Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday February 8 2010
Chelsea away is always something of a pleasant day for our lot. Given that we know a number of Chelsea season ticket holders (Chelsea fans whose sovereign clad knuckles don`t drag on the floor, this rare creature does exist), so some three and a half hours prior to kick off, we were already in the Sporting Page for a few jars and a pleasant pub lunch. Is it perhaps a sad indictment of the game today that most of the conversation centred on football`s fiscal irresponsibility genuflecting that of the banking system three years ago? We made our way to the ground some half an hour before kick off and, as with last week, the pre match apprehension just wasn`t there. I had pretty much prepared myself for a defeat seven days before the match and felt strangely comfortable with the prospect. Lamentably, my seat turned out to be right next to the Chelsea fans. Not a good place to be on this occasion.
The expected vitriol for John Terry barely surfaced, only at flashpoints. Chelsea as a club are excellent at creating unnecessary animosity, the stadium announcer pithily remarking before the game, "Of course, there is only one side that can go top of the Premiership should they win today." More and more I`m minded of Wenger`s sage remark about giving success to stupid people. In the interests of democracy, the visiting support had their say by aiming a chorus of, "John Terry, shagged your wife" at said buffoon with microphone. But the pre match camaraderie faded into sighs of disappointment after just eight minutes as Arsenal followed an incredibly familiar script for their meetings with United and Chelsea. A bright, positive attacking start before then making costly defensive errors and conceding to our opponent`s first shot on target. Florent Malouda hung a Chelsea corner high into the air, Abou Diaby stopped concentrating and lost his man (a mistake for which Denilson would have been crucified for this morning), John Terry climbed to meet the header, Gael Clichy had drifted away from his back post to the front post to mark thin air, Alex Song had totally lost Didier Drogba (a mistake for which Denilson would have been crucified for this morning) who was left with a tap in at the back post. Three enormous individual errors stuffed tightly into the small pocket of one corner. Having yet again found themselves a goal down to Chelsea`s first attack, it was important the Gunners did not repeat the oft made error against United and Chelsea of trying to rescue the game seventy minutes before its conclusion. But Arsenal is not a team that learns very quickly.
Arsenal did look to re-establish themselves and nearly secured a gorgeous equaliser when Cesc Fabregas found two rare commodities in Chelsea`s half; space and time. He floated in an inch perfect pass which flew gracefully over the heads of Carvalho and Ivanovic and straight onto the boot of Andrey Arshavin, whose first time volley was beaten out instinctively by the feet of Petr Cech. But the away side would again commit the cardinal sin of over committing to attack; we were not yet half an hour into the game. As we did against Manchester City at Eastlands, just as we did against Manchester United last week, we were guilty of over committing far, far too early in the match and as a consequence the contest was over far, far too early. Lampard broke away with Arsenal`s three forwards as well as Song and Diaby committed high up the pitch, he shifted the ball to Drogba on Chelsea`s right and Arsenal looked absolutely awash with fear and anxiety, pure reputation and past record against us gripping the limbs of Clichy and Vermaelen as Drogba tore forward unchallenged, cut inside the trembling Arsenal defence and lashed a shot past Almunia. It was all too familiar, the script already written. Start the game in a positive attacking vein, check. Concede to first opposition shot on goal. Check. Over commit in the embryonic stages of the game and find yourself two goals down. Check. There`s an old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. Chelsea might have had a third before half time when Ashley Cole roared into space on the left hand side and closed in on goal, but Theo Walcott showed good aptitude to get back and put Cole off of his stride. But at half time it was a predictable picture. Chelsea knew exactly how we were going to play and we played right into their hands. Chelsea were unconcerned with possession stats and were quite happy to concede that little statistic to us. They knew that the only stat that matters is the score line. Arsenal are obsessed with playing good football, Chelsea are obsessed with winning football matches. It`s not hard to see which tactic wins out in these situations.
In fairness, Arsenal demonstrated a lot of spirit and a lot of fight in the second half and I was proud of their response. Ultimately though, Chelsea have the absolute measure of us. The reason Walcott started for instance was because of his willingness to get in behind defences and to try and stretch Chelsea with some width. However, the tactic came up short. Walcott is operating at low confidence and it`s quite clear that his team mates don`t trust him with the ball at the moment, so he cut an isolated figure until he came inside- at which point Chelsea`s deep midfield dealt with him without breaking a sweat. Most of Arsenal`s attempts on goal were restricted to efforts from range as Chelsea merely strung nine bodies across the edge of their box, leaving us with little answer. Diaby had a long range effort which flew just wide but Arsenal should really have made the game interesting again when Fabregas found Nasri in some space between Ivanovic and Carvalho. But Nasri delayed his shot and attempted to take a final touch, leaving Ashley Cole to make an excellent last ditch tackle. At this moment in time, it gets harder and harder to believe that Clichy will progress into the player Cole is- as despicable an individual as he is, he is quite some left back. Thereafter there appeared to be a little aggravation in the Lower Tier, culminating in a flare being lit amongst the Arsenal fans. As I saw positioned near the back of the Upper Tier I do not have the minutiae of details, but I was aware of the smoke wafting upwards and it contributed to stirring the very vocal away support again to spur their team on, who had by now taken a permanent residence in Chelsea`s half. Vermaelen seemed to have worked out that the best way to stop Drogba is to go in on him hard, for a brute of a player, he doesn`t much like the rough stuff and Vermaelen adopted a more physical approach in dealing with him. I won`t tell you it`s 100% the answer to stopping Drogba, insofar as one can actually stop Drogba. But it`s certainly got more chance of enervating him than standing back and cowering as Arsenal did in the first half.
Arsenal brought on Bendtner to add a physical dimension to our attack and he had an instant impact, collecting the ball from Arshavin, dancing around two Chelsea players before being tripped by Carvalho. Fabregas hit a low free kick which whizzed through a throng of bodies only for Petr Cech to beat it out. Gallas` presence in front of Cech might just have diverted the ball past the prone keeper had he begun to follow the free kick in a millisecond earlier. I suspect had we got the game back to 2-1 you would have seen an interesting finale, but Chelsea were looking comfortable with our attacks. Despite the commendable application shown, Arsenal began to tail off in the last five minutes and might even have found themselves a very harsh 3 goals in deficit. As Didier Drogba lined up a free kick on the edge of the area, from the other end of the pitch I could see just how much of his goal Almunia was showing to Drogba and he practically invited the goal. Drogba thumped the ball against the bar and Almunia did not twitch a nerve. Fabregas headed Nasri`s cross narrowly wide in injury time, but it would only have been a consolation at that point. The final whistle brought about a familiar feeling, the feeling that against a bigger side Arsenal were all tickle and no slap. Though we pinned Chelsea back for large sections of the game, you get the feeling Chelsea were happy to be pinned back and cede on the corner stats, the possession stats, the attempts from outside the box stats. Chelsea knew exactly how we were going to play and the pattern of this game has been obvious for some time. At times, it was like watching a six foot man simply place his palm on a midget`s forehead as the midget swings wildly, desperately trying to land a dig to the torso but never able to get near. In Drogba, Chelsea have a player we simply don`t know how to deal with. We started the game 25 minutes too late, which we can get away with at home to Bolton and we can salvage a point at home to Everton doing it too, but starting a game 25 minutes too late at Stamford Bridge will only ever eventuate in one outcome. I`m certain Arsenal are well aware of the faults they displayed and have displayed time and again against the top 2, but we appear not to have the armoury to do anything about it. The last two games have confirmed what I suspected before a ball was kicked in either, Arsenal are the 3rd best team in England right now. Unfortunately, you`ll be reading much more damning indictments in the next couple of days, but basically, the reality is, we find it very difficult to beat the two richest clubs in the world.LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA (27.Eboue `74), 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLIHY, 17.SONG, 2.DIABY (7.Rosicky `74), 4.FABREGAS©, .14.WALCOTT (52.Bendtner `64), 8.NASRI, 23.ARSHAVIN. Unused: 15.Denilson, 16.Ramsey, 21.Fabianski, 31.Campbell.
Date:Monday February 8 2010
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