Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea: Song 44, Fabregas 50, Walcott 53 Ivanovic 57
There was a satisfying moment in last night’s broadcast by Sky when the commentators belatedly realised the misunderstood genius of Arsène Wenger’s project. “Perhaps, that’s where Arsenal are ahead of their time,” mused co-commentator Paul Walsh when mulling over just how the mighty Blues have fallen. Indeed, Arsenal have matured – although it is accepted that there are still issues that need to be ironed out – but a core of early-to-mid-twenty players offer long-term value while under Wenger, there are always a number of youngsters waiting to take over in the wings. Chelsea, on the other hand, lacked strength in depth, and their profile driven transfer policy, focusing on the now, has slowly caught up with them. Of course, Carlo Ancelotti has recently had to contend with the departure of his assistant, Ray Wilkins, but it also shows the reliance they have on their sugar daddy, and once he decides to tighten the purse strings, the vulnerability they have.
It showed on the pitch as Arsenal played with a dizzying tempo that Chelsea had no answer to. In truth, this was perhaps the best time to play them because they were severely lacking in confidence while Arsenal were buzzing. A run of five games without a win before this defeat was the main cause of it and not having to play Manchester United the week previous, conversely didn’t help.
Arsenal’s pressing alleviates numerical disadvantage
Tactically, this was as good as Arsenal have been for two or three seasons. Arsène Wenger sent a similar team out in the summer of 2008/09 but was comprehensively batted out 4-1 by, then, Gus Hiddink’s Chelsea. However, there were some positive signs to be attained from the defeat, most obviously the 20 shots Arsenal had on goal, the relative success Theo Walcott had against Ashley Cole and the pressing up the pitch. It’s safe to say 11 shots this time round is not quite as impressive but what they lacked in quantity, they made up in efficiency as the Gunners were clinical with their three goals. The finishes came at crucial times too, as Alex Song made Arsenal’s late first-half dominance tell with a good burst and shot while Cesc Fabregas and Walcott combined for two and three respectively quickly after the break.
Arsenal’s success, however, lay in their pressing and tempo imposed on Chelsea. Alex Song typified that spirit and after a tentative first twenty minutes, he grew in stature to dominate a powerful Blues midfield. His newly-adjusted role has been deplored by some but those who do, misunderstand really, what his position entails.
Song is not anymore, the main holding midfielder but rather it has become a shared role. This means there is no need for the Cameroon midfielder to stay back at all times but he and Jack Wilshere, who was expected to be more box-to-box in his role, can delegate. Song, it turns out, is able to go forward more because of Wilshere natural attraction to the ball from deep but nevertheless, it means Song can press higher up the pitch. Wenger remains open to the idea it can leave the team open more but if it works, as it did against Chelsea, it can be mightily effective. His burst is also a dangerous weapon and with Robin van Persie playing a role that can bring midfielders in, makes it hard for defenders to mark.
“The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”
Arsenal had problems imposing themselves with the same style earlier in the season against Chelsea and looking back, it is hard to believe this is the same swaggering side that beat the Gunners 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. That time, Chelsea’s 4-3-3 was able to outnumber and create triangles around Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 but partly maybe due to short fitness levels of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien but mainly because of the Gunner’s intensity, were unable to make their man advantage count. Wenger’s side hassled Jon Obi Mikel and pressed him for time on the ball to the point that his existence in the ball circulation role was thought redundant. It continued in the second-half and earned Arsenal the two goals through closing down high up the pitch although Mikel was off by then; perhaps a tactical blunder because the centre-backs lacked an out ball while Essien is unsuited to the deep-playmaker/centre-half role.
“We were concentrating on the defensive of the game today. Everyone pressed. It was so good to see,” Walcott told Sky Sports. “Not just the starters, but the players who came on as well. They pressed and we didn’t give Chelsea space at all. We did that throughout the 90 minutes. I think everything went well for us. We made Chelsea look average at times. We played some great football and not just the pressing. It was fantastic to see.”
Cesc Fabregas’ presence was a calming influence and unlike against Tottenham where he tried to be two places at once, here he dropped back to collect the ball if needed and perfectly orchestrated the tempo of Arsenal’s play. It was the most complete Arsenal performance yet and despite conceding the slightly predictable header to Branislav Ivanovic, were just as comfortable at the back. Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny were a centre-back pairing brought forward from the future and the Swiss in particular, marshalled Didier Drogba well by dropping back to allow space to survey the threat. It is, however, by no means the start of a decline for Chelsea but rather a thirty-something identity crisis. For Arsenal, the win signalled the best years are still ahead of them.