Chelsea 2 (Drogba 39, Alex 85) Arsenal 0
At first glance, it looks all too familiar – a comfortable win for the hosts, with us failing to break down their defence, a victory for power and organisation over technical passing. Oh, and Drogba scored again.
But in many ways, this was very different from the heavy defeats Chelsea inflicted on us last season. On those occasions, we dominated possession but created practically nothing, and our defending was woeful enough to play right into their hands. In short, we never looked like beating them or even containing them.
Today, we stretched them far more, and until the final few minutes when the game was up, had as many chances to score. But credit to Chelsea – give them a sniff and they pounce. Both goals were brilliantly and clinically taken, the types of finish you need to win big games, and when opportunity presented itself to us, we fluffed our lines.
It may be a cliché to say the first goal is crucial in football, but it never holds truer than in these encounters. If Chelsea get it, they can happily sit back and soak up pressure, drawing you in before hitting you on the counter. Their defensive organisation makes that work. But if you get the opener, they are forced out, away from their gameplan, and they can lose defensive shape as a result.
Of course, it is easier said than done, but we’ll never have a better pair of chances to make it happen – Chamakh shot fractionally wide within the first twenty seconds, and then Koscielny inexplicably back-headed over from two yards out, with Cech nowhere. Barely a minute had passed.
Later, Nasri shot just wide after a mazy run, and Arshavin forced a stunning save from Cech. Chelsea were rocking – we were closing down superbly and dragging them out of position all over the field. But with every missed opportunity, you sensed we would regret not capitalising on our superiority.
The inevitable arrived – Nasri switched off, allowing Cole to run beyond him while Malouda occupied Sagna, and Cole’s cross found Drogba at a difficult near post angle. At first I thought his finish was a fluke, but that is doing him a disservice – it was a superb piece of improvisation to backheel the ball off the inside of the post, past a stranded Fabianski. It was against the run of play, but it showed us exactly what we were missing.
We had even more of the ball in the second half, but as I said earlier, with Chelsea now ahead, they could soak up pressure and counter, and as a result we created far less. In fact, the best opportunities came to the hosts – Anelka pounced on the ball after Squillaci dallied, rounded the keeper and then rolled wide at the near post before Cole had a goal disallowed for offside, which was marginal at best.
But at 1-0, we were still in it, and our fighting display continued. The best chance fell to Chamakh, who headed Rosicky’s cross wide, minutes before Alex lashed in an unstoppable free kick. Yes, the shot went through the wall, but it was a gap Malouda vacated, and those blaming Song are being overly harsh.
With the game gone, we lost our shape badly, and only impressive saves from Fabianski to deny Essien and Cole stopped it becoming a rout, which would have been highly unfair.
As it is, we were given a lesson in taking your chances. Of course you can point to the absentees – Cesc and Van Persie would surely have made more of the dangerous positions we found ourselves in, and Walcott would have pinned Cole further back, but we still had a team capable of causing plenty of problems, and they found themselves unable to make their mark.
Our crossing was particularly woeful, barring Sagna’s excellent delivery inside the first minute. Time and time again we failed to beat the first man, and corner after corner was easily dealt with. Arshavin had an off day – occasional flashes of brilliance too often aligned with basic errors and sloppy passing. And the less said about Clichy’s two long range efforts, the better.
But there were a host of positives too. Sagna was excellent, Diaby also decent until his ankle was crunched by Essien. Wilshere held his own amongst far more experienced players, and Fabianski kept the score down and could do nothing about either goal. But more than that, our attitude was spot on – the players pressed and harried throughout, showing the sort of fight that was lacking last weekend, and despite what seems like an endless run of defeats to Chelsea, can come away with their heads held high.
This was not a sloppy performance, we were not vulnerable at corners, we were not physically overrun. We just missed our chances, and they took theirs. Sometimes football is that simple.
We have two weeks to stew over this, so I’ll leave it there for now. My final point is to the Sky pundits – there is a world outside the Premiership, you morons. Jamie Redknapp and Andy Gray both based their pre-match analysis on neither of our new centre backs having ‘ever faced the likes of Drogba before’, another example of extraordinary ignorance from men paid to inform us about the game. Where did Chelsea sign Drogba from? Marseille. Where did Squillaci played his entire career prior to 2008? France. Sigh.
Today was a blow, but it wasn’t terminal. Stay positive.