How it could all have been so different. Two moments of slack defending ruthlessly exploited by Didier Drogba condemned Arsenal to a defeat that dealt a crushing blow to their title aspirations. An otherwise promising performance ended in defeat because while we were slack at the back and anaemic in front of goal, Chelsea were quite the opposite.
What is disappointing is that we started so well. We were really harrying Chelsea in midfield, zipping the ball round with pace and creating genuine pressure. Yet as was the case at the Emirates in November, and even in the awful performance against United last week a bright start was undone with the opponents first genuine attack, and then dealt the killer blow with their second.
Both goals were utterly avoidable. For the first Vermaelan gave Terry far too much space to get his header in, and Alex Song drifted off as the ball looped gently to the back post for Drogba to smash home. Clichy, stationed on the post as the corner came in, inexplicably wandered to the centre of the goal as Drogba put the ball precisely where he should have been standing. The second was no better; as Chelsea broke Vermaelan and Clichy utterly failed to communicate, both moving into the same spot, allowing Drogba the space he needed to gallop forward before stepping inside both to smash home. Two errors, two momentary lapses in concentration and Arsenal had left themselves an insurmountable climb.
Much criticism will rightly be directed at Gael Clichy, a man in worryingly poor form. However it would be utterly fickle for us to lose faith with him. Injuries and a crisis of confidence have shattered his form, but his previous excellence should be enough to allow him time to improve. The same applies to Theo Walcott, again frustratingly anonymous, and clearly in need of time and a bit of luck to get back that all important self-belief.
Though criticism in general should be tempered by the fact that despite these lapses we really made a game of it. Last week we rolled over meekly in front of United, today we really fought hard and generally outplayed them in midfield. Around the hour mark especially we really threatened to get back in the game. This is of course slightly meaningless, because controlling the possession without scoring is rather Arsenal’s speciality, but it is nonetheless reassuring to see us at least trouble them.
The difference was, their late misses aside, Chelsea took advantage of what little they had. Arsenal on the other hand fluffed their lines. Arshavin’s first half volley was tricky, but a player of his class should have slotted it home. Similarly Samir Nasri, sent through in the second half, dallied as he repeatedly changed his mind between squaring to the unmarked Walcott, or taking the chance himself. As it was, his dithering cost him the chance. As with Rooney’s finishing last weekend, our opponents showed that cutting edge that can really make the difference in these tight encounters and we just didn’t.
Of course Chelsea’s defending was also excellent. They executed a simply game-plan to perfection; sneak a lead, defend it solidly, and then push for a late dagger. The little we created relied on our excellence, not their mistakes. Yet having played better to create your chances means little if you can’t put them away. Chelsea have that winning knack we, with our attack composed entirely of attacking midfielders, rather lack.
We can only see ourselves as out of it for now, but from here on in our task gets easier. All we can do is get back to winning ways against Liverpool and hope and pray the others drop needless points. To be honest, Arsenal winning the league would seem rather unjust, but if the miracle happens you certainly won’t find me complaining.
So near, and yet so far. Arsenal this season seem destined to waver in the gap between the true title contenders and the pack chasing fourth, but the consequences regardless, they can at least leave today’s game with heads held high.
Off on a slight tangent, wasn’t Eboue’s little cameo excellent? He didn’t receive the ball once without beating one man, and at times more. Hardly a solution to our problems, but it brought a smile to my face.