Culture of Hoops

Chelsea Versus Arsenal: A Tale of “What-Ifs”

Image courtesy of Ronnie Macdonald/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Ronnie Macdonald/Flickr.

Arsenal taking on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge was, arguably, the biggest match of Week 7 in this season’s English Premier League. Chelsea won 6-0 in their last meeting in March, producing a solid drubbing. On that day, Chelsea effectively won the match within the first seven minutes with two quick goals. By full-time, Chelsea had potted another four past the 10-men Gunners after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s handball strangely led to a red card given to Kieran Gibbs instead. With Arsenal  hammering Galatasaray 4-1 midweek in the Champions League, and the drama surrounding Cesc Fàbregas’ reunion with Arsenal—coupled with the previous season’s slaughter—this match was the one to watch. The historical animosity between the two managers injected even more intensity into this match. Interestingly enough, both teams came into this match unbeaten so far this season. The biggest challenge, though, was Arsène Wenger trying to steer his team to a first victory over Jose Mourinho.

Arsenal’s greatest concern would have been to stop the goal-a-game man, Diego Costa. That proved to be the case as Wenger attempted to clog passing lanes to Costa by moving Jack Wilshere beside Mathieu Flamini. It was effective for the majority of the game but Costa proved that no team has truly figured out how to keep him off the scoresheet. Fàbregas was another concern due to his uncanny vision and passing ability. With those two, coupled with the pace of Eden Hazard (perhaps the more fluid pronunciation ehdenazar is fitting) and the stalwart defending of Branislav Ivanović, Gary Cahill, John Terry, and César Azpilicueta, there is no surprise why this team remains unbeaten and perched on top of the table.

Wenger tweaked his team, and there was a reversal from Arsenal’s formation against Galatasaray. Many Arsenal supporters questioned this move. A common complaint is Mesut Özil continually being played out of his natural central position in the midfield. Those complainants saw him moved back out of position to the right side for this match. While using this match to compare Özil and Fàbregas isn’t exactly fair, Özil was a big reason why Wenger claimed he passed on resigning Fàbregas. Mathieu Flamini stood in his typical defensive-midfield role behind Özil, Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sánchez with new striker Danny Welbeck up top. The usual defensive core captained by Per Mertesacker were tasked with keeping Chelsea’s attack well away from the penalty area.

The tension mounted before the game when kickoff was delayed 15 minutes. By the time the first whistle sounded, both teams looked up for giving the fans a game to remember. The match kicked off with both teams steaming out. Arsenal threatened first with Sánchez putting his first shot wide. Oscar began showing some steel which he demonstrated for the entire match. The first dramatic moment of the match occurred around the nine minute mark when Alexis Sánchez drove into the penalty box and accidentally thigh-slammed Blues keeper, Thibaut Courtois in the head. Courtois stayed down and even looked unconscious for a moment before the Chelsea medical team deemed him fine to continue.

Courtois remained in net for another 12 minutes before a bleed from his ear made team doc, Eva Carneiro call time on his match and send him to the hospital for further testing. Petr Cech donned his headgear and took over between the sticks. Referee Martin Atkinson decided that there was no punishment necessary, a determination that threaded through the entire match, and play continued. The next break in play was caused by a reckless tackle from Gary Cahill on Alexis Sánchez. Cahill may have attempted to get the ball, but in actuality he plowed through Sánchez’s lower body. Cahill was shown a yellow card, but on many weekends that type of dangerous challenge would easily earn a player a red. This was the first big “what-if” moment of the match. Arsène Wenger took strong umbrage to the tackle and, in what he called an attempt to check on Sánchez, shoved Mourinho aside. It would prove to be the only satisfaction Wenger enjoyed against Mourinho that day.

Calum Chambers received his fifth yellow-card in as many games as Hazard went down—perhaps a bit too easily. The match swung in Chelsea’s favor soon after when Laurent Koscielny was left with no option but to take Hazard down in the penalty area as the Belgian easily wove through Santi Cazorla and Calum Chambers. Koscielny became the next recipient of a soft call when Atkinson only gave him a yellow. Again, this play easily could’ve reduced Arsenal to 10 men. But the defender had little choice. A quick free kick by Kieran Gibbs created a giveaway by the out-of-position Sánchez that resulted in Hazard’s charge into the box. Perennial fungus of the Premier League, John Terry, showed his stripes by running to the ref and screaming for a red. However, it didn’t seem to sway the officials and merely displayed an unsportsmanlike streak in the player. The ensuing penalty was easily tucked into the right corner by Hazard as the Blues took the lead.

By the midpoint of the first half, the advantage was clearly Chelsea’s. Not only did their back four seem to tower over Arsenal’s attackers, but the speed of Hazard, Matic continually breaking up Arsenal’s attacks, and the midfield leadership of Fàbregas was clearly giving them the edge. While Chelsea threatened with every corner and free kick, Arsenal continued their ineffectiveness from dead ball play. A turn-around of this constant issue would really change Arsenal’s success. As it has been for several seasons, Arsenal doesn’t scare anyone when taking a corner. They tend to put the ball well out to the opposite end of the penalty area every time, and unless they have a chance at a goal, their free kicks generally produce nothing but a turnover.

Arsenal had a solid chance to equalize but Wilshere fumbled his first touch and the play fizzled out. This was yet another big “what-if” moment in the match and clearly would’ve been a turning point in Arsenal’s game had Wilshere controlled the ball better and put it away. One could argue that this match didn’t find Wilshere at his best form. He didn’t have much control of the midfield and squandered his chances when he got the ball. He was tasked with both pounding through the middle and staying back to prevent passes to Costa. He was a better defender than attacker, though.

The first half was lively and entertaining. Arsenal could’ve lead by a goal or two if they had finished their chances, and both teams could’ve been down a player. Cahill was arguably the luckiest player on the pitch after his challenge on Sanchez. The officials missed that call and in doing so set a different tone for the rest of the half. The best takeaway for Arsenal was that they kept the ball away from Costa, but their lack of goals was due to their poor control in the final-third.

The second half started with both teams continuing where they left off, Chelsea slowing down the play eventually. Cazorla attempted a shot that went wide, but the buildup was solid and it seemed to lead to a better spell in Arsenal’s passing play. That being said, Chelsea was the stronger team by the middle of the second half as Oscar, Ivanović, and Hazard continued to dominate in their positions. Fàbregas too was making quality passes despite attracting more attention from Arsenal. Özil continued to be ineffective and, while Arsenal remained shaky on the ball, Chelsea committed most of their fouls far, far away from their end where Arsenal couldn’t quickly strike or shoot from distance. The second half’s biggest drama was when the ball struck Cesc Fàbregas on the hand in his own penalty area. It didn’t seem intentional but penalties have been given in case’s identical to this one. Complaints and calls from the Arsenal players didn’t even attract the ref’s attention.

More Arsenal chances were squandered and Sánchez was continually challenged when he had the ball. He was pushed back or laterally and was never allowed to move forward. Chelsea ganged-up and pressed the Arsenal attackers throughout. Each time an Arsenal player had the ball in the Chelsea half, they would suddenly be surrounded by two or more players in blue who didn’t allow them to move forward or pass to a teammate. This caused more turnovers for Arsenal but the Arsenal players made this situation worse by not offering outlets for passing when they had a player in possession, getting shut down again and again.

The ineffective Cazorla was eventually substituted for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The “Ox” has proven to be a solid sub, though most fans want to see him start more. Typically bringing great control, strength and speed, he’s shown his value to the team over and over again. This substitution allowed Özil  the freedom to move into a more central position. Unfortunately, this didn’t change much. Chelsea’s through passes were clean and well-timed. Fàbregas’ passing was matched by no Arsenal player on the pitch. Arsenal’s attempts at long, leading passes were consistently short and forced their forward moving players to halt and double back to keep the ball. Arsenal won on possession alone and, with less than half-an-hour left, looked to be playing for the one-goal loss.

Chelsea’s second breakthrough occurred when Fàbregas played a lovely high ball right to the chest of Diego Costa. Costa’s perfect chip over the onrushing Wojciech Szczęsny meant that he was able to continue his scoring streak. The second Chelsea goal never seemed far from fruition in the second half. Lukas Podolski couldn’t add enough speed and edge to attempt a late Kanu-esque comeback. Alexis Sánchez may have been the hardest working Arsenal player but Branislav Ivanović didn’t give him a moment to break away. Willian took off the overachieving Oscar who was competing for the Man of the Match award from the first whistle. Danny Welbeck’s hard challenge on Cesc Fàbregas was a “low-light” in the match. Luckily, the Spaniard wasn’t hurt, and Welbeck was even luckier to only be punished with a yellow card. Some decent play continued when another Man of the Match contender, Ivanović, laid a pass beautifully to Diego Costa who, despite being called offside, missed the easiest scoring chance of the game. That was the last big play of the match as the final whistle sounded. Chelsea were 2-0 victors.

By scoreline alone this result wasn’t unexpected. However, there were many occurrences that could’ve swung the game to either team. Referee Martin Atkinson didn’t make either team happy and both had valid arguments for calls that were somehow missed or just plain wrong. Four players and one manager could’ve been sent off. But Chelsea clearly and calmly outplayed Arsenal. They earned the points to keep the spread at the top by five points while Arsenal lost this match, and their unbeaten start, along with defender Calum Chambers for their next game. Any repeat of the team’s 2003-04 unbeaten season was thrown over the bridge.

Despite both teams playing three games in eight days, they both came out to win. They’ll be happy with the international break. Chelsea march their way back into league play against Crystal Palace and Arsenal meet Hull City next—who only sit below them three spots in 11th. Needless to say (and only fools expected) Wenger and Mourinho didn’t glance at each other, much less shake hands, after the final whistle. They were both laid-back about the scuffle during their post-match interviews. Jose Mourinho rightly claimed that the “what-ifs” could’ve taken three Arsenal players out of the game, had some calls been blown a different way. He also showed some humility by dismissing Wenger’s shove, saying “To be fair, I do so many wrong things in football”. But not today.  Mourinho’s team dominated where it counted, played very smart, and helped ehdenazar do what he does so well—turning defenders this way and that and racing through narrow spaces with sublime control. Fàbregas’ post-game interview pumped blood back into the Arsenal supporters by declaring his love again for the team and their fans. But it was likely more bitter than sweet to see a former hero play so well and remind Arsenal fans why they loved him in the first place. But he’s moved on and why wouldn’t he love playing for Chelsea right now?

The Chelsea players who were most responsible for dominating Arsenal are, without surprise, the positions Arsenal need filled to truly contend and possibly win another title. Hazard’s wealth of skills, Costa’s unquestionable finishing, Ivanović and Matic’s defensive smothering; no Chelsea player had a bad game. The biggest “what-if” in this match was what if Arsène Wenger had resigned Cesc Fàbregas. Perhaps Welbeck, Sánchez and Özil being fed passes by Fàbregas could’ve been the biggest change to Arsenal’s game (and season). Arsenal have a strong set of injured players approaching a return to fitness. They are cursed with injuries season after season, more than any team home to the top spots. Getting knocked out of the Capital One Cup is a blessing for the team who don’t have numbers to cover non-league play for an entire season. Chelsea always rock a bench as deep as their owner’s pockets. It’s easy to forget that behind the Brazilian-Spanish juggernaut striker sits Didier Drogba and Loïc Rémy.

Chelsea face Arsenal next on April 25th at the Emirates stadium. No one would be surprised to see new players at Chelsea before this match, though Arsenal remain less likely to be able to find their missing pieces in the January window. The position in the table will be much clearer in April, and likely more meaningful for both teams, but for different reasons. If history repeats, Chelsea will be trying to maintain a hold on the title while Arsenal is more likely to be fighting for a spot in the top four. Either way, these two teams, overseen by their respective managers, should prove exciting when they meet again. Chelsea will want to repeat their performance note for note while Arsenal will need to improve on theirs in several ways, regardless of their position in the table next Spring.

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