Sunday, January 20, 2013

Chelsea 2 - Arsenal 1

The big question for today was which Gunners team would show up at Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea: the timid side that lost at home to Man City last weekend? or the dynamic attacking team that defeated lower-level competition in a mid-week FA Cup tie?

Chelsea started the day in third place, eight points ahead of sixth-place Arsenal (although Arsenal have a game in hand). Unlike Arsene Wenger, who usually enters the January transfer market (if at all), only at the tail end of the month, when (he believes) prices are lower, Chelsea already have made a new signing to strengthen their squad (at least on paper), bringing center-forward Demba Ba from Newcastle. Both teams have re-signed an existing player who had been threatening to move, Theo Walcott for Arsenal, and for Chelsea, much despised former-Gunner Ashley Cole.

It was snowing at the start of the match, and Arsenal's side was weakened by the absence with Lucas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both ruled out with illness. That meant a rare start for Francis Coquelin in midfield, with Giroud leading the attack in the middle with Walcott and Cazorla on the wings. In fact, Cazorla dropped back, as he did last week, into more of an offensive midfield role of distributor-in-chief, while the very-much in-form Jack Wilshire filled in to Dennis Bergkamp's old role, filling the gap just behind the central striker.

Chelsea started the game on the front foot, getting behind the Arsenal defense far too easily; but Arsenal nearly scored first, when Walcott slid a pass to a clear Olivier Giroud, who shot wide. Chelsea responded immediately, with Juan Mata scoring in the 6th minute to put the Blues ahead. Play should have been halted at midfield before the goal for a clear foul against Francis Coquelin; nevertheless, Chelsea too easily played their way through the Gunners' defense.

Ten minutes later, Chelsea doubled their pleasure, when Szczesny was adjudged to have brought down Mata in the box. Replays showed that he actually slipped and Mata fell over him. At least the ref was content to show the Polish goal-keeper only a yellow card. Chelsea complained that it should have been red; Arsenal were aggrieved that a penalty was awarded. In any case, Frank Lampard dispatched the penalty with aplomb. Less than 16 minutes into the match, and Arsenal were down 2-0 at Chelsea, in the snow. If ever a team's character was tested, it was Arsenal's for the final 75-80 minutes of this match.

As the first half wore on, they were failing the test. The match commentators observed correctly in the 28th minute that there was only one team in the match. The action was in one direction (Chelsea had fully 60% of possession during the first half), every time Chelsea attacked, they looked a threat to score. Especially down the left side of Arsenal's defense, where Cazorla was having trouble tracking back on defense (to be fair, left wing is not his accustomed position). When Arsenal did get a spot of possession in Chelsea's final third, they lacked a cutting edge, and seemed lost for ideas on how to break through Chelsea's defense. For the most part, they passed the ball around the perimeter until, eventually, someone would attempt a tight entry pass, which Chelsea would intercept to regain possession.

All told, Arsenal were lucky to go in at halftime without conceding a third (or fourth) goal. A two goal deficit with a half to play is hardly insurmountable, but it was hard to see Arsenal getting back into the match, they were being so thoroughly outplayed.

Arsenal made a brighter start to the second half (how could it have been otherwise?), and almost got an early goal, as the ball fell sweetly at the feet of Mertesacker in the middle of the Chelsea box, but the big German defender could only sweep it into the waiting arms of Cech. Two minutes later, Cech was forced to make another save, this time from a tight-angled shot by Theo Walcott, who for once was onside when he received the ball in a dangerous area. He was onside again the next time he received the ball in the box, in the 58th minute, and this time Walcott scored from Santi Cazorla's inch-perfect pass into the right-hand channel. It was Walcott's 15 goal of the season in all competitions. As the match commentator said: game on.

Walcott's goal spurred Arsenal's confidence; and they kept up the pressure on Chelsea's goal, leaving themselves vulnerable to counterattacks, but needs must when trailing by a goal. The Gunners looked a completely different team from the lethargic and downhearted side of the first half. No doubt, whatever Wenger said at halftime deserves some credit for that. (But, then, does he also deserve blame for their passionless start to the match?)

As the second half wore on, it was almost as one-directional as was the first half, only this time it was Arsenal with more of the attacking possession. On the few occasions when Chelsea threatened at Arsenal's end, they failed to create real scoring opportunities, except the one time Chelsea substitute Demba Ba was played clear on the Arsenal goal in the 84th minute. He should have scored after playing the ball around the hard-charging Szczesny, but his shot cleared off the line by Vermaelen, who chased back very hard to get into position to make the play. Against the odds, Arsenal were still only a goal away from taking a point from the match. Just three minutes later, Vermaelen nearly seized the point himself, when he took a free kick from just outside of Chelsea's penalty box. His hard, low shot traveled just beyond Cech's far post.

As the game entered stoppage time, Arsenal continued to pile on the pressure, earning three or four corner kicks in the final minute or two. They came close but couldn't manage to put the ball into Cech's net. Ultimately, Arsenal simply ran out of time.

For the second week in a row, against top-flight Premiership competition, Arsenal played a very good second half after going down by two goals in the first half. For the second week in a row, manager Wenger will credit his team's grit, determination, and character when playing from behind. And for the second week in a row, Arsenal will have no points to show for it. Indeed, from their last seven games the Gunners have taken just one point.

What are we to make of this seemingly schizophrenic Arsenal squad? The first-half Gunners appeared completely incapable of competing against the better teams in the Premiership. That squad might not be Europa League contenders, let alone Champion's League contenders. But the second-half Gunners looked like they could compete against any team in the UK, in any competition.

At least as long as Jack Wilshire is on the pitch, they would seem to have a chance in any match. More than any other current Arsenal player, he seems capable of carrying the team on his back (when necessary), and willing his teammates to raise their play. He is the best kind of leader, one who leads by the example of his play. His re-signing, far more than the much ballyhooed new contract for Theo Walcott, is the key to Arsenal's future as a competitive club in the Premier League.

Arsene Wenger certainly knows that Theo Walcott's re-signing is not the key to turning the club's fortunes this season. Much more help is needed, especially on attack and in defensive midfield. Arsenal's defense looked fragile once again, particularly in the first half, but I suspect that had more to do with the lack of help Vermaelen and Mertesacker were receiving from Coquelin, Diaby, Gibbs, and Sagna, all of whom were more or less constantly pushing forward on offense.

A FINAL PLEA TO ARSENE WENGER (whom I'm sure does not know of the existence of this blog, let alone read it or pay attention to anything written on it): STOP ALLOWING THEO WALCOTT TO TAKE CORNERS AND FREE KICKS. NO MATTER HOW HAPPY YOU ARE TO HAVE RE-SIGNED HIM, HE IS AMONG THE SQUAD'S LEAST RELIABLE PASSERS. (He took Arsenal's first three corner kicks of the match, and seemed intent on playing kick-and-catch with Chelsea goalie Petr Cech.)

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