Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Gunners get kicked out of title race

   The title race is over for the Gunners. They suffered an humiliating 6-0 loss at Stamford Bridge on Saturday to trail Chelsea by seven points and Liverpool by three. Manchester City also leapfrogged Arsenal into third place despite having two games in hand. Those three teams have a much better goal difference than Arsenal, which means that even if the Gunners win their eight remaining games, they would still need their three rivals to stumble at least twice to have a chance of finishing first. That’s a very unlikely scenario.

   When the season is over, Wenger will just need to watch this match again to know why his team did not win the title. The Blues gave Arsenal a lesson in defensive tightness and offensive efficiency. They were a completely different side from the one that looked toothless in December. Mourinho focused on defensive stability in the first half of the season. That’s why he was happy to get a point at the Emirates Stadium. Mourinho then improved Chelsea’s firepower when his side started having solid defensive foundations. The offense obviously clicked on Saturday as the Blues scored more than four goals for the first time this season. 

Wenger’s stubbornness

   Mourinho outfoxed Wenger with a better tactical setup. The French manager opted for a more offensive formation than Mourinho by playing Arteta, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Cazorla in midfield while Chelsea had Luiz, Matic and Oscar. It’s usually the team playing at home that fields the more attack-minded lineup but maybe Wenger made those risky choices because he felt Arsenal needed three points to stay in the title race.

   The Gunners failed to play as a unit, leaving too much space between the defenders and the attacking midfielders, which explains why they struggled to keep a solid shape after losing possession. Chelsea pressed high up the pitch to force turnovers and punish Arsenal on the fast break. The Gunners were down 2-0 after seven minutes. There was clearly a problem but Wenger was too stubborn to make any change and admit that it was time to stop the bleeding.

Lack of intensity

   This match looked similar to the 5-1 loss at Anfield Road. Our midfielders and wingers were unable to stop counterattacks in both matches. The Blues and the Reds also showed more desire and aggression in the opening minutes while Arsenal lacked intensity. Anybody watching the game could have wondered whether the Gunners were seriously fighting for the title. Rosicky was the only Gunner who had a decent game.

   Inevitably, you have to second-guess the players’ mental toughness. They knew it was a key match in the title race. Was the pressure too strong to handle for Wenger’s 1000th game in charge? In any case, Arsenal failed to rise to the occasion. 

Giroud’s poor record against the big clubs

   The outcome could have been different if the Gunners had converted their first scoring chance in the fourth minute. Rosicky slipped a through ball to Giroud, who ghosted past Terry to be clean through on goal. However, the Frenchman’s low strike lacked power to beat Cech. Giroud goes missing in the big games. He hasn’t scored in the matches against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City this season.

   Giroud is simply not good enough for a contending club. What makes the situation worse is that he has no competition at the club: Bendtner has showed his lack of professionalism with his antics off the pitch while Sanogo is still too raw and hasn’t scored yet this season. This lack of competition within the squad has led to complacency and to a significant drop in Giroud’s work rate.

Koscielny’s decision-making

   A turnover in the fifth minute gave Chelsea the lead. Schurrle stole the ball from Oxlade-Chamberlain and fed Eto’o, who cut inside Chambo to open the scoring with a curling shot. I thought Koscielny’s decision-making was poor on that play. Koscielny was marking Eto’o while Mertesacker was facing Schurrle. For some strange reason, Koscielny decided to give Mertesacker a hand and left plenty of space to Eto’o. That decision allowed Schurrle to make an easy pass to Eto’o. Koscielny should have kept marking Eto’o and let Mertesacker deal with Schurrle. The Frenchman had a rough start. He put Arsenal in trouble in the third minute by turning over the ball to Schurrle, who played Eto’o in. However, Szczesny quickly came off his line to beat Eto’o to the ball.

   You’d think the Gunners would learn from their mistakes and adjust tactically by giving less space to Chelsea. But they didn’t and the Blues capitalized on a turnover from Cazorla in the seventh minute to double the lead. Matic found Schurrle, who fired through Koscielny’s legs to beat Szczesny with a diagonal strike from 18 yards. Giroud missed his first scoring chance while Eto’o and Schurrle converted their only opportunities of the match. That’s the difference between wasteful and clinical. 

Chambo’s handball

   Chelsea’s third goal also came from a turnover in midfield. Torres replaced an injured Eto’o and set up Hazard, whose close-range effort was diverted wide by Chambo’s hand. It was a deliberate handball to kill a clear-cut chance. The referee had no choice but to award a penalty and give Chambo a red card. Surprisingly, Marriner confused Chambo with Gibbs and sent off the leftback instead. Hazard converted the spot kick to make it 3-0 after 17 minutes.

   Podolski played a few minutes at leftback before Wenger pulled him out in the 24th to send on Vermaelen. Chambo lost possession again in the 30th and Luiz ran unchallenged to unleash a low drive that Szczesny turned around the post. It was so one-sided at that stage that the fourth goal from a counterattack in the 42nd did not come as a surprise. Torres ghosted past Koscielny to make a low cross for Oscar and the Brazil midfielder flicked the ball into the roof of the net.

   Rosicky tried to cut the deficit on the stroke of halftime. He first won a tackle and picked out Cazorla, who slipped the ball to Giroud. The Frenchman made a poor first touch and could only fire into the side-netting. A minute later, Rosicky took his chance from the edge of the box but his goal attempt went straight into Cech’s arms.

Chambo’s turnover rate

   At halftime, Wenger replaced Koscielny and Chambo with Jenkinson and Flamini. Koscielny has improved since his arrival in England. He has become one of the best defenders in the Premier League but he’s definitely not the world-class centerback Arsenal needs for a strong title bid. Koscielny performed well against Tottenham last weekend, but his poor decision-making has been too often exposed this season.

   Chambo had a poor first half but Wenger can only blame himself for playing a youngster in midfield against the best team in England. Chambo had a high turnover rate at White Hart Lane. The Arsenal defense can cope with those turnovers when it’s facing an average team like Tottenham. But those same mistakes can cost you goals when you play against the top teams and that’s what happened at Stamford Bridge. In hindsight, it would have been safer to start Chambo on the right wing and play the more seasoned Rosicky in midfield.

   The Gunners were under pressure shortly after the restart. Torres skipped past Vermaelen and had his goal attempt blocked by Mertesacker. Luiz pounced on the rebound but shot straight at Szczesny. Chelsea kept pressing high up the pitch in the second half, forcing Rosicky to make a sloppy pass to Arteta in the 66th. Oscar intercepted the ball and hit a bouncing shot that Szczesny palmed into his own net. Salah came off the bench to seal the win in the 71st. The Egyptian beat the offside trap to collect a long ball from Matic and slipped the ball between Szczesny and the near post for a 6-0 lead. In stoppage time, Cech parried a long-range strike from Rosicky and Jenkinson sent the rebound over the bar.

Tactics or money?

   Wenger was too confident in his team. Overestimating Arsenal’s defensive tightness and underestimating Chelsea’s counterattacking threat led to Saturday’s disaster. You can say that Mourinho won the tactical battle. But you can also say that money won the match. Mourinho signed Eto’o and Schurrle last summer and Salah in January while Sanogo was the only forward that Wenger hired. Sanogo stayed on the bench whereas Eto’o, Schurrle and Salah combined for three goals. Hazard and Oscar scored the other goals and were recruited in 2012 for more than 50 million pounds.

   Some fans wonder whether Wenger is the right manager to lead the club to the Premier League title. To be fair, it’s a question that cannot be answered until Arsenal competes on an equal financial footing with Chelsea and Manchester City. But if Liverpool wins the title this year, everybody will come to the conclusion that Arsenal has missed a golden opportunity.

   Wenger hasn’t signed a new contract yet for one obvious reason: missing out on the FA Cup title and finishing outside the top four in the Premier League would be a failure. The French manager would then realize that it’s time to let someone else take over and carry the club to the next level.

The Manchester United scenario

   Would Wenger want to leave on a high note if Arsenal wins the FA Cup? I don’t think so. The manager knows the squad does not have a strong future yet. The Red Devils won the league title last season and have turned into a complete mess a few months later. The Premiership is such a competitive league that things can go wrong quickly. 

   Manchester United definitely has an aging squad with such players as Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra, Carrick, Fletcher and Van Persie who are in their 30s. But one reason why Ferguson retired is because he felt his successor would still inherit a good squad with youngsters like Jones (22), Smalling (24), Rafael (23), Januzaj (19), Kagawa (25), De Gea (23), Cleverley (24), Hernandez (25) and Welbeck (23).

   The situation is not much different at Arsenal with a few veterans like Sagna (31), Mertesacker (29), Rosicky (33), Arteta (31), Cazorla (29) and Flamini (30) who are or will soon be past their prime, and some youngsters such as Szczesny (23), Gibbs (24), Jenkinson (22), Wilshere (22), Ramsey (23), Oxlade-Chamberlain (20), Gnabry (18), Walcott (25) and Ozil (25) who still need some guidance to fulfill their potential.

Looking for a strong spine

   I believe Wenger won’t leave the club before building a strong spine. Arsenal’s best teams under Wenger had an outstanding chain of command with a top centerback, a world-class holding midfielder and a prolific goalscorer: Adams, Vieira and Bergkamp in the 1997-98 season; and Campbell, Vieira and Henry in the 2001-02 and 2003-04 seasons.

   Today, Mertesacker is our best centerback but nobody would put him in the same category as Sergio Ramos or Thiago Silva. Likewise, Arteta and Flamini may be good defensive midfielders but they are not even named in the Spain and France squads. And Giroud will never score 30 goals in a Premier League season like Henry or Van Persie. 

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

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