Arsenal blew the chance to put themselves forward as genuine title contenders when they came off second best to a slicker, more professional Chelsea side.
Ironically it was the much heralded defending which undid Wenger’s men as they conceded two sloppy goals from free kicks. Arsenal seem not to have learned their lesson at the Etihad because they allowed the outstanding Torres (who was a constant thorn in their side all match) to prod the ball home at waist height after he outmuscled Koscielny at the back stick.
Even worse was to follow early in the second half when Mata curled a free kick into the box which brushed Koscielny before bouncing into the back of the net. It wasn’t even in the corner, but Mannone and his defenders seemed totally flummoxed about how to deal with it.
It’s a shame because Chelsea didn’t really create anything from open play. If you look at the match stats and watch the highlights on Match of the Day it’ll probably look as though we bossed it and were mugged. But in actual fact it was the visitors who were in control for much of the game. In the first 15 minutes we couldn’t get near them as their lively forward line buzzed around, passing crisply and moving intelligently. When we did have possession they pressed aggressively and very high up the pitch, giving us no time to build attacks and stifling our passing game.
In fact Chelsea ‘out Arsenal-ed’ us. For 45 minutes they dominated us exactly as we had dominated Man City in the first half last week, keeping the ball well and working hard to win it back when they lost possession. Di Matteo was far too clever to allow us the time and space Mancini did on Sunday so a repeat of that performance was never on the cards.
Credit to us though because we slowly got into it and had a couple of decent efforts from outside the box before the equaliser came. Good work down the right found Oxlade-Chamberlain, who delivered a low cross into Gervinho. The Ivorian spun well and fired a great shot into the roof of the net for his fourth goal of the season.
In truth we were lucky to be level at the break, but could we now push on and take advantage? For the first few minutes of the second half it looked good — we were the better team and on the front foot as Cazorla shot over the bar when well placed. But on 52 minutes we were hounded out of possession in the centre of the park and Vermaelen fouled Hazard as the visitors broke with pace. That was Chelsea’s gameplan and it worked perfectly, as the resulting free kick provided the soft winning goal.
Torres was a determined livewire today and deserved to be on the winning side
We created a few decent chances in our hunt for an equaliser, most notably when Podolski had a looping header tipped wide and then sub Giroud hit a deflected shot which Cech was lucky to see drop inches past his post after he flung a hand at it.
Late on Cazorla floated in a free kick which was glanced onto the bar by Giroud. In injury time the seemingly jinxed Frenchman rounded the keeper but shot wastefully into the side netting for the miss that will grab all the headlines and probably obliterate his fragile confidence completely.
Personally, I find it astonishing that a misfiring forward is on the pitch to miss that chance while a proven international goalscorer is sitting on the bench, knackered having spent the afternoon running up and down the left flank. Podolski has 44 goals in 103 appearances for Germany and is the best finisher at the club by a mile. To see him toil away out wide wasting his best attributes is puzzling. Yes, he works hard and tracks back well, but it’s not like we still have van Persie up front to put those chances in. Gervinho took his goal well but is very hit and miss as last week showed. We have plenty of players to play out wide, so why is a striker of Podolski’s pedigree shunted out there when he should be banging in the chances that Giroud is fluffing?
After Arshavin’s dazzling performance against Coventry, Wenger admitted that playing just off the front man is his best position. No shit Arsene, people have been saying that for years, but Wenger stubbornly refused to play him there and we’ll never know what impact he could’ve made in his favoured, most natural role. I hope Wenger doesn’t end up squandering Podolski’s talents as well — we need the German sharpshooter up front.
At the other end of the pitch the defending from set pieces was again awful. I feared a goal from any corner or free kick, not only because our defence looked uncharacteristically panicky and unsure as the balls came in, but because Mannone is simply not good enough. Wenger’s reluctance to spend money on another keeper is proving costly. The Italian cost us two points last week and didn’t look much better today. In the first half Torres shot straight at him and he put his weak hands up, allowing the ball to squirm through them and into the net. Luckily the whistle had gone for offside, but it was still a shocking error. He is marginally better than Fabianski (which is like saying that John Terry is a marginally nicer guy than Joey Barton) but neither are good enough for Arsenal. We need two quality goalies and should’ve been in for Hugo Lloris, but as usual we try and do things on the cheap, crossing our fingers and praying that Mannone or Fabianski will suddenly develop into top class keepers, ignoring the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
I overheard someone say that today was a tale of two keepers because if Cech was wearing red and Mannone blue we’d have been the winners. Cech was there when his team needed him and it’s a fair point which I agree with to a certain extent, but it lays all the blame at Mannone’s door which isn’t fair. Yes he is out of his depth, but the defending in front of him has suddenly gone back to last year’s standard and that’s alarming. Let’s hope it’s a blip which a few sessions on the training ground will sort out.
On the plus side we had the chances to win today and it was by no means a poor performance, rather a decent performance littered with too many basic errors. I also thought the full backs were excellent, especially Gibbs, and are developing really well. Arteta too was impressive, patrolling the midfield with the professionalism and discipline that Song never had.
So after the optimism that broke out last Sunday we’re back down to earth with a bump. It seems we are not the watertight title contenders many made us out to be, although we are much improved on last year’s squad and should finish fourth comfortably (which is of course the board’s only real concern). Here’s hoping we bounce back quickly and start a new unbeaten run against Olympiacos on Wednesday.
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