Chelsea 2 – 1 Arsenal
1 – 0 Mata (6)
2 – 0 Lampard (16 pen)
2 – 1 Walcott (58)
Compounded by appalling refereeing, a wretched first half saw Arsenal succumb in the London derby. A late Tottenham equaliser meant that ground was lost in the race for fourth place, completing a miserable afternoon. The positives which can be drawn from the second half performance should not be forgotten but once more individual errors cost Arsenal dearly, exacerbating the paucity of the first half display.
It might have been so different. In a frenetic opening spell, Diaby engulfed Oscar in a bear hug inside the area, suffering undue leniency from the referee; moments later, Theo Walcott sent Olivier Giroud clear with just Cech to beat but the French striker drilled his shot wide of the far post. Giroud has talent but epitomises the reliance upon confidence that the team has; a goal then and he would have been unplayable. As it is, he missed and went missing for the rest of the half. His contribution to the second improved but I wonder if his attributes are being best exploited by the formation and tactics. Supply is key and was more absent than effort in the first half.
Arsenal were left counting the cost of that miss moments later. Francis Coquelin over-ran possession in the middle of the pitch which is a possible reason why the inept Martin Atkinson failed to spot Ramires’ foul on the Arsenal midfielder. The ball was lofted into the path of Juan Mata, who had exploited the gaping hole left at right back by Bacary Sagna who had adopted a more advanced attacking position. The finish was unerring past Szczesny. From being on the cusp of taking to the lead to a goal behind in a matter of moments; Arsenal’s proclivity for individual errors had cost them dearly.
There were three consistencies for Arsenal in the first half; individual mistakes, Chelsea punishing them and woeful officiating. All three combined as Chelsea doubled the lead ten minutes later. Diaby ceded casually ceded possession and as Chelsea overloaded the attack, Ramires found space in the area. Szczesny advanced, appeared to clip the Brazilian who fell to Earth; Atkinson pointed to the spot. Quite rightly, he did not send off the goalkeeper, it was not a cyncial foul designed to stop a goalscoring opportunity, the yellow card sufficient punishment with two defenders on line. Quite wrongly, he gave the foul in the first place with replays showing there was no contact between the Pole and his foe. It added to the feeling of injustice following the first goal; it seemed to signal to Ramires that he had carte blanche to frequent the wrong side of the tracks when it came to foul play and he duly took the hint, repeatedly using dark arts to stop Arsenal.
Arsenal might have capitulated at this point. That they did not was not due to righteous indignation raising their performance levels, simply poor Chelsea finishing. They carved out plenty of promising opportunities but beyond Ramires’ shot as the half closed, rarely had the ability to find the final, telling pass. The interval came as sweet relief from the ineptitude.
Whatever was said by whom at the interval, it had the desired effect. Arsenal were unrecognisable from the first half shambles. Cech was fortunate that both Walcott and Mertesacker shot straight at him but momentum was with the visitors, an air of inevitability about a goal hung in the West London Winter. It came, the previously anonymous Cazorla fed Walcott with a beautifully weighted pass that brought a clinical finish from the striker. Chelsea were reeling.
Coquelin’s departure deflated some of that impetus but Ramsey, in his more favoured central role, quickly got to the pace of the game. Arsenal created a flurry of activity in and around the Chelsea area, a succession of corners as the match drew to its finale causing consternation, panic and a welter of last-ditch defending, Cahill in particularly outstanding in one tackle to deny Walcott. All the while, Arsenal were vulnerable to counter-attacks with Torres and Ba guilty of Giroud-esque misses. It was not a strikers day as the visitors spearhead saw their wayward efforts and Cech foil the quest for the equaliser.
Post-match, the manager was critical of the team’s lack of belief in themselves, as well as tactical naivety; charges which have all been levelled at himself in the past. The pattern of the match has been something of a recurring theme in recent weeks. The lack of ambition in the opening stages is punished, leaving the squad the task of chasing a game in which they have fallen behind. It has been thus in previous season’s as well; something is desperately wrong when the same problems manifest year after year.
It is naive of us to believe that there will not be games where the team might be on the pitch but they do not turn up. It is almost inconceivable that situation will not happen yet for Arsenal, despite an losing only once in a decent spell, they cannot bring themselves to any sort of consistency of performance. The problems on the pitch are presumably addressed in the Hertfordshire countryside but the message has not penetrated the minds of those at kick-off.
Lacking in confidence is a strange output from a run of 1 defeat in 9; it is indicative of a deeper-seated problems in the squad. Twelve months ago, a dire January continued as Arsenal lost at home to Manchester United prior to an FA Cup tie and a key league match. A similar pattern has emerged this season. It is not unreasonable to ask how a squad with new faces is repeating the same mistakes?
It is a deeply disappointing result, fourth place is not out of the question but it will take considerably more effort than last season with tricky fixtures still remaining. The visit to White Hart Lane in six weeks is shaping to be even more pivotal than the meeting between the two sides last February.