Wigan on Wednesday night; now that our fortnight break has ended, the games come fast and furious and we need to make sure we do not squander what we have achieved tonight.
After Cesc’s frank admission of our mental weakness following the capitulation at Old Trafford, I began to wonder if we would ever shake the mental shackles off and beat either of the top two. All credit to our Captain for putting it out for everyone – including our manager and players – to face head on.
We started quickly, with Chelsea keeper Cech just beating Robin to a Song ball. It quickly became apparent that this was not the Chelsea side we saw several weeks earlier. Even with Lampard back in the side, they looked nervous, tentative, and surprisingly negative. Drogba, who usually has us for lunch, fired wide from one move, then disappeared for the remainder of the first half. We dominated the half, we were more direct, shot on goal when the opportunities presented themselves, kept our shape and worked hard off the ball.
Many of us have been waiting to see this aspect for most of the season, and it worked very, very well this evening. We got little change from Clattenburg, who overlooked a series of Chelsea fouls, gave Robin nothing when Malouda tripped him inside the box and booked Cesc for nothing worse than he had already received a couple of times over. This time we ignored the ref, and made our own luck, steadily increasing pressure as the half wore on. I thought perhaps a goal will come this time, and finally, just a minute or so before the interval, with Song firing home from inside the area. It was our first goal against Chelsea since Bedntner’s “too little, too late” effort in the 2008 season 1-4 reverse here at the Ems. We went into the interval a goal up, and I went into it hoping – without truly believing – that we could hold on to the lead.
Not only did we hold on to it, we went for the throat at the start of the second half, and scored twice in rapid succession. First, six minutes in, Theo – who absolutely roasted Cole this evening – went clean through, drew Cech out, and squared for Cesc, who smashed it into an empty net. Two minutes later, Theo stole the ball from a dithering Malouda, exchanged passes with Cesc, and drilled a low shot into the far corner. 3-0 up and Chelsea had yet to register a shot on goal. They did get a lifeline six minutes later, as Drogba lofted a free kick into the box, where Ivanovic rose highest to head past Fabianski. I thought Fabianski was poorly positioned – coming too far out – for the goal – but he did not seem to let it affect his subsequent performance.
From this point, Chelsea finally woke up as an attacking force and starting winning the ball and pushing forward. They had the momentum for a ten-or-so-minute spell, but we held firm. I though the key to this was all our players seemed to understand where they needed to be positioned in certain situations, and our intensity and work rate. When Chelsea had the ball, we did not always try to win it back in their half, we often drew them into ours, and worked tremendously hard to win the ball, deny them time and space, and shut down all approach lanes and alleys.
As Chelsea’s mini-revival lost steam, we dominated possession again, and spent much more time in their half. With 15 minutes to go, Arsene started making the substitutions: Diaby (his first appearance for a few months) for Theo, followed a few minutes later by Chamakh for Robin (who got a very useful 75 minutes under his belt, and caused Chelsea plenty of problems, even if he didn’t score), and Rosicky taking both place and armband from Cesc just prior to 90 minutes. Shortly after Diaby came on, he wasted a very good chance – I think it was Malouda that gave the ball away near Chelsea’s box, it broke to Diaby, who got free, but dwelt on it too long, with Lampard blocking his eventual shot with an outstretched leg. As it was the big fella’s first action in quite a while, it is no thing to stress over.
At this point, we made virtually all the chances – Nasri got free inside the area, but hesitated and then took the wrong option, Cech getting a hand to his chip, when power would have gotten our fourth goal. All the while, we continue to work responsibly and effectively in defense. After his free kick, Drogba got nothing out of us. He was flagged offside a couple of times, went down on his can looking for a whistle a couple of others, basically did squat, and looked indifferent at best.
No longer can he claim to be unbeaten against us – easy come, easy go, eh Didier?
There was one instance where he lined up a free kick, and the ESPN commentary team (Steve McManaman was one of them) drooled over it, talking about how he puts extra work into these kicks and this one was made for him – Drogba, predictably, hit a poor kick that comfortably cleared our crossbar. As the minutes ticked down, it was evident that Chelsea were getting nothing from this trip – we had opportunities to score a few more, and give the scoreline a realistic look – but we had to be content with three. Right at the end, Rosicky got clear down the side and smashed a shot off the post. Apparently he had already been (wrongly) flagged offside – but it would have been a nice goal.
The final whistle went a few seconds after Cech took the goal kick and that was that.
I admit to a measure of frustration. As the title says, “We owe you (Chelsea) a lot more than just this (3-1)…” and I wanted us to pile it on. Chelsea were unbelievably poor tonight, are clearly a wounded team, and I wanted us to rack the score up, not just beat them, but embarrass them. We were certainly far superior than a two goal margin suggests, but I shall worry about that another day. I risk losing sight of the fact that this is a watershed victory for us – not only did we beat Chelsea, we beat them thoroughly.
There no longer need to be any questions if this Arsenal side can beat one of the big two – we now have done that, and done it convincingly. Yet, the question still remains as to whether we can do this consistently. Only time will answer that…
Special mention to a couple of our players: Alexandre Dimitri Song Billong stood tall in every sense of the word this evening. Not only did he often get forward to good effect, he picked his moments very sensibly and was always there to break up an attack, defend a free kick, or do whatever was necessary. He personified the work tirelessly and win at all costs mentality we collectively showed today.
Theo got a rare start and tormented Chelsea. I thought he was very direct, and kept it simple. Instead of bombing forward and looking to cross, he ran right at Chelsea’s number 3, held the ball up when necessary, and played it on the ground more than normal.
Cesc looked fit and sharp, and created enough chances for us to have won by a larger margin. The whole team did very, very well.
Now that this proverbial duck has been broken, we need to sort that consistency issue out.
Finally, a hearty well done to Arsene and our players. I have recently been critical of Arsene for a number of things – today he and the players got everything right. Any criticism I may have had after viewing the match – namely our reluctance to pull the trigger and score more goals tonight – is nitpicking of the highest order. Credit where credit is due – if what we saw tonight is his vision of what this team should evolve in to, then when we do put it all together, we will truly be something to behold.
Tonight, Arsene’s plan and execution worked extremely well. If he were to tell critics like myself, “It always looks easy from where you sit!” My only response would be to stare at my shoes and mumble, “Yes, yes it does…”
Lest I overlook the entire team in my plaudits for Arsene, they stood up to be counted as a group, never lost focus, and for once, looked like they believed they could beat Chelsea far earlier than I actually believed it. In short, they looked like a team playing free of the shackles of self-doubt…
However…Should we drop points at JJB on Wednesday, we will immediately undo the momentum we have gained. We are back to second in the table – ahead of Man City on goal difference – and we are once again being hyped as legitimate title contenders. Ignore that – we, of all sides, know that a team is only as good as its last game.
Consistency is the next challenge. Confidence should not be an issue from here, so let’s continue to play as we did tonight – particularly with the same effort, application, and defensive responsibility and then we can win anything we compete for. Not two or three years down the road. Right here. Right now…
Written by Oliver