Arsenal 0 Chelsea 1
Chelsea completed the double over Arsenal in the league with a 1-0 win at the Emirates. Here are a baker’s dozen of thoughts after the game.
- We have to start with that man Diego Costa. The Spaniard has taken a liking to playing the Gunners in a similar way to Didier Drogba. Its not just the goals, but the fact that he ruffles Arsenal psychologically as well. It was no surprise that the first key moment of the game came courtesy of Costa. Running on to a through ball from Willian, Costa raced past Arsenal’s back four before being brought down by Per Mertesacker. The fall may have been theatric and the decision slightly contentious, but Mark Clattenburg had little choice but to send off the German centre-back. Despite it being only the 18th minute, it was clear to many right then, that Arsenal were going to have a major struggle on their hands.
- While many Gunners fans are lamenting Per Mertesacker’s lack of pace in the sending-off, an honest post-mortem should reveal Mathieu Flamini’s culpability in the move. Ostensibly taking the place of Francis Coquelin in the side, Flamini has none of the positional understanding that his countryman brings to the role. Willian’s final pass was delivered from the centre circle, yet for some unknown reason Flamini was further up the field. Against most teams in the Premier League, Arsenal may not always pay the price, but against teams in the top half this has already cost the Gunners quite a lot. Flamini ran around like a headless chicken at Anfield and St. Mary’s and it is quite frustrating that Wenger has not given Calum Chambers more of an opportunity in this position. With the signing of Mohamed Elneny, Arsenal fans will be hoping to see lesser of Flamini in the starting eleven.
- Back to that man Diego Costa. Having played his part in the game’s turning point, Costa duly applied the decisive touch of the match. He found the perfect pocket of space in the box to head in Branislav Ivanovic’s excellent cross for the match-winning goal. At his best, Costa makes such finishes look very easy. Under the stewardship of Guus Hiddink, there are now clear signs that Chelsea’s forward is playing very close to his best level.
- Speaking of Ivanovic, the Serbian is another player whose confidence seems to have returned under Hiddink. For the first three months of the season, every critic and his mother advocated the dropping of the right-back. While the defensive uncertainty still exists, Ivanovic’s confidence has returned in the attacking third. There may be little left to salvage in the league, but Ivanovic has a knack for being decisive in attack in crucial moments. This trait may well come to the fore if Chelsea are to find success in the cups.
- With Arsenal down to ten men, chances were always going to be at a premium. Thus it must have been sheer agony for Gunners fans that when they did create an excellent chance on the stroke of half time, the man on the end of it was Flamini. In stead of heading in a beautifully floated ball, Flamini inexplicably tried a hybrid lob/volley which looped over the bar. If you are going to be positionally undisciplined, at least finish the easy chances in the box.
- After Mertesacker’s sending off many pundits claimed Arsene Wenger made an error in substituting Olivier Giroud. This writer’s opinion is that it was actually the right decision. Arsenal are not suited to lumping it in the box even with a full compliment of players, let alone with a man down. The idea of trying to get as much possession and release Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell with quick passes was correct in theory and with better execution, Arsenal could have created better chances to score.
- So how did Chelsea fare with the man advantage? Quite poor in actuality. In stead of ramming home the advantage, Chelsea’s midfield did little with the ball. There was no control exerted in the centre, they didn’t stretch Arsenal at any point and that they only had a marginal edge in possession was quite galling. Such has been the season that the Blues have suffered that three points are not to be scoffed at. However, even in this undefeated streak that Hiddink has orchestrated, there are still plenty of things that are not working on the pitch.
- Cesc Fabregas playing against Arsenal is now a part of the narrative surrounding this fixture. The Spaniard did make a few threatening runs in the first half, but in keeping with the nature of the game, he hardly elevated his game to heights above average. Against ten men, Fabregas would have been expected to run the game from midfield in a manner similar to how he used to at the Emirates. While he did have most possession of the ball with 102 touches, his passes neither created chances for Chelsea nor alleviated the pressure in defence.
- Kurt Zouma was excellent at the back for Chelsea. The 21-year old was resolute against the myriad of attacking threats that Arsenal possess. He intercepted some of Mesut Ozil’s dangerous passes, while none of Walcott, Campbell or Alexis Sanchez could get past him with the ball. He won every battle in the air, passed the ball better than the much-vaunted midfield and even saved an excellent tackle for the last minute of the match, depriving Nacho Monreal of a chance to cross in to the box. Of all the different centre backs that have been labelled as John Terry’s long-term successor, Zouma’s is the most viable claim.
- It was a sight for sore eyes at the Emirates. Alexis Sanchez warming up on the touchline. In an ideal situation Wenger would have loved to ease the Chilean supremo back in to action, but circumstances dictated otherwise. There were clear signs of rust, but a couple of mazy runs and jinking dribbles were on display. It is becoming clearer by the day this year’s league is not going to be decided by the big games. Arsenal’s best chance of success lies in their fantastic record against the lower half of the table. A fully fit and firing Sanchez will be key in maintaining that record.
- If there is any consolation for Arsenal it is that their full backs continue to be in excellent form. Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal made the most interceptions with five and four respectively, while also tying for the most clearances. In a similar manner to Laurent Koscielny, one gets the sense that the two Spaniards are underrated for their defensive prowess by virtue of playing for Arsenal. That they are so solid defensively while still being so effective in attack is a testament to their versatility, skill and energy. It is hard for this writer to find a better pair of full backs in the league.
- Even in “this” season against “this” Chelsea, Arsene Wenger has suffered a double against the Blues. For all the talk of Arsenal banishing their big game blues in 2015, Chelsea remain a stumbling block. While being a man down in both games can be cited as a mitigating factor, the fact of the matter is that mental fragility and a lack of composure were quite evident on both occasions against their city rivals. The feeling remains that even in a campaign with so much promise, a mental switch-off is never far from the surface where Arsenal are concerned.
- Where do the teams go from here? Despite losing the chance to go back to the top of the table, all is not lost for the Gunners. How they respond will determine their fate in the title race. Arsenal face Leicester, Manchester United and Spurs in three of their next six games. Maximum points against Southampton, Bournemouth and Swansea in the other three games are a must. If that is achieved, even three points from the trio of difficult fixtures might suffice in this season of dropped points. For Chelsea, this season is now about small steps in the league and getting prepared for the Champions League tie against PSG. The French champions will have little to fear on the evidence of this display, but the vagaries of knockout competitions do not require a team to necessarily fire on all cylinders. The next three weeks are about fine-tuning for Hiddink. There are signs that the attack is clicking into gear. If midfield and defence can now establish the same wavelength, Chelsea have every chance of causing an upset and progressing to the quarterfinals.