Thursday, October 7, 2010

One-dimensional Arsenal fall to Drogba again

  Here we go again: Chelsea against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.
       The home team: pace, power and purpose. An unwavering commitment to playing at a high tempo with controlled aggression, seeking to impose their will on the game and force their opponents into submission.
      The away team: touch, control and precision. An abundance of short, quick passes along the ground, attempting to open up the opposing defence with clever movement and a sharp use of angles.
      And, as ever, the muscular approach of Chelsea overcame the tippy-tappy philosophy of Arsenal. So many times the same story has been told, yet still the ending remains the same.
      Will Arsene Wenger ever learn that his high-minded, purist approach simply will not prevail often enough when it comes up against equally talented but more forceful opposition?
Harsh on the Gunners? No; just look at the stats.
      Since Arsenal won their last trophy (the FA Cup in 2005), they have come up against Chelsea on no less than 14 occasions... and won just twice. Surely if nothing else will convince Monsieur Wenger of the errors in his ways, that simple fact is enough.
      Two wins in 14 games do not suggest that the teams are like-for-like title rivals; rather, it speaks of a mismatch between two clubs who have found themselves consistently at different levels of achievement for more than half a decade. (Even more conclusively, only two of those 14 games have been drawn, with Chelsea winning the remaining 10 fixtures).
      Didier Drogba neatly epitomises the contrast in approach — and success — between Chelsea and Arsenal. The Ivorian has now scored in each of the last three games between the sides, and recorded an extremely impressive personal tally of 13 goals in 13 meetings with the Gunners.
      In Drogba we can find everything that’s most effective about Chelsea, and everything that Arsenal are missing. He carries immense presence, using his powerful frame to give Chelsea’s attacking play an intimidating physical potency; if nothing else is working for them, the Blues can simply lump it forward to the big man and let him fight it out with the opposition defenders — and quite often, he’ll come out on top.
      It’s not pretty to watch, it’s not particularly scientific, and it’s not something that Arsene Wenger would consider to be the “right” way to win a football match. But it works, and the penetration and thrust provided by Drogba has been a major factor — possibly, even, the most significant single factor — behind Chelsea’s consistent collection of trophies in the last five years.
      At this point, I should state that labelling Drogba as a one-dimensional old-fashioned battering ram would be an extremely unfair denigration of the striker. As he demonstrated with his subtle finish for the opening goal in yesterday’s game, Drogba is a hugely talented footballer with the ability to produce subtlety as well as strength. But the key point is that he can do both, and therefore adds a cutting edge to Chelsea’s attacking play that Arsenal simply don’t possess.
     In all his time (14 years now) as Arsenal manager, I am struggling to recall one striker of Drogba’s type that Wenger has signed. Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Christopher Wreh, Kanu, Davor Suker, Sylvain Wiltord, Francis Jeffers, Jose Reyes, Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin Van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner, Eduardo, Carlos Vela, Maroune Chamakh... they have all been primarily touch players, much more comfortable with the ball played along the ground than in the air.
     There are without doubt some exceptionally fine players within that batch of strikers, but aren’t many of them a little similar? Where’s the physical presence, the power, the aerial threat, the penetration?
     Possibly the only “target man” type striker signed by Wenger in the last 14 years is Julio Baptista, but the Brazilian was only given very limited opportunities during his brief loan spell from Real Madrid a few years ago.
     Other than that, it’s been flair all the way and, whilst Arsenal are very pleasant to watch, professional football is about results, not style. So where are the trophies? With Drogba, at Stamford Bridge.
     The pattern of play during the second half yesterday was symptomatic of Arsenal’s limitations. They enjoyed plenty of possession and, at times, looked capable of stretching Chelsea’s defence with their clever, quick passing approach.
     But Chelsea’s defenders were organised enough and disciplined enough — and good enough — to stand their ground, not get drawn out of position and challenge Arsenal to play their way around them.
     Chelsea knew they would face very little physical pressure inside the penalty area, so they were prepared to shepherd Arsenal into wide positions and encourage them to deliver crosses into the box, where John Terry and Alex were more than a physical match for anything that Arsenal could offer.
      And despite all their possession, the Gunners failed to create many meaningful chances, with their pretty-pretty passing movements breaking down in a mass of bodies on the edge of the penalty area.
      If Arsenal had their own version of Drogba to aim crosses towards, life would have been far less comfortable for the Blues’ defence, and inviting the visitors to deliver crosses from deep would not have been an option. But that is not Wenger’s way... perhaps it should be.   

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