The most troubling aspect of today’s contest between Chelsea and Arsenal was that it wasn’t really a contest at all. Arsenal missed a few notable chances, particularly the one which fell to Gabriel in the first-half, but there was never a point at which there could be any credible debate over who was the better side.
More so than any other, this fixture prompts us to question Arsenal’s mental characteristics. Their record at Stamford Bridge is so rotten – and Chelsea are usually such a reliable barometer – that it’s both a game which serves as a litmus test and also one which, invariably, they lose. The conclusion is unavoidable: Arsene Wenger’s side are talented but weak, fair weather footballers with ability that only runs skin-deep. That’s been repeated so often that it’s essentially now fact. Whenever Arsenal fail in this type of situation, the post mortem always seems to deal exclusively in intangibles – and often at the exclusion of healthier questions.
Chelsea’s first goal this afternoon was a physical manifestation of every pejorative opinion which has been aimed at Wenger and his squad. A home player physically ran-over a visiting opponent to open the scoring, leaving him bruised, motionless, and – ultimately – substituted. Could there be a more perfect literal metaphor?
Probably not, but then that moment disguised the more damaging moments within the sequence. Marcos Alonso was certainly rewarded for his determination to score, but Hector Bellerin was a victim of nothing more than his size and – actually – his bravery. He voluntarily put himself in a vulnerable situation despite knowing that, with his legs off the ground, Alonso was well-placed to do him harm. But, in a sense, it was also a sacrifice and an unwitting way of diverting criticism away from others. Amid the drama of those split seconds, few questioned Theo Walcott’s failure to track Alonso’s run into the box and, going back further, fewer still queried how the ball which Diego Costa headed against the bar was ever allowed to make it that far.
This is the continuous theme: Arsenal make mistakes – they make critical errors at important moments during matches which, typically, are decided on thin margins. Perhaps that too can be traced to some psychological flimsiness, but a more rounded assessment would query the team’s preparation. Why is it, for instance, in games which demand organisation and are won on the basis of individual responsibility, Arsenal players so regularly let each other down?
Stamford Bridge provided the perfect context to make that point. Chelsea are a product of semi-maniacal construction. Antonio Conte certainly has plenty of ability in his squad, but their performance this season has been founded on structure. Every player knows where he is supposed to be at any given moment, both with and without the ball. Their attacking overlaps occur so regularly because, presumably, Conte has drilled those situations on the training pitch until the light has started to fade. Similarly, he has been able to construct a mean defence out of three mediocre centre-halves by ensuring that the right understanding exists between them and by protecting them with situationally savvy central midfielders.
A case in point: If Alexis Sanchez had weaved up the pitch as Eden Hazard did, would N’Golo Kante have allowed him to go as far as he did? Or would he, Francis Coquelin-like, have failed to stop man or ball passing him? Kante is a superior player, certainly, but he’s also plays like someone acutely aware of his role – he knows what he must do, but also what he must not let happen. If Sanchez was in that position his run would have been stopped before it ever had a chance to develop, whether by foul means or fair. The fire would have been seen, the fire would have been put out. Coquelin, however, just let it burn. It was reckless, comedic and a shocking abdication of responsibility. And, regrettably, it was just so typically Arsenal.
They are loose. It’s not that they’re a weak team, more that they’re a laissez faire one. Wenger seems to believe so wholeheartedly in read-and-react football that, when placed in direct opposition with a manager who wins and loses on the detail of his preparation, he looks desperately naive. Chelsea pulsed with life today and played as if losing was entirely out of question. By contrast, Arsenal looked weak, tired, and flimsy. However, even if such emotional disparity could be proven, it shouldn’t be at the cost of recognising what some of their more literal flaws are. Yes, “weak”, “tired” and “flimsy” are all narrative-fuelling synonyms, but Arsenal were also sloppy, positionally hopeless, and ineffective against threats which they must have known they would face.
The more pertinent wondering, then, is why, after all this time and so many instructive failures, is this so regularly still the case?