It may well be something of an overstatement at this stage of the season, with not even half of the campaign elapsed, but last night’s Premier League meeting between Arsenal and Chelsea was the archetypal “must-win” game for both sides — – or, at the very least, “must-not-lose.”
Both teams entered the game with big question marks against the credibility of their respective title challenges. Chelsea were on a wretched run of form, having won just one of their last seven fixtures to drop from first place to fourth. Arsenal, similarly, were tasked with throwing aside the burden of their poor recent results against fellow title contenders and prove they are not big-stage bottlers.
In that context, it was perhaps no surprise to see a cautious, safety-first approach from both teams in the early exchanges. Neither goalkeeper was tested, raising fears that a nervous, drab nil-nil lay in wait — but we needn’t have worried; this was just the calm before an exhilarating storm.
As the first half wore on, Arsenal found their passing rhythm and grew in confidence. The always-important Cesc Fabregas, previously a peripheral figure, had space to exert control on the midfield manoeuvrings with his deft passing skills; Samir Nasri and the erratic yet dangerous Theo Walcott repeatedly ran with pace and purpose at their full backs; Robin Van Persie looked capable of darting into the space behind the Chelsea defence.
Chelsea were on the ropes, relying on a series of increasingly desperate defensive clearances and waiting for relief in the form of the half time whistle. Going forward, they had nothing to offer; Didier Drogba was isolated, Saloman Kalou and Florent Malouda anonymous, Frank Lampard dominated.
The reigning champions simply couldn’t sustain any meaningful possession, and their rare sorties on the counter-attack were swiftly extinguished by a startling lack of precision and purpose.
After half an hour, Arsenal were starting to purr. Chances had been few before Arsene Wenger’s team finally came close in the 41st minute, when another spell of pressure resulted in Nasri receiving possession in space, 20 yards from goal, and lifting a delicate chip towards the top left corner; Petr Cech, tested for the first time, was equal to the task, leaping acrobatically to tip the ball away for a corner that was safely dealt with.
At that point, Carlo Ancelotti on the Chelsea bench must have breathed a big sigh of relief, hoping that Cech’s save was enough to keep his side on level terms going into the interval.
But there was sufficient time for Arsenal to maintain the pressure and finally grab the goal they deserved as Alex Song strode into the penalty area and thrashed a low shot past the helpless Cech.
Half-time and 1-0 behind, something had to change for Chelsea, and Ancelotti was quick to act by replacing John Obi Mikel with the more attack-minded Brazilian Ramires for the start of the second half.
It changed nothing; Arsenal were still emphatically in the ascendancy, and needed just five minutes to double their advantage. Hesitant Chelsea defending created the opportunity as a loose attempted clearance from Michael Essien released Walcott clean through on goal, and the winger showed maturity and awareness to eschew his shooting opportunity in favour of squaring the ball to the unmarked Fabregas for a simple prod into the empty net.
Remarkably, two minutes later it was 3-0 as the Gunners pounced upon another defensive error — Malouda this time the culpable party for dwelling in possession inside his own half — and Fabregas returned the favour by releasing Walcott, whose crisply struck and perfectly placed low finish zipped past Cech into the bottom left hand corner.
3-0, 52 minutes played, and Arsenal weren’t just beating Chelsea: they were destroying them, annihilating them, embarrassing them. By producing a fast-paced and ruthless demonstration of high-class football, the Gunners were glaringly exposing their opponents’ fragile confidence and lack of direction. It was a rout.
But Arsenal rarely make things easy for themselves, and they contrived to hand Chelsea a lifeline when slack marking from a Drogba free kick allowed Branislav Ivanovic to head past Lukasz Fabianski, reducing the deficit to 3-1.
Chelsea took some encouragement from the goal and briefly rallied, but they still lacked any cutting edge — with Drogba once again worryingly ineffective — and Arsenal always looked capable of scoring again.
With 20 minutes remaining Nasri wasted a glorious chance to restore his team’s three-goal advantage, shooting weakly at Cech after being put through by substitute Gael Kakuta’s limp back-header. But it mattered little; Chelsea never seriously threatened to mount a comeback, and Arsenal held onto the 3-1 victory with ease.
So where does this leave both teams? For Arsenal, the proverbial monkey is well and truly off their back. They now know they can beat the big names, and this victory could end up meaning far more to them than the simple accumulation of three points.
Only time will tell, but this may prove to be a defining moment in the maturation of Wenger’s young team – if they can ally their cultured passing approach with this kind of controlled aggression on a regular basis, their trophy drought will surely soon end.
As for Chelsea, the woes continue. They deserved their heavy defeat. It was a bad result, but an even worse performance. They didn’t look like scoring goals and always looked like conceding them; something has gone badly wrong at the Bridge (maybe just the unavoidable ageing of their key players), and Ancelotti faces an extremely anxious few weeks.