was contained with ease. He really does need much more support in games against the better sides.
* One of Chelsea’s unsung star performers this season has to be Pedro, who has recovered from an underwhelming debut campaign in England to become one of Conte’s most important players. The Spaniard is the perfect foil for the attacking prowess of Hazard and Costa, and was crucial in pulling Arsenal defenders out of position to create space throughout. He created three chances in the first half, which was more than every visiting player managed combined.
It means the club’s Player of the Year has had to accept a more bit-part role this season. Willian has started 12 games to Pedro’s 15, but Conte has managed their respective game time so well that both accept their roles in the squad. They might not be guaranteed starters like Costa and Hazard, but they are just as important to the cause.
* The most damning aspect of this defeat for Arsenal is that Chelsea never really had to play that well. The Blues were comfortable for large swathes of the match, absorbing pressure before breaking at pace on the counter attack. They never really got out of second gear because they never really had to. Yet this was as easy a win as they have had all season. The only thing that will stop them winning the title now is themselves, and Conte will not allow such complacency to set in.
Wenger has a far more difficult job on his hands. This is now a top-four race for Arsenal, for whom an FA Cup would surely not be enough to keep the Frenchman in the job for a third season. A Champions League exit to Bayern Munich seems inevitable.
The 67-year-old is a man of his word, and so if his decision as to his future at the Emirates really does depend on the fans, this has to be his final season. The only thing keeping him in the job is a fear of the unknown. Much like their issues with mentality, attitude and glorious failure, they have to overcome that at some point.