Arsenal showed some old failings during a first-half against Chelsea that cost them more points and further ground in the Premier League title race.
Arsene Wenger believed Arsenal deserved at least a draw from the London derby defeat to Guus Hiddink’s Chelsea, but the hosts paid for a sloppy start at the Emirates.
The first period saw Wenger’s men return to the hopelessly-frustrating Arsenal of old, and though the main talking points centered around five minutes in the middle of the half, the action was bookended by moments typical of the side that has flattered to deceive prior to this season.
Arsenal’s most noteworthy contribution to the opening exchanges was the passing of the captain’s armband from Per Mertesacker to Theo Walcott. The England forward has recently celebrated 10 years at the club, so… well, so what?
Walcott was given the duty of leading the team out before he was handed the armband before kick-off by Mertesacker. A nice gesture, but a needless one when minds should have been focused on the task at hand.
Mertesacker spoke this week about his role as captain within the dressing room. “When it’s not going well, you have to keep your focus. You have to make sure that no one is drifting away from the group and thinking too much about themselves.” That does not fit with what we saw at the Emirates.
It should have been business as usual but instead Mertesacker allowed a meaningless milestone to interfere with preparations for what was a huge game. That is what the Arsenal of old – the players Roy Keane criticised for being too obsessed with selfies – would have done. It was not match-deciding moment, but it was an unnecessary distraction. Mertesacker should have known better and Wenger, if he was aware of the plan, should have put an immediate stop to it and refocused his players’ minds.
Of course, the armband swap was far from Mertesacker’s greatest aberration.
On an 18th-minute Chelsea counter attack, Willian’s sublime split pass put Diego Costa in behind the Arsenal defence, with the Spaniard taking his touch across Mertesacker towards goal. The weight of Willian’s ball tempted Mertesacker into a challenge he had no chance winning, not least when the centre-back took a bizarre, mid-lunge glance to his right to see whether the linesman’s flag or covering team-mate might spare him.
Costa exaggerated the contract, of course, but it was a simple decision for Mark Clattenburg, who opted for a card that matched the colour of Mertesacker’s face.
Arsenal folded for five minutes. First, Wenger opted to introduce a replacement centre-half, Gabriel, in place of lead striker Olivier Giroud, who failed to keep a lid on his distress. His feelings were understandable but his reaction and that of the crowd simply highlighted how sorry for themselves the hosts were feeling.
Wenger’s reasoning may have been sound, but it proved the wrong call. Giroud had been suffering from a knock through the week but his reaction suggested he was not feeling it. The Arsenal boss clearly felt Walcott’s pace would trouble John Terry and Kurt Zouma more, but Giroud’s attributes and eye for goal were also required. Instead, Joel Campbell could have been withdrawn, with Walcott going to the right and Mesut Ozil to the left. The German playmaker’s apparent reluctance to defend seemingly weighed heavily on Wenger’s mind, leading to the selection of Giroud as the fall guy.
Arsenal had still not recovered their composure by the time Costa settled the game. The goal came from Branislav Ivanovic’s superb low delivery but the Gunners contributed to their downfall.
Nacho Monreal was half-paced and half-hearted in getting out to Ivanovic, while Gabriel, who had been on the pitch for less than a minute, failed to get close enough to Costa. Mathieu Flamini was also culpable, with the French midfielder doing shuttle runs across his own defenders as the ball went from left to right and back again. As Ivanovic wrapped his foot around the ball, Flamini positioned himself directly in front of Laurent Koscielny, blocking his team-mate’s line of sight rather than the channel down which the ball travelled to reach Costa.
We have more red cards than points against Chelsea in the past 10 years. Let that sink in
— JonAFC (@Jon_gooner) January 24, 2016
Arsenal eventually regained their composure but the damage was done. Flamini wasted their best opportunity in first-half added time when his volley at head height looped into the stands rather than the back of Thibaut Courtois’ net.
Despite Alexis Sanchez’s introduction, the second period saw Courtois remain relatively untroubled, aside from the Chelsea keeper having to leave his line to claim a couple of high balls. Indeed, Hiddink’s side carried just as a great a threat as the Blues earned made it nine games unbeaten since the coach’s return.
Arsenal have claimed two points from the last three games, making the next three, against Southampton, Bournemouth and Leicester, absolutely crucial. Sanchez’s return should bring with it great optimism and if there is a positive to be taken from three winless games, then any overconfidence should now be long gone.