This is a story of Chelsea’s season of playing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
They say we only remember the good things in retrospect. The rose-tinted glasses effect. Try telling that to an Arsenal fan. Or any football fan really. We nurse our wounds knowing that they will never scab over, never heal, always fester; we jealously guard those hurts and heartbreaks, making place for the new ones that neatly line up, awaiting their turn.
All Gooners remember (even if they wish they didn’t) what happened on Arsene Wenger’s last Arsenal landmark – his 1000th game in charge of the club. After having won 7 trophies in his first 500 games in charge, Wenger had nothing to show for the next 500. They would have to wait for a few more months to break that trophy drought. That day, Mourinho’s men ran riot at Stamford Bridge, the wrong man was sent off for Arsenal by referee Andre Marriner, and they lost a whopping 6-0 in the end, causing a still-embittered “Special One” to label him a “specialist in failure”.
Fast-forward two years and another Wenger anniversary looms. 20 years at one club is no small feat and it’s unlikely to occur again in modern football with its nature and demands of quick success and turnovers and obscene amounts of money.
Wenger, hired as a relative (read: complete) unknown all those years ago, is now the most successful overseas manager in England. But would he be able to engineer his club’s first league win against Chelsea since that rather comical 5-3 at Stamford Bridge? Or would the men in blue spoil yet another milestone for the Frenchman?
After a far-from-ideal start in the league, Wenger’s side were finally starting to show signs of settling down a bit, of their fluency returning. But Antonio Conte’s teams are famous for a water-tight defence and a structure and discipline that opposition teams find difficult to play against (Though it now seems that Conte might have a bigger and tougher job on his hands than anyone anticipated at the time of his hiring), and it was a test Arsenal couldn’t fail. Not if they wanted to prove themselves as genuine title contenders with early front-runners in Pep’s Manchester City, Klopp’s Liverpool and even Pochettino’s Spurs who looked dangerous in their early form. Not to mention a certain Jose Mourinho on the red side of Manchester with his Ibrahimovic and Pogba. Same questions. Same doubts. Big-team opposition. Same old Arsenal?
Arsenal started the game brightly and it was only 11 minutes before Alexis exploited Gary Cahill’s moment of weakness to score his club’s first league goal against Chelsea since January 2013. If fans had to wait so long for the first, then the second and third arrived in true London buses style – none for ages and then multiple all at once. Just 3 minutes later, Arsenal took advantage of Chelsea’s lack of defensive mobility, and some brilliant one-touch passing and movement between their fastest trio of the impressive Alex Iwobi, Hector Bellerin and Theo Walcott allowed the Englishman to tap the ball into the net for the second. The third, coming later in the 40th minute, was a stunning move started and finished by Mesut Ozil who had 34 completed passes out of 39 in the final third (the highest by any player in the match). The German turned N’Golo Kante in the Arsenal half, moved forward and passed it to teammate Sanchez who in turn passed it back to Ozil at Chelsea’s back-post. He had plenty of time to control the ball, before volleying a scuffed shot past Courtois. 3-0 at half-time and no Chelsea shot on target.
After the break, Arsenal took their feet off the accelerator a little, first with an eye on their mid-week Champions League clash against Basel, and second in response to Conte’s reshuffling of the Chelsea back-line to play 3 in defence. However, it was a resolute defensive performance from the home side, who not only tracked back and defended as a team, but also moved proactively off the ball, and Chelsea’s lone ball on target came deep in the second half when substitute Michy Batshuayi had a shot saved by former Chelsea man, Petr Cech.
It was a sweet, much-awaited, much-deserved victory for Wenger and his men after not having defeated their West London rivals in over nine league games. If the 6-0 back in 2014 was an example of Wenger’s worst managerial performances, then this 3-0, even if against a poorer Chelsea side in comparison, was an example of one of his best. It wasn’t just the score-line or the occasion of the manager’s impending anniversary, but the manner in which the victory was achieved.
It was heartening to see because even though it’s the beautiful, free-flowing football of Wenger’s most successful teams that is talked about, it wouldn’t have meant anything without their solidity in defence, their work-rate on and off the ball, their tracking back as a team. Just as no amount of pretty passing means nothing if the team can’t score, no amount of breathtaking goals scored are valued against a leaky defence. It’s the right combination of both that characterizes successful teams.
Arsenal executed a near-perfect game-plan to achieve their aim, something they have been accused of lacking in the past, especially against the big teams. (Special thanks to our centre-back duo of Captain Kos and Mustafi who kept a certain Costa quiet, and bonus points for his dramatic frustration which was long overdue.) The performance, including the complete psychological dominance, was reminiscent of the best of Wengerball. So let’s take a moment to pause and enjoy that, if for nothing but the pure love of football.