Saturday, September 19, 2015

Chelsea Beat Arsenal Again; What Else is New?

Two games, three red cards, two own goals and two losses. That sums up Arsenal’s week and really what is starting to look like yet another disappointing season under Wenger. How many more can the team afford before they slide to Liverpool status? On the other end, just when we thought Chelsea’s season was unraveling, they won their opening group game in the Champions League 4-0 and beat their “rivals” Arsenal 2-0 in a span of four days. It was their first clean sheets of the season and their first comprehensive win, even if it got a huge assist from Arsenal-killing ref Mike Dean. Diego Costa might receive a retroactive suspension though and there are real questions emerging about whether John Terry’s time at Chelsea is moving toward its end. Arsenal will feel rightfully aggrieved with the red card on Gabriel after Costa appeared to be the instigator of it all, but his kick out was rather ill advised coming in extra time of the first half. The second red, for two yellows on Cazorla, was equally suspect, as he appeared to pull out of the challenge after going for a 50/50 ball with Fabergas.

The reality, though, is that Chelsea were outplaying Arsenal, if marginally, in the first half and maybe deserved the points anyway. We will never know though and it is starting to feel like that old referee campaign against Arsenal is back in full force. The team that already has the most red cards in Champions League history is developing a troubling habit of accruing them in big games against rivals in the league and in their bigger games in European football. Nonetheless, it is hard to ignore three reds that were all questionable; particularly the two yellows accrued by Giroud on Wednesday. On the other hand, the lack of discipline by the Gunners is troubling and indicative of Wenger’s inability to get his teams up for big games over the last decade. The goal that gave Chelsea the lead came, not surprisingly, on a free kick in the 53rd minute. Monreal got caught in between defending two Chelsea players and Zouma was thus set free at the far post, sending a powerful header just past the outstretched arms of Cech. Arsenal played with real verve from there, almost getting in for an equalizer on a couple of counters before the Gabriel sub, Calum Chambers, saw the shot from Hazard bounce off his back and into the goal. The second Chelsea score was somehow given to Hazard, but it seemed from my perspective to be a clear own goal. In any case, Mourinho is still undefeated in the league against Arsenal and, with Coquelin suffering an injury that had him pulled at halftime, there is every chance that the Gunners could be in for a difficult stretch.

Some thoughts on the game:
1. Costa the Bully: in Italy and Portugal there is respect for players that can get away with a fake dive, earn a suspect penalty or elicit an unwarranted red. It is part of the game that doesn’t appeal as much to the Victorian-infused ethics of the English fan and I think they have a point. Costa has not exactly set the world afire this season with his goals, though he did have one midweek, but he has certainly done other things to help the team, riling up opponents and getting inside their heads. Today it directly led to a red for fellow Brazilian Gabriel, who should have known better than to get into it with the fiery beast. The real argument though is whether Costa should have had the chance to incite Gabriel at all, after three straight fouls on Koscielny, including a swinging arm into the defender’s face and a chest but that sent the Frenchman to the ground somehow went unpunished. It really should have been red from a player that bullies defenders, constantly complains at referees and attempts to get away with as much as possible. We could admire the performance of a player hungry to win, but his antics sometimes seem to influence his productivity, as has generally been the case with the Spanish National team and in most games this year. Not surprisingly, it is another example of Mourinho players engaged in the “dark arts” of football, something that the great Arsenal teams of the early oughts were actually quite good at themselves, though this has been largely forgotten by most fans. It appears this new version of Arsenal could use a little of that grit though; Wenger called Costa’s behavior “disgusting,” and it probably was, but how about meeting disgusting with smart disgusting themselves and winning an important game more than a couple of times a year?

2. Bilic vs. Wenger: Arsenal’s main problem over the last several seasons, in fact, is an inability to beat their main rivals or play their best football in the biggest games of the year. In the second half of last season, they seemed to have partially addressed that, beating City at the Etihad, beating United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup, crushing Liverpool and earning draws against Chelsea and United before winning their second FA Cup on the bounce. Yet that papers over a loss to Tottenham at White Hart Lane in a game they probably should have won, the terrible first leg 3-1 loss to Monaco they could not quite overcome and a mediocre run-in that saw them pipped to second by City. Before this season started, Wenger finally beat Mourinho to add the rather marginal Community Shield to his hungry trophy case. Then the season started and Arsenal were outplayed by West Ham to lose at home. They came back to win at Crystal Palace before a wrongly disallowed goal and several missed chances cost them against Liverpool. The Champions League group seemed like something of a gift, even if second place looked the more likely result against Bayern. Then they earned the first of their three red cards this week and were summarily beaten 2-1. And now yet another loss to Chelsea as the Gunners title hopes have already taken a hit, though they are lucky City lost to upstart West Ham. So let’s compare that performance to those same Hammers, who beat Arsenal at the Emirates 2-0, beat Liverpool at Anfield 3-0 and then beat an undefeated City at the Etihad 2-1. Bilic appears rather more astute at preparing his team for the big games, using different players, different formations and different tactics in each of those wins. Even as their results in other encounters have been far more suspect, including a 4-3 loss to newly promoted Bournemouth, a 2-1 loss to Leicester, both at home, and an ignominious early exit from the Europa League, the win over Newcastle 2-0 last weekend together with the win today mean they are in second place a mere three points behind the suddenly kryptonite-infected City, who have now lost two on the bounce at the Etihad, including the 2-1 loss to Juve. It is this sort of tactically acute younger coach that might be able to get more out of a talented Arsenal side that need a few additions and a more flexible approach to games. Wenger is a great manager, as I have written on numerous occasions over the years, but he just does not seem to have it in him to make the right moves necessary to again win the title, or get to the latter stages of the Champions League.

3. Mourinho’s Madness: listening to Mourinho describe matches in his post-game interviews increasingly sound like performance art pieces, surrealist re-envisionings of reality that suit his rather skewed worldview. After the win today he refused to answer questions about the enfant terrible display by Costa and why it was not punished, instead telling the interviewer to ask about Gabriel before claiming Costa tongue-in-cheek as the “player of the match.” After being destroyed 3-0 by City earlier in the campaign, he argued Chelsea had outplayed the Citizens and only lost because of a missed penalty claim, ignoring the two second half goals by City. Similar claims were made after the other losses this season and the oft-entertaining Portuguese manager is starting to grate in ways that even surpass his final season in Madrid. One wonders if it is his sometimes juvenile narcissism that undermines his winning mentality and is thus to blame for a habit of poor third seasons in each of his managerial stops, though Chelsea are starting to play with more pomp, at least this week. Given the loss by City, they can now try to make another charge toward the top of the table and look set for a relatively comfortable route to the knockout stage of the Champions League. On the other side of London, Wenger will have to right a ship that is again wavering in the early going of a season, hoping to stay within reach of the top of the table.

In regards to the players on the pitch, Walcott was pretty disappointing, missing a few good chances to get free on goal with heavy touches, Sanchez as abject as he has been most of the season and Ozil decent but failing to turn an important game for not the first time in his third season with Arsenal – though it should be noted he has created more chances (76) than any other player in the EPL this season, further evidence of Wenger’s mistake in not buying another striker this summer to finish some of that surfeit of opportunities. Chelsea looked better for long stretches of the game with Zouma in particular looking strong on both ends of the pitch, scoring the opener and having a number of important interventions to stop Arsenal attacks. The game was turned by a couple of questionable calls, as the first half did end scoreless, but Arsenal failed to score a goal against Chelsea in the league for the fifth game running. I think back to the scintillating 5-3 win from four years ago and wonder where that highflying Gunners team has gone. The only good news for the Gunners is the chance to get back to winning ways in their Capital One Cup tie against hated rival Tottenham on Tuesday. A loss then could move the conversation about Wenger’s ineptitude further along toward the only natural conclusion. For now, he can continue to come up for clever bon mots to deflect that rather salient point from Mourinho that he is, in fact, a “specialist in failure.” He certainly is when it comes to playing Chelsea with Mourinho in charge!

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