Jumping to conclusions far too soon, based on one game, or one moment, is just one of the proud traditions of the sports writer. David Beckham was solely responsible for England’s exit from the 1998 World Cup and wasn’t fit to wear the jersey, the Miami Heat would waltz into the finals after signing Lebron and Bosh, then they were totally unsuited to each other and would only win if they traded one of their superstars, you can’t win anything with kids…
So after watching Arsenal beat Chelsea handily on Monday, there was no doubt that the pundits would be quick to declare Chelsea in crisis and Arsenal as genuine title contenders. And as much as I would love to be the voice of reason, urging composure with a knowing smile, I have no choice but to agree. Chelsea’s poor form is more than just a blip; the Gunners have come of age and are a genuine threat to claim silverware for the first time since the demise of the Invincibles.
The match itself was unsurprisingly one sided. The surprise was that it was Arsenal who were that side. This fixture has run like clockwork for the last couple of seasons. Chelsea dominate, Drogba scores, Arsenal folds like a house of cards and we all talk about Arsene Wenger’s delusions that this group of Arsenal players will ever be for real.
This will have been such a satisfying victory for Wenger and the perfect response to his critics. The manner of the Arsenal victory is what was so impressive regardless of the score-line. Each game has its own unique character and leaves the viewer with a certain impression of what has just happened. Every match has a ‘feel’ to it. There are games where one team comes flying out of the traps. Before you know it, they’re up a goal or two and the whole complexion of the game is tilted in their favour. Think of some of Liverpool’s performances against Manchester United, a superior team, in recent times. There’s the smash-and-grab, where one side somehow pulls a result out of nowhere, despite being second best for much of the game; the kind of win that shows character and fortitude, if not quality.
What I saw on Monday was a third kind of win, the most satisfying kind for a supporter and I’m sure a coach and player as well. That’s the game where one side steadily and methodically puts its collective foot on the throat of the opposition and pushes down until it’s over. There was no luck, no element of surprise. Arsenal was just better. They took advantage of their opportunities and no one could argue that justice wasn’t done.
That Arsenal won a game like that against Chelsea, even a Chelsea in turmoil, is so impressive and an indication that this team of very talented boys has become a team of very talented men. The difference is noticeable and its importance cannot be overstated. There’s a snap in the Arsenal challenges that used to be absent. The pretty passing patterns that were always there for the Gunners have real cut and thrust to them, real danger, real pressure for the opposition. There are still some questions with the centre of defence and the goalkeeper, but the Arsenal midfield and attack is top class, Samir Nasri has become a top-5 player in the Premier League. This Arsenal side has finally come of age and the rest of the Premiership has been put on notice.
As good as Arsenal was, Chelsea were equally poor. They never really created anything of note, only scoring from a set-piece already down 3-0. The can’t have been lacking in motivation, playing a London rival after having not won a Premier League game since November 10, a run which saw them slide to 5th. Needing no extra motivation, the question becomes: Are this Chelsea side lacking in ability? I think when you take a good look at the squad it becomes apparent that they are.
We have gotten used to Chelsea buying top class talent at every opportunity, stacking the bench with internationals; this is no longer the case. A couple of quieter summers has left Chelsea’s cupboard relatively bare. They are now just one or two key injuries away from becoming quite ordinary and that is exactly what has happened. Frank Lampard’s injury has coincided with Chelsea’s poor run. With Lampard out there is no attacking element in the midfield. Michael Essien is a fantastic player, but he has never been the focal point of a Chelsea midfield. In years past Lampard would have been replaced with a Ballack and the Blue machine would rumble on. This season they can only turn to Ramires, who has yet to settle into the Premier League.
With the January sales more clearance sale than quality product, Chelsea are looking at more than just their first trophy-less season since 2008. In that year they finished runners-up in the Premiership and lost the Champions League after a John Terry penalty miss to win it. If this set of players can’t find something extra, Chelsea will be facing their first truly unsuccessful season since the pre-Mourinho era. This was not a flash in the pan. A glance at the Chelsea results shows that they have only one win against a truly good side. Before the loss to Arsenal they had beaten West Brom, Wigan, Stoke, West Ham, Blackpool, Wolves, Blackburn and Fulham; a who’s who…of bottom half clubs. Their best result? A 2-0 home win against, yes, Arsenal.