If Arsenal were playing in “rarefied air” by beating Swansea in the FA Cup with a full-blooded effort on Wednesday, they fell back down to earth with a wet thwap by putting in a limp performance in the 2-1 loss to Chelsea at the Bridge on Sunday.
The score line flattered the visitors as Chelsea never really seemed bothered by the Arsenal, despite conceding a goal to a very lively Theo Walcott in the 58th minute. Chelsea always seemed to have something in reserve and any time the North Londoners started to smolder, the Blues put their embers out.
Case in point about having something in reserve, Chelsea brought on Demba Ba in the 81st minute and he almost immediately scored a goal. A ball over the top from the Chelsea midfield played Ba in past Arsenal’s limp attempt at an offside trap. Inexplicably, Szczesny came rushing out to meet Ba and left the goal gaping when Ba easily beat him. Only the hustle of Thomas Vermaelen to get back into goal and clear Ba’s shot off the line saved Arsenal from blushes.
Meanwhile Arsenal, a goal down and in need of the same type of spark Ba provided Chelsea, brought on Andrei Arshavin. His first appearance in nearly a month and a half. Arshavin’s immediate impact was to lose control of the ball for a goal kick.
Prior to Arshavin’s cameo, Arsenal’s only goal came from a nearly solitary moment of brilliance on the part of the Gunners. Walcott had been giving Ashley Cole fits for most of the second half, drawing the former Arsenal man to serially foul him in and around the Chelsea penalty box. So when Vermaelen tackled the ball away from Fernando Torres, Walcott started to make a run, and it was obvious that Cazorla would play the ball through to him. Blazing past Cole and with Ivanovich bearing down on him, Theo wrong-footed the keeper and scored on Cech’s near post.
It was a case of leaving it all too late to recover because it was the first half where Chelsea won the game. Arsenal conceded 60% of possession in that first half and yet only attempted 12 tackles (making 7). Chelsea, meanwhile, whenever they lost the ball fought to win it back, attempting 18 tackles in the first half (making 12). In the second half, Chelsea conceded 60% of possession to Arsenal and attempted 20 tackles (making 14) and Arsenal tried 12 tackles (making 11). Despite the disparity in possession, Arsenal never really got stuck in to win the ball back in the first half, leading to Jack Wilshere raising his arms as if to say “what the fuck guys?”
Playing poorly and having referee decisions go against you are not mutually exclusive conditions, though for some reason people look to only one or the other to blame for Chelsea’s win. Referee Martin Atkinson got a number of calls dead wrong. The first was for a foul on Coquelin which lead to Juan Mata’s opener. The Arsenal midfielder drove straight at Ramirez and made a nice little pass over to Cazorla on his left. The Chelsea man came in hard and late, stomping on Coquelin’s foot with his studs. The replay showed Atkinson looking right at the infraction, yet no foul was called.
And for the second goal, well, Atkinson could possibly be forgiven as the angle was poor but replays showed that Ramirez (again) slipped as he was trying to round Szczesny and kicked out to try to make contact well after he had already started going down. A slip if you’re generous, a dive if you’re not.
But just because the referee is calling the game against you doesn’t excuse a team for playing listlessly. As outlined above, Arsenal didn’t seem interested in putting in the effort to close down on Chelsea when they had the ball. Worse still, Arsenal’s lack of movement isolated players and made it easy for Chelsea to tackle the ball away. Which they did serially on the ball-dawdling Diaby who was dispossessed by Ramirez for Chelsea’s second.
If you needed any further proof that ignoring the referee and simply putting in the effort is the real key, look at the second half. Arsenal were still being treated harshly by Atkinson, as evidenced by the fact that Atkinson let Ramirez (again???) slap Jack Wilshere in the face, as blatant a smack in the face as you will ever see. Yet despite the poor refereeing, it was a second half in which Arsenal put in some effort to win the ball back and looked most likely to score and, in fact, did score.
It’s been true all season that Arsenal have had a difficult time imposing their personality on matches. From 1999-2009 Arsenal enjoyed a decade of dominance in English football, where the name “Arsenal” was synonymous with “beautiful football”. Arsenal and Barcelona were often mentioned as sister teams, both known for their slick passing game and their wonderfully forward-minded football.
In that decade, Arsenal dominated matches by forcing their style on the opponent. It was exceptionally rare for an opposing side to control possession against Arsenal for any amount of time, much less an entire half. But Arsenal now look more like a simulacrum of that greatest of Arsenal sides. Something that if viewed from just the right angle reminds the viewer of that old team but that for large stretches of any game looks like a pile of laces and mud.
And that’s the reality of yesterday’s loss to Chelsea. Sure, we can point to Atkinson’s dreadful officiating and we would be right. But just as much, we need to point to Arsenal’s lack of direction, Arsenal’s lack of effort, and worst of all Arsenal’s lack of any personality yesterday as the more likely culprit in sealing all three points for Chelsea.
But have no fear, Arsechums, the Gunners will bounce right back and probably put on a totally different display against West Ham on Wednesday. Perhaps, the type of match that will wash away the mud for a moment and reveal the Arsenal of old. Perhaps, they will be a long-ball team, why not? Or perhaps Arsenal will come out and tackle the grass right off the pitch. No one knows, because if there’s anything that anyone can say for certain about this Arsenal team, it’s that it seems to suffer from multiple-personality disorder.