Arsenal’s performance hints at a corner turned, but is offset by Chelsea’s slump starting to look serious.
This was, in fact, the second time this season that Arsenal have put three goals past a title-chasing rival, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this feat makes the Gunners the clear-cut favourites for the title. But their 3-0 demolition of a Manchester City side at a one-man disadvantage for the best part of 85 minutes in October told us little about Arsenal’s title credentials.
You could pass a similar, if perhaps harsh, indictment on the Gunner’s performance yesterday evening when a Chelsea side far removed from the double-winning powerhouse of last season capitulated under sustained pressure from sprightly opposition. Carlo Ancelotti’s team looked as good as it ever does on paper, with the vital vertebrae of Frank Lampard slotting back in to the tough spine of the team and Didier Drogba seemingly up for tormenting Arsenal’s backline once more, but despite the deep reserves of experience possessed, Chelsea’s well of mental fortitude remains dry.
Mainstays John Terry and Ashley Cole performed solidly, but Chelsea lacked confidence in all areas of the pitch, with the physical presence of both Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel being nothing more than ghostly. That they were outplayed by an immensely talented but ultimately lightweight midfield trio of Jack Wilshere, Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song is telling. Arsenal dominated possession in the midfield, but were gifted the ball as often as they won it.
With their best team not up for the task, Chelsea’s plan B, or C for that matter, was never forthcoming. For all of the club’s past riches, Chelsea’s bench was a sorry sight, consisting of four yet-unproven academy players and no recognised striker down to both Nicolas Anelka and Daniel Sturridge picking up late injuries.
Whilst Ancelotti may yet get Chelsea’s season back on to a stable trajectory with some shrewd man-management and a purchase or two, it seems safe to say that Chelsea are no longer the best team in the country. They are now merely amongst a small handful of the country’s best teams, which includes but is certainly not topped, not yet anyway, by Arsenal.
Despite Chelsea’s failings, it should be remembered that Arsenal still had work to do in beating tough and hardened opposition so effortlessly. This was perhaps Arsenal’s most Barcelona-like demonstration yet; Chelsea were pushed and pressured into unforced errors and sloppy passing in every area of the pitch, mistakes on which Arsenal swiftly capitalised. Dropping the lackadaisical Andrey Arshavin to the bench paid great dividends as Theo Walcott stepped up and justified his selection from a starting berth, using his threat and pace to pin back Ashley Cole and put him under constant duress. The dynamism and work rate of the entire side was maintained to the final whistle, where it seemed a possibility that they may crumble after conceding.
The challenge, though, that Arsenal now face is to foster their new found swagger so that it may still be present on April 30th 2011 when Manchester United visit the Emirates, and going on Arsenal’s recent history, the challenge they face may be just as monumental as the one faced by Chelsea.
- Ciarán McManus