“I think there is a period for any team to come out and show its strengths. For my team, this moment has come.” This was the rallying cry sent out by Arsene Wenger ahead of their crunch match with Chelsea. However, Arsenal were unable to respond to this stirring appeal, as the Blues secured a crucial, yet comfortable victory and so attention turns to exactly where Arsenal’s season is heading.
Whilst media hype surrounds Chelsea’s diamond formation – which provided a solid axis in the middle of the pitch – it still did not shackle Arsenal’s creative play in central midfield. Denilson and Cesc Fabregas fizzed the ball around as the diamond stretched and rotated around them in a vain effort to contain. During the week, Fabregas dressed up as a rabbit [for Arsenal’s charity of the season Great Ormond Street Hospital] but on Sunday he was unable to pull a rabbit out of the hat and conjure up a vital goal. Wenger had commented on his own inability to act in the fundraising video, but he put in a strong post-match performance in trying to justify the unjustifiable. Disallowed goal and injured players aside, in truth Arsenal were not good enough on the day.
Despite the Blues’ handsome scoreline, Arsenal had dominated the early exchanges as Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin caused problems from the wings. However, it was their tendency to drift inside from the wide areas that allowed Chelsea to funnel the pressure from the wings into central defence – their real strength. All too often Arsenal would find themselves in wide areas and drift inside or pass the ball square to look for the penetrative killer pass. And it was these wide areas that turned out to be crucial in determining the outcome of Sunday’s match. As the Gunners’ smooth passing play swept them into the final third of the pitch, they never really threatened from these positions. Their lack of aerial presence and consequent unwillingness to deliver crosses meant that Chelsea were able to mop up this pressure and threaten Arsenal on the counter-attack. In contrast Chelsea were clinical when they found themselves in the wide areas.
Chelsea’s opening two goals came from dangerous crosses from the wing. The creator was the infamous former Gunner Ashley Cole. His first delivery found the darting run of Didier Drogba to give Chelsea a slightly undeserved lead. The second eluded William Gallas at the near post and was diverted into the net courtesy of Thomas Vermaelen’s knee. On another day, Drogba’s effort or Vermaelen’s own-goal strike the woodwork and bounce clear rather than in but, as it was, the Blues found themselves 2-0 up at the break. This two-goal salvo in the space of three and a half minutes effectively finished off Arsenal’s chances of securing an important victory. Half-time saw the introduction of Theo Walcott and suddenly Arsenal possessed genuine pace and the ability to get in behind the Chelsea defence. Notably their main protagonist in proceedings – Ashley Cole – was pinned back by the sheer threat posed by Walcott’s pace. Subsequently Arsenal managed to cause concern in Chelsea’s ranks as they attacked with real purpose after the break. Their threat down the flank nullified Chelsea’s dominance up to that point, yet they still couldn’t find a breakthrough.
Arsenal lacked a target in the box and the pattern of the match indicated the value of Robin van Persie. The Dutchman’s injury had been misdiagnosed by Dutch medical staff and it is now likely that he will miss the rest of the season and possibly the World Cup too. It is certainly arguable that a team seriously challenging for the title should not be so reliant on one player, yet in the same breath, would Chelsea have terrorised Arsenal without Drogba? Chelsea’s diamond is not a formation, but a 6ft 2in powerhouse forward. Arsenal generally coped well with the constraints of the diamond formation, but it was Drogba’s ability that secured the first and third goals and his sheer presence that forced the second.
On that note it seems that the modern game has evolved. Even Barcelona – all-conquering last season and reknowned for small technically gifted players – found the need to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a towering muscular target man. He got the decisive goal in El Classico after appearing from the bench. In contrast, it seems as if Arsene’s Arsenal still lack a ‘Plan B’.