Arsenal vs. Chelsea: A tale of two halves

The Gunners limited the damage on Monday by drawing 0-0 with Chelsea to go level on points with the Reds at the top of the Premier League. Both teams were under pressure after Liverpool and Manchester City won on Saturday. The outcome was a tactical match with very few chances, the opposite of what happened at the Etihad Stadium 10 days ago.

Trauma from the loss at Manchester

Arsenal has taken only two points from its last three games in the Premier League. Four points would have been a decent total against such contenders as Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea. The Toffees’ late equalizer is certainly the main blemish in the toughest part of our schedule. Splitting the points with the Blues is not a disaster in itself if we take into account the context. The Gunners had not gotten over the trauma of the heavy loss to the Citizens and were clearly playing with the handbrake on in the first half. The pouring rain also made the pitch slippery, punishing every technical inaccuracy.

The starting lineups were quite telling about the managers’ intentions. Wenger wanted to win the match and played with just one defensive midfielder, Arteta, whereas a safer option would have been to partner the Spaniard with Flamini. By contrast, Mourinho left Oscar and Mata on the bench to give Obi Mikel the nod. Mourinho’s plan was first to defend and then hit Arsenal on the fast break.

Chelsea’s tactical edge in the first half

The game was pretty much a tale of two halves. Chelsea should have scored in the first half, but Arsenal finished stronger and should have won in the second half. The Blues were aware of the Gunners’ doubts and pressed high up the pitch to prevent them from building plays. A few turnovers in the opening minutes showed Arsenal had not chased away the ghosts from the Etihad Stadium. Tactically, Chelsea had the edge and made it difficult for Arsenal to reach the box. There was too much space between the Gunners, who struggled to find passing options, while the Blues had a more compact shape. Walcott was identified as the main threat and was often double-teamed.

Chelsea had three clear-cut scoring chances in the first half. Ramires beat Mertesacker to the ball in the 27th minute but headed Willian’s cross over the bar. Five minutes later, Hazard took a pass from Lampard and played the ball back to the England midfielder with a ball over the top. Lampard outpaced Arteta but his volley crashed against the bar. The offside trap was well executed on that play but Arteta did a poor job to track Lampard, who is four years older than him. Arsenal panicked for a couple of minutes as Szczesny had to save a spinning shot from Torres in the 33rd before Mertesacker blocked a close-range effort from the Spaniard. The Blues wasted another good chance on the stroke of halftime. Torres intercepted a sloppy pass from Ramsey to initiate a counterattack. Hazard fed Willian on the left of the area but the Brazilian winger attempted a curling shot from a tight angle while the better option was to cross to the far post where Ramires was unmarked. The Gunners’ only half-chance came in the 25th when Sagna’s cross for Giroud was cleared by Cahill.

Arsenal dominating the second half

Arsenal got the upper hand in the second half by giving Chelsea less space. The Blues were toothless and just had a long-range strike from Lampard in the 66th to trouble Szczesny. The Gunners dominated the last quarter, forcing Mourinho to send on Luiz for Torres. Some neat one-touch passing led to Arsenal’s best chance of the match in the 79th. Ramsey played Giroud in with a ball over the top but the French striker volleyed wide from eight yards. A striker like Van Persie would have caught the frame. Gibbs then played a one-two with Rosicky in the 85th before making a low cross for Giroud, but Cech blocked the Frenchman’s close-range effort. In stoppage time, Azpilicueta cleared off the line Sagna’s header from a corner. In the closing minutes, I thought the manager would send on Podolski, Cazorla or Bendtner. But Wenger did not make any substitution as he was worried about the balance of the team.

Some inconsistent officiating

Wenger complained about the officiating after the match. Dean waved away Arsenal’s penalty appeal for Willian’s foul on Walcott in the 36th. The England winger made a poor first touch while attempting to control a pass from Ozil and was clearly tripped by Willian inside the area. Unfortunately, referees are sometimes reluctant to have a match decided by a soft penalty.

I was more upset about Dean’s inconsistency for violent tackles. The referee booked Walcott in the second half for a late challenge on Azpilicueta that was awkward but not dangerous. However, he did not give any yellow card when Azpilicueta made a dirty tackle from behind on Ramsey in the 12th or when Obi Mikel planted his studs into Arteta’s ankle in the 36th. With that kind of officiating, you can be sure that FIFA won’t choose an English referee for the 2014 World Cup final.

Still in contention

The Gunners have seen their lead shrink from five points to zero. That’s mentally tough to take but let’s not forget that they climbed to the top of the Premier League because of a soft schedule from August to October. The negative from Monday’s draw is that Giroud and Ramsey, whose form proved instrumental in Arsenal’s rise, have lost their magic touch. The positive is that Arsenal is still in contention two games away from the halfway stage. Last year, the Gunners were trailing Manchester United by 15 points after 17 rounds.

With five matches in 13 days,  I guess the manager could rotate as much as half of his team for Thursday’s trip to West Ham since the Hammers will benefit from two more days of rest than the Gunners. It’s time for some players to step up because the club needs to get back to winning ways.

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Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

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