Deadline day in January is always fun, as clubs scramble to complete last-minute transfers that will make or break their season. This year was no different, with Nottingham Forest further expanding their huge squad, Manchester City letting a world-class defender leave, and Tottenham Hotspur terminating Matt Doherty’s contract out of the blue. One deal in particular caught my eye, though, as Jorginho left Chelsea to join Arsenal. The move was viewed by many as a good piece of business for all parties; Chelsea got £12 million for a player they’d lose for nothing in the summer, while Arsenal added an experienced winner to a young squad looking to secure the Premier League title.
But, wait a minute. Aren’t Chelsea and Arsenal supposed to be rivals? You wouldn’t think so with the frequency with which the two clubs trade players and the amicable relationship between the two sets of supporters.
It’s an unwritten rule that clubs that share the same city are not supposed to sell players to one another. Generally speaking, those who do cross that boundary are set for a lifetime of abuse from the supporters they betray; just ask Sol Campbell how his move from Spurs to Arsenal went. And yet, over the last 20 years or so, 13 players have worn the blue of Chelsea and the red and white of Arsenal.
You’d be forgiven for forgetting lower profile players like Yossi Benayoun and Lassana Diarra moving directly from Chelsea to Arsenal, but much higher profile stars such as Petr Cech, Willian, David Luiz, and William Gallas all followed the same path, with only the latter causing any trouble along the way. Heading in the opposite direction, two members of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal squad in the ‘90s, Emmanuel Petit and Nicolas Anelka both found their way to Stamford Bridge after spells away from England. Cesc Fabregas would do the same over a decade later, too, and achieve great success with the Blues. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also wound up at Chelsea’s door after a stint with Barcelona, though his time in West London has been far from positive. As for direct moves, Olivier Giroud left Arsenal after six seasons to join Chelsea in a fairly innocuous transfer, while Ashley Cole’s switch from red to blue in 2006 is by far the most controversial of all the dealings between the two clubs.
The general feeling as an outsider to this supposed rivalry is that the two teams and their supporters hold very little ill feeling towards one another. Obviously, when they play each other there’s a desire to earn some bragging rights, but there’s no fire or fight involved really. I struggle to even remember the last memorable London derby between Chelsea and Arsenal.
I’m a Tottenham Hotspur fan, for what it’s worth, and I know full well just how much animosity is directed at the white half of North London throughout the season from fans of the two clubs in question. That is absolutely normal. What’s odd, though, is that the Chelsea and Arsenal fanbases appear to fawn over one another when it comes to getting one over Spurs, and even join forces at times to stick the boot in.
The histories of both Arsenal and Chelsea have intertwined in a rather interesting way over the years, particularly during the Premier League era. It’s safe to say Arsenal were the dominant force in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, peaking with the Invincibles side of 2004. But then, Jose Mourinho came along and all that changed. Of course, Russian money helped, too, but Chelsea suddenly emerged as a real force in English football. The timing of this rise coincided perfectly with Arsenal’s fall from grace and Arsene Wenger’s retirement from the game. It’s not until this season that the balance of power has swung back in the Gunners’ favour, and again this has come at a time when Chelsea are at their lowest. Essentially, what we’ve seen over the course of the Premier League era are two clubs that have very rarely tried to eat from the same trough.
While Chelsea were winning silverware, Arsenal were just managing to qualify for Europe, and vice versa, so why should they concern themselves with one another beyond a mild geographical rivalry? It’s this sentiment that informs the way fans of both sides seem to feel about one another.
“In a quirk of football fate, we have never really competed for the top honours at the same time, at least not in my lifetime,” says Chelsea fan, Laurie. “I don’t think we’ve ever been in a true Premier League title race together, except the Invincibles year and even then it was an 11-point gap in the end. Any rivalry we’ve had hasn’t really been reflected or enhanced by what’s happened on the pitch.”
For Corey, an Arsenal fan, it’s the very geography that binds the two clubs that may be the cause of the tame rivalry: “The Arsenal and Chelsea rivalry exemplifies the issues of rivalries across London-based clubs. With so many clubs competing for bragging rights in London, the rivalries become diluted.”
What’s particularly fascinating is that both sets of fans appear to have some level of admiration for the other club, be it in the way they are run, the players who have turned out for them over the years, or the man in charge of the team. That’s the case for Sam, an Arsenal fan, who admits his negative feelings towards Chelsea are “at an all-time low” right now, largely due to his appreciation for Graham Potter. It wasn’t always that way, though. Sam describes how he despised the way Chelsea built their legacy: “We were the team who made superstars, Chelsea bought theirs. We built a stadium and financially handcuffed ourselves, while they were bought by a Russian oligarch…For a long time I viewed them as the antithesis of Arsenal Football Club.”
Refreshingly, Rhys is a Chelsea fan who maintains a more traditional approach to the rivalry, and confesses he is annoyed that “the era of Arsenal failure is probably over,” as they are one of his least favourite teams in England. That said, Rhys does claim Arsenal fans are “generally fun to chat football with,” and he appreciates the fact the majority of Gunners fans don’t possess the same arrogance as Liverpool and Manchester United fans.
The concept of ambivalence towards your rivals or one of your players choosing to wear the colours of a nearby team is simply alien to me. If a player is going to leave Spurs, I want them to leave the entire postcode. In fact, I would prefer they leave the country, and not only because of the loyalty issue, but also because you never want a former player to come back to bite you by succeeding with a rival club. Manchester City probably didn’t regard Arsenal as much of a threat before this season began, but I bet Pep Guardiola regrets selling them Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus now. I’m not saying that Premier League clubs shouldn’t sell to one another, but the so-called top six trading assets does feel counter-intuitive, and even more so if they share a city boundary.
Paradoxically, geography may be a big part of the reason players so readily move between Chelsea and Arsenal. Laurie suggests the perks of London could factor into a player’s decision-making process. “Arsenal and Chelsea would never sell to Spurs and vice versa, so if you’re a Chelsea player and want to stay in London, playing Champions League football on good money, you’d move to Arsenal,” he posits.
When it comes to the transactions between Arsenal and Chelsea over the years, it appears the latter have benefited more. Indeed, as an Arsenal fan, Sam readily admits his side have generally picked up the “surplus players” from Chelsea, squad members the Blues could afford to hand over without ever “threatening their position in the league.” Chelsea fans know it, too. Rhys is clearly delighted with the business his team has done in the past, adding: “Every player Chelsea have had from Arsenal were outstanding and contributed hugely to endless years of success. Meanwhile, the players we’ve sent to Arsenal – like Willian, Luiz, Cech, and now Jorginho – had their best days behind them so it didn’t feel like we were missing out.”
While the majority of these transfers have been positive experiences for both vendor and customer, there are instances that have left a sour taste in the mouth for some. Corey recalls a “sinking feeling of dread and heartache” every time he saw Ashley Cole or Cesc Fabregas turning out for Chelsea. “Those are wounds that cut deep,” he adds. Laurie remembers the Cole situation well, but from the Blue side of London. “It represented the shifting of power. He was their best English player, in his prime, and from the academy, and he forced a move to Chelsea just two years after the Invincibles. That’s pretty bold and just told the whole world Arsenal were on the slide.”
The truth is, for a very long time Chelsea viewed Arsenal as being so insignificant that it didn’t matter if they sent a few cast-offs their way, and Arsenal were just grateful for big brother’s hand-me-downs. Not to mention the fact both fan bases are so busy hating Tottenham they forget about one other.
The special relationship between Chelsea and Arsenal is built on decades of sliding fortunes, but it will be fascinating to see how long that goodwill lasts if and when the two clubs’ ambitions start to clash. One would assume both sets of fans would quickly remember they’re supposed to be rivals should that ever be the case.