Monday, 31 October 2011

Chelsea outgunned as Arsenal come back with a bang

Many Arsenal blogs have been waxing lyrical about the Gunners’ win at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. The general consensus is that it was worth waiting for. It was without doubt the team’s best performance of the season so far, and must send out a riposte to those who had prematurely written off our chances of securing a top four finish in 2012.

The free-scoring drama of the game was a welcome surprise, but in hindsight it should not perhaps have been altogether unexpected. In recent games it was evident that going forward the understanding between players was improving, and Arsenal were starting to play with more fluency. Against Chelsea this was more apparent than ever, and at last it would be fair to say that the team clicked – if not for the full ninety minutes, then certainly for sustained periods.

It was an open, pulsating game right from the kick-off, caused by lax defending as much as attacking prowess. Both teams attempted to squeeze the space by playing high defensive lines, but the pace and creativity of the forward players meant this was open to frequent exposure. A rampaging Ashley Cole caught out makeshift right-back Djourou twice in the opening five minutes, while Santos looked similarly vulnerable on Arsenal’s left flank. Seemingly realising the danger, Song and Arteta alternated in deeper midfield positions – mirroring Mikel’s habitual station for Chelsea – in an attempt to offer additional protection to our pressured defence. Even Ramsey began to drop back, but Koscielny marshalled well and was to prove the outstanding individual among the Gunners’ back-line over the ninety minutes.

It was far from one-way traffic, however, and Arsenal looked to move the ball forward quickly with a refreshing and pleasing directness. Gervinho should have scored in the 11th minute, when an intelligent pass from Ramsey released Theo Walcott on the right, who made good use of his ferocious pace and even produced an excellent final ball, which scudded into the box – making Ashley Cole look distinctly average in the process.

Indeed, Walcott was bright and lively throughout the first half, as were Ramsey, Gervinho and Robin van Persie, collectively offering a significant offensive threat. Mata and Lampard’s industry and movement were the counterpoints to this, and they combined well for the first Chelsea goal. However, Arsenal rallied well and a series of relatively uncomplicated but quick and precise threaded passes unlocked the opposition defence for van Persie’s equaliser. Alternating with Gervinho, who was more than happy to cut inside and get into the box, RvP came in from wide left and finished almost nonchalantly.

Sturridge was then caught marginally offside, and the linesman’s flag cancelled out what could have been an uncomfortable 2-1 lead for the Blues on 38 minutes. Ultimately they did take the lead just before half time though, thanks to – who else? – John Terry. It was a scruffy goal from a corner – which again highlighted the Gunner’s ongoing deficiencies in defending set pieces. This was perhaps the only negative of a generally good opening 45 minutes.

At the break it still looked and felt as though Arsenal could get something from the game. Wenger evidently thought so, too, and sent his team out full of fire. The Gunners started on the front foot, again spearheaded by the attacking intent of Gervinho, Ramsey and van Persie. There were two more Arsenal chances within the first minute of the second half, and soon after a second equaliser came thanks to a good run and finish from Andre Santos, after a great pass by Alex Song. Under pressure, Chelsea became increasingly narrow and Arsenal exploited the space on the wings effectively.

Szczesny was booked in the 49th minute, and was slightly fortunate to see only yellow for a clumsy but unintentional foul. The resulting free kick was the first of a few nervy moments for the Gunners, but the defence saw the ball safely away from danger. Further up the field, the midfield axis of Song-Arteta-Ramsey looked increasingly fluent and worked well in attempting to dominate the Chelsea midfield. Although not all-conquering, they did gradually gain the upper hand through economical passing, quick movement and sound positioning. Ramsey was far more advanced, while Gervinho bested Bosingwa time and time again in one-on-one situations. Walcott, similarly, kept Ashley Cole occupied and scored a great third goal, stumbling initially but recovering well and demonstrating a matchless combination of pace, close control (switching the ball from left to right foot) and deft finishing to put the ball past Petr Cech’s outstretched limbs at the near post.

Chelsea attempted to crowd Arsenal out through the middle, but the Gunners had success in threading angled balls from wide positions behind Terry and Ivanovic. Under pressure, the Blues seemed to lose their collective appetite and focus, becoming sloppy in possession and aggressive off the ball as the game got a little fractious. Arsenal tightened up defensively and were quick to break with the ball as Villas Boas introduced Malouda and Lukaku in an attempt to wrest control of the match and produce a goal to restore parity.

The Gunners continued to produce good passages of play, with excellent ball retention, which aggravated Chelsea as they chased for possession. Arsenal made some decent half-chances but frustratingly failed to capitalise on set pieces such as the corners they won – van Persie’s delivery failing to clear the first man on at least two occasions. Given his goal-scoring form, he should be in the box anyway! Jenkinson was introduced on 75’ for Johan Djourou, a sensible change from Wenger, and Meireles also replaced Mikel for Chelsea. Our right-back is learning incredibly quickly and Santos also looked better in the second half, but still struggled against the interplay of Lukaku and Mata – hence the equaliser, which made it 3-3 with ten minutes remaining.

Rosicky came on for the excellent Walcott, but pleasingly he showed the same enthusiasm and drive as Theo had throughout and Arsenal continued to press forward. Suddenly opportunity beckoned and Robin van Persie stole in to retake the lead. A bad Chelsea pass forced John Terry to lose his footing, and our number ten showed great class to nick the ball away, round the prone Cech and stroke the ball into the net. The Chelsea captain’s slip was oddly convenient, masking a chronic lack of pace that is nevertheless becoming more and more obvious at the top level. Regardless, at 4-3 up and five minutes to go, the match was delicately poised. Gooners everywhere were undoubtedly tense – we all know only too well how Arsenal can implode when attempting to hold a lead – but still it was genuinely exciting, and that isn’t something we’ve been able to say about many Gunners performances this season.

The away support were in fine voice, drowning out the Stamford Bridge faithful as the team continued to hold out on the pitch. Vermaelen entered the fray to bolster the defence, and Song was impressive – he was perhaps unfairly penalised on a couple of occasions and didn’t deserve to pick up a yellow card for what amounted to little more than running alongside Ashley Cole. Arteta was similarly combative, and continues to prove his worth, providing bite as well as composure. It was more good counter-attacking play that finally brought the coup de grâce as van Persie’s venomous snapshot fooled Petr Cech, the ball visibly bending in the air as RvP wheeled away to celebrate a fine and important hat-trick. Delight was etched visibly in the players’ faces as they celebrated in front of cameras and the Arsenal fans huddled in one corner of the stadium. Chelsea seemed out of ideas, while the Gunners conversely were more inventive and more potent – and showed greater belief and fighting spirit in the latter 45 minutes.

The three points were undoubtedly deserved, and although it was not quite the mauling that the scoreline suggests Chelsea looked completely overrun at times. The win is all the more impressive when you consider the teamsheets – Arsenal were playing with a back four consisting of new players in left back and centre back positions, without a recognised right back for most of the game and, for 87 minutes, without Thomas Vermaelen, the club’s most highly regarded defender. Admittedly, we conceded three goals, but Chelsea conceded five with an experienced and expensively-assembled defence – even with the £25.5-million David Luiz left on the bench. Increasingly John Terry seems to rely on his repertoire of pulling shirts, blocking off players, catching ankles and treading on feet as his stature at the heart of the Chelsea back-line dwindles, in stark contrast to Laurent Koscielny – a player who, it is fair to say, has had good days and bad days already in his Arsenal career but who worked tirelessly and fearlessly at the back. Andre Santos, similarly, may look slightly suspect in his positioning and stamina, but no more so than Bosingwa, and the Brazilian can evidently score goals, being blessed with an excellent touch and superb close control.

Arsenal consolidate their seventh place position in the Premier League table, gathering momentum all the time as a good run continues, and emphatically breaking the hoodoo of their awful away record. Prospective fixtures loom large, but suddenly we can look ahead with anticipation – next up, a Tuesday night Champions League home tie against the suddenly-not-so-mighty Marseille...

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