Even if Jose Mourinho isn’t there, should we really be surprised that Chelsea still found a way to manoeuvre themselves a win against Arsenal and have the Gunners finish without a full number of players on the pitch? Absolutely not.
Even against ten men, this Chelsea team still looked a bit shambolic, especially going forward, but having gone into a 1-0 lead in the first half, the one thing they can still do is defend well, and it’s a lot easier to play with everyone behind the ball when the opposition trying to force the game are a man down.
The game can only really be defined by the sending off of Per Mertesacker in the first half. From an Arsenal point-of-view, it was poor defending that allowed Diego Costa to isolate the big German, and it was unusually rash from Mertesacker to dive in as I can only assume that he thought Costa was either offside or that Koscielny was going to struggle to catch him, so he felt he had to do something. When it happened, it didn’t look great in real-time for Mertesacker and I can understand why Mark Clattenburg brought out the red card.
But, having said that, it would also have been completely correct if Clattenburg had booked Diego Costa for diving. It’s sad to see a striker with the talent that Costa has a footballer, feel he needs to cheat his way through games and do everything he can to have a fight with someone. He’s got a clear run on goal but throws himself to the floor to get someone sent off. It’s this sort of thing that people use against Arsenal when it’s argued that the team aren’t cynical enough or don’t have a hard edge to them but, frankly, if having those things means being like Diego Costa, then no thank you. That man is stain on the game.
Inevitably, while Arsenal were still adapting following a reshuffle after the sending off, Costa scored the only goal of the game. The Gunners weren’t switched on enough and still had the red card in their minds, and Chelsea took advantage of that.
After that moment though, it is difficult to fault the overall effort of the team as, for large parts of the second half, the team with ten men were the only side trying to make anything happen in the game as the visitors resorted to just hitting hopeful passes through for Costa or Remy, who were usually offside. Arsenal’s biggest problem was not having a proper centre-forward to occupy the Chelsea centre-backs, limiting Arsenal’s options when they worked the ball into wide areas. I understand why Arsene Wenger hooked Olivier Giroud off to be able to bring on Gabriel to play at centre-back, especially if there had been an injury doubt over the Frenchman before the game, but Arsenal missed him badly.
Theo Walcott was fortunate to not be the one taken off, and the decision to leave him on could have partly been influenced by Walcott wearing the captain’s armband. While it was a nice gesture to recognise Theo passing ten years at the club, I couldn’t help but think that it sent out the wrong message. This was a massive league game, not a testimonial. I hoped that the armband might at least galvanise Walcott, whose contributions have hardly been telling in recent weeks. Unfortunately he gave a pretty uninspired performance in his game as the captain, and with Alexis Sanchez back at Arsenal’s disposal, Walcott has to fear for his place in the starting XI.
The Gunners had a spark when Alexis came on, and there were a few scrambles near the end of the game where on another day the ball would have fallen into the back of the net, but with Mathieu Flamini unfortunately being on the end of Arsenal’s best chances, things didn’t quite happen for the Gunners.
I just hope that the players are able to just write it off as an accident, as with eleven players on the pitch, I have no doubt that Arsenal would have won that game. It was costly in terms of missing out on three points to go back to the top of the table, but it doesn’t have to be costly in terms of triggering a collapse in Arsenal’s form. Wins against Burnley and Sothampton in the next games will go a long way to getting this game out of the system and effectively press the reset button on the title challenge. It isn’t all over because Chelsea somehow scraped a victory against ten men.
As with any game with Chelsea, regardless of the result, I ended the match feeling incredibly relieved that I had a red and white scarf around my neck and not a blue one. There are so many things that make that club thoroughly dislikable.