Date: 29th November 2009 at 8:48pm
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Since the initial announcement of van Persie’s ankle injury, it has felt as though the early season optimism has given way to a big black cloud hanging over the club like the sword of Damacles. The prevailing feeling that the world has turned against us in the last three weeks, yet again, now feels more like self fulfilling prophesy than a lingering doubt. Pre match in the Tavern, the most optimistic predictions amongst us were that
‘I think we could draw.’ Which said it all. The pouring rain that persisted all afternoon, resulting in several typically English drenchings inform the mood in N5 right now. I would like to write a thousand word peroration on how in the name of blue fuck Andre Marriner is employed to be a Premiership referee. I would like to pose the question as to what it is Jon Obi Mikel actually does other than wrap ankles for 90 minutes. I’d like to laugh heartily at the irony of Chelsea fans chanting ‘he’s gonna cry in a minute’ at Gallas when they are captained by Tiny Tears himself John Terry. But ultimately, it’s all empty whingeing. We were outclassed today by a side of superior ability and power and by a striker who makes mincemeat of any Red and White clad centre half put in front of him. The ignorance of those that repeatedly chided Senderos for losing pitched battles against Drogba is laid bare once more.

My biggest fear prior to the game was that, sans van Persie, Arsenal would try to be too intricate in and around the box. In that respect, today was very much like watching the Arsenal Chelsea games of the early Mourinho era. The Gunners relying on tippy tappy triangles in front of Chelsea’s wall of impenetrable muscle. I find it astounding that we repeated that mistake again today having failed so regularly to cause Chelsea any kind of trouble for the last four years with this low octane approach. Wenger today resembled Captain Darling, memorably played by Stephen Fry in the Blackadder Goes Forth series. With soldiers dying in their scores in the Battle of the Somme, Darling would cheerfully remark, ‘Three thousand more men down? Pah, keep sending them over the top, the Hun will never expect that.’ Wenger had tried to rally his team pre match declaring, ‘This is our time to show the world.’ What we saw was pure rabbit in the headlights stuff as the home side did not try to raise the tempo of the game until it had already been lost. For all of our possession, can you recall a single Cech save?

Arsenal began brightly in a sense, but not in a way that Chelsea weren’t entirely expecting and prepared for. Fabregas played a subtle reverse ball to Eduardo in the tenth minute, but an absolutely abject afternoon for the Crozilian was portent in that moment as John Terry knowingly showed him onto his right foot and Eduardo simply did not have the confidence to do anything other than try and cut back inside, leaving Terry time to take it off his toes. Eduardo took up threatening positions on several occasions but was constantly foiled by his refusal to use his right foot. One of the most improved aspects of van Persie’s play in the last twelve months has been the realisation that being so terribly one footed makes you a very simple player to defend against. It’s an epiphone Eduardo will need to have very, very quickly. For all of Arsenal’s possession, there was a lack of tempo which played sweetly into the visitors’ hands. In fact, Chelsea carved out the first real opportunity. Anelka showing keen wits to run onto Lampard’s ball which had been intended for Drogba, Sagna made up the ground with an excellent challenge and Lampard volleyed the ricochet wide. Lampard’s follow up revealed a simple fact of the afternoon in both Arsenal’s offensive and defensive third. For Chelsea, the second ball and the 50:50 are a matter of life and death. For Arsenal, they are an afterthought. Every loose ball was gobbled up either by a sprawling Chelsea defender or midfielder whilst Arsenal’s players did their best penguin impressions and stayed with their feet webbed.

Drogba was beginning to warm into the occasion as well, pulling Arsenal’s defenders every which way, drifting out to cause the shaky Traore problems. Drogba is a very clever player and not always for the most edifying of reasons. After thirty minutes, he deliberately pole axed Vermaelen with a cynical challenge with the ball a distant spectator. (Marriner did not see it as a booking). Drogba knew what he was doing, as Vermaelen’s anger at the challenge got the better of him and he lost his positional sense for a good five minutes. In those minutes, Drogba headed over from a Joe Cole cross completely unmarked with Vermaelen angrily chasing the ball and negelecting his duty in the box. Terry then set Ashley Cole free on the left, Nasri did not track back, allowing Cole time to flip the ball onto his left foot, arc in a low cross and Drogba got between Gallas and Vermaelen to clip the ball past Almunia via the angle of bar and post. The goal ahd emanated from slopiness from Traore as Lampard’s long diagonal ball appeared destined for the stands, but Anelka did not give up the ghost. Traore had and the late realisation meant he was left to scramble the ball out for a Chelsea throw when he should have been in control of the ball. Arsenal’s heads dropped and Chelsea saw the wavering in some watery Arsenal eyes to finish the match before half time. Once again, Cole was allowed time and space on the left hand side and again lashed in a low identikit cross, which Gallas missed and Vermaelen shinned into his own net. Almunia bizarrely decided to come for the ball with Gallas, Vermaelen and Drogba all ahead of him in the queue. He of course did not bother to shout his defenders that he was coming for it.

Half time and the game was already up. Arsene threw on Walcott for Alex Song and for twenty minutes or so of the second half, the Gunners appeared to have stumbled upon the strategy they should have started with. The Arsenal midfield began to press and harry Chelsea’s midfield high up the pitch, forcing them into errors and pushing them backwards. Alas, it was too late. I’m sure that is what Wenger would have instructed his charges to have done from the beginning, but the simple truth was, Arsenal looked terrified in the first half and lacking in self belief. Fabregas forced Lampard to concede possession, Cech could only unconvincingly push Traore’s cross out to Arshavin, who took too much time to shoot with Cech all at sea, Eduardo nudged the ball back to Arshavin who volleyed into the net, but Marriner had blown for a foul by Eduardo on Cech. As I said, Chelsea are a smart team, Cech’s headgear is as much designed to play on the sympathies of referees as it is an implement of protection. Arsenal needed a break at this point, but they couldn’t get it. Eduardo was, for the second time in a week, replaced early in the second half despite Arsenal’s desperate need for a goal, which won’t do much for his confidence. I don’t doubt Eduardo can play the role as the figurehead of the front three, but as I said when van Persie was first injured, Sunderland away and Chelsea at home aren’t ideal games to be mounting the learning curve and blending in a new attacking solution.

Chelsea were comfortable and almost scored again with their first meaningful attack of the half. Drogba’s shot from the corner of the area hit Gallas and then Lampard before trickling towards the bottom corner, only for Almunia to recover his footing and thrust the ball wide. It is genuinely the first time I can remember Almunia making a save approaching commendable this season. The Gunners belief began to sap away, the only small, small pleasure of the afternoon was to see Ashley Cole hobble off injured after cynically trying to take out Arshavin and instead getting his comeuppance. Carlos Vela appeared to have been tripped in the area for a third time this week and was motioned to get up by an increasingly out of his depth referee. Eduardo’s dive back in August has come at a massive price. The only Arsenal player who looked stung into action by the manner of the defeat was a snarling Fabregas who let his competitiveness get the better of him with four minutes remaining with a stupid foul from behind on Essien on the edge of the Arsenal box. Didier Drogba stepped up and bent the free kick past Arsenal’s cardboard keeper, whose stock in trade this season seems to be to simply pick the ball out of the net. Drogba whipped the ball onto the side Almunia was covering and at a good height for the keeper. Yet Almunia was nowhere near the flight of the ball as it nestled in the net, as again he was wrong footed. As Drogba stepped up, the goalkeeper essentially waved the red rag for the bull by taking up a starting position on the left of his goal before then taking three giant steps to his right.

It’s been a very depressing week, losing one’s best striker for the season before succumbing to defeats to Sunderland and Chelsea, thus ending our slim title hopes. Chelsea were simply the more ruthless side. Bodies were laid on the line, loose balls were chased with appetite and determination and on the rare occasions 50:50’s were lost, Jon Obi Mikel was on hand with a crafty shirt pull or wrap of the ankles. Chelsea are once again a winning machine and Arsenal’s all style no substance play for about 60 minutes of the match was never going to trouble them. The Gunners had the tools to beat Chelsea, Drogba or not, by trusting in a high octane, hard pressing game. I believe those to have been the manager’s instructions, but on an afternoon where he had implored them to shine their light on the world, his players wilted into the shadows. I’ve said before that defending isn’t always about formations, it’s a mentality. Arsenal haven’t had it all season and Chelsea gave us a lesson in how that mentality manifests itself today, as well as an unwelcome seminar on being ruthless and clinical. Simply, Chelsea are a side that makes the maximum use of every pass, tackle and shot, Arsenal are still a little too scattergun to be on their level. Suddenly, Wednesday night’s game feels all the more important, especially as the F.A. Cup draw hasn’t exactly thrown us a gimme. Eh Arsene, what’s the French for deja vu?LD.

Team: 1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 30.TRAORE, 17.SONG (14.Walcott H/T), 15.DENILSON, 4.FABREGAS(c), 8.NASRI (7.Rosicky ’66), 23.ARSHAVIN, 9.EDUARDO (12.Vela ’61). Unused: 16.Ramsey, 18.Silvestre, 21.Fabianski, 27.Eboue.