Billed as one of the games of the season, Chelsea’s visit to the Emirates to take on Arsenal was always likely to be something of an anticlimax.
What we perhaps didn’t expect was the dour and attritional game that ensued on a wet and windy night in North London. Despite their fantastic start to the season, Arsenal simply failed to break this structured Chelsea side down, only registering their first shot on target in the 89th minute.
Whilst it seems unlikely that either set of fans will have derived much pleasure from the sterile displays offered by both sides, it seems quite clear which manager will have been most pleased with the result.
Chelsea played to ‘not lose’
It is of course Jose Mourinho that will have been the happier of the two managers, as the draw kept Chelsea in touch with the league leaders. Mourinho is the master of the defensive counter-attacking game, and he played his hand to perfection on Monday night.
Ever the pragmatist, Mourinho’s style of football is the perfect antidote to Arsene Wenger’s ‘total football’ model; and Chelsea’s spoiling tactics ensured that Arsenal were denied the opportunity to go two points clear at the top of the table.
On paper it appeared that both teams were playing the same 4-2-3-1 formation, but in reality, Chelsea’s five midfielders operated much closer to their defence than Arsenal’s. This had the effect of crowding the midfield, and managed to disrupt the Arsenal passing game to the extent that Wenger was forced to commit more players to the attack; leaving his defence vulnerable to the counter attack.
Mourinho was typically candid in his post-match interview, suggesting that while both teams clearly wanted to win, his Chelsea side were perhaps driven more by a desire not to lose. In case you were wondering, this is football shorthand for ‘we played for a draw’.
So why would Mourinho play for a draw as opposed to a win? Quite simply, Mourinho is well aware of the fact that at present, his side is not as good as Wenger’s. In the circumstances, the options the Portuguese had available to him were: a) go cavalier and lose or b) play defensively and ensure at least one point. By opting for option B, Chelsea were able to prevent Arsenal from widening the gap whilst staying in touch themselves; all whilst not playing to their full potential.
Alarm bells for Arsenal
What will be a concern for Arsene Wenger is the ease at which Mourinho was able to keep his team’s threats at bay. As we remarked earlier in the season, Arsenal have garnered the majority of their points against inferior opposition, and the jury is still out on their ability to get results in the big games.
Had Arsenal been able to get at least three points from the possible six available to them in games against Man City and Chelsea, they would now be sitting two points clear at the top of the Premier League, with two of the season’s biggest challenges completed. As it is, they have rather failed their dress rehearsal for champions-in-waiting; and sit behind Liverpool on goal difference; having only gained one point from their last two games.
The bad news for Arsenal is that the time in which they can take advantage of their rival’s failings is now coming to an end. Not only are Liverpool playing out of their skin without one of their principal goalscorers, but Man City are managing to add some away form to their imperious performances at the Etihad. History also tells us that Jose Mourinho will make this team tick, while David Moyes’ Man Utd have also improved in the last few weeks. The long and short of it is that Arsenal looked the best team in the league whilst the other good teams were floundering, but most of those teams are now pretty firmly afloat.
To make matters worse for Arsene Wenger, Mourinho has now provided an example of how a team can get a draw at the Emirates, and it seems highly likely that other teams will look to employ the same system when they travel to North London this season.
A draw away at Arsenal would be a good result for most teams in the division; and so it seems probable that the Gunners will have to contend with many more teams visiting them with the one point in mind. This will force Arsenal to play a more attacking game as they seek the three points they will need; and whilst this Arsenal team are more than adept at that style of play, the risk of conceding will increase exponentially.
Chelsea back in the hunt
The fact that Mourinho’s Chelsea have manoeuvred themselves into fourth position and only two points off the league leaders should be applauded all the more when we consider their teething problems.
One of the biggest problems that Mourinho has faced in his second spell at Stamford Bridge is the fact that many of the players recruited since he last managed the club are not really his cup of tea. The Portuguese has always favoured strong, athletic and defensively responsible players; but with the squad now full of diminutive and skilful individuals, the Special One has been forced to try and instill a new tactical philosophy into his squad. Whilst it is eminently possible to do this, these sorts of tactical shifts take time, and in the intervening period, it is always likely that the football will suffer.
Perhaps a graver concern than this tactical bedding-in period is the woeful form of the strikers Mourinho has available to him. Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba have only scored five league goals between them; and although a goalless draw suited Chelsea at the Emirates, if the Blues have serious pretensions of winning the title, this is a situation that must be rectified in January.
A merry Christmas for Mourinho and a challenging year ahead for Wenger
Mourinho has won this latest duel between the two managers; and this draw extended his unbeaten run over Arsene Wenger to ten games. For Chelsea, their ability to stifle the Arsenal threat bodes well for the business end of the season, and if they are able to recruit a striker capable of finding the net, they seem like the team most capable of challenging Man City for the title.
This setback – following their heavy loss at the Etihad – will be a concern to Arsene Wenger, and the Frenchman will no doubt be seeking nine points from their three fixtures during the festive season. Arsenal must get back on their horse – and quickly – if they are to graduate from also-rans to genuine competitors.