Yet again ‘nearly’ was the verdict on the weekend’s performance as Arsenal went toe-to-toe with one of their title rivals and left the match with nothing.
Sunday’s defeat to Chelsea appears to eliminate Arsenal from the title race – a fact alluded to before the match by Samir Nasri: “Defeat is forbidden. That would mean the end of our title chances. But any other result would leave us in the running.” A point from the weekend’s clash would not have been ideal but it would not have been enough to rule Arsenal out of the running. However, for the vast majority of pundits – and even the most ardent supporters – it has to be said that the defeat to Chelsea dispelled any notion of Arsenal claiming their first Premiership crown since 2004. Arsene Wenger’s pre-match comments that a defeat would not rule his side out of the hunt appear to be merely an exercise in PR and motivation. Having already identified that the youngsters of Arsenal suffer from a lack of belief rather than quality, he said: “I believe this team want to do well but because they haven’t won yet, they make it harder in their heads than it really is.” The comments were aimed to diffuse the pressure of the big occasion and allow his players the freedom to express themselves.
However, you would not put it past the ruthlessly determined and often myopic Wenger to genuinely believe they can bring the trophy home. Larger deficits have been overturned in the past – most notably when Manchester United closed a 12-point deficit on Newcastle to clinch the title in the 1995/96 season – but there are key differences between then and now. Back then the leaders were newcomers to the scene and buckled under the pressure, whereas now both United and Chelsea have experience of the run-in and what Sir Alex Ferguson refers to as ‘squeaky bum time.’ Also, United were chasing one team – Arsenal are chasing two. It is very unlikely that both teams will drop the necessary points for Arsenal to overhaul the deficit between now and May, but having already done it once and a very favourable set of fixtures to come, a glimmer of hope remains.
‘Nearly’ was the by-word for Sunday’s performance. Positives must be taken from the fact that it was ‘nearly’ and not ‘nowhere near,’ as was the case against Manchester United last week. In a stark contrast from the game against United, the Gunners expressed themselves with some dazzling football but lacked the final ball, as their attacking play repeatedly broke down agonisingly short of being within shooting range. Arsenal’s early play was very encouraging before sloppy defending gifted Chelsea the lead and Arsenal could not recover. The introduction of Nicklas Bendtner breathed fresh impetus as Arsenal then had a target man – someone to aim for when under pressure in defence – meaning that clearances were no longer simply mopped up and returned with interest by Chelsea’s powerful and pacy players. But by then it was too little, too late.
The proximity of Arsenal to a result is neatly captured by comparing the two best opportunities for either side. Didier Drogba was on hand to poke home John Terry’s flick-on and give the Blues an early lead before he was afforded too much space to drive into the box and lash home a thunderous strike. On the other side, Andrey Arshavin’s volley from Cesc Fabregas’ raking pass struck the goalkepper’s knee and bounced clear before Nasri was unable to capitalise on a one-on-one situation, as Arsenal finally sliced Chelsea open mid-way through the second half. A similar contrast can be made between Sunday’s defeat and the 2-1 victory last season, when Arsenal had Robin van Persie who scored a brace and Chelsea were without Drogba. While the superlatives will flow regarding Chelsea’s performance on their way to another victory, the scoreline scarcely reflected the pattern of the play – possession or territory. But, as it was, Arsenal lacked that extra bit of quality, a cutting edge, or as Thiery Henry would say with typical Gallic verve – a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi.’
Unsurprisingly, the tormentor-in-chief was Drogba – as he has been on so many of the previous encounters – with Sunday’s match seeing him increase his tally to 12 goals in 12 appearances. Drogba’s record against Arsenal is by no means matched by his tallies against the other members of the so-called big four, which prompts a close analysis of Arsenal’s defending and tactics. Gunners fans may well rue the fact that Wenger neglected to take a gamble to sign Drogba from Guingamp for £500,000 all those years ago. Ignoring any value he would add to the team, if Arsene had only bought him to prevent his prolific scoring against them, half a million pounds would represent terrific value.