What now for Arsenal? Saturday’s defeat to Chelsea left them 12 points behind the league leaders and probable champions, but the manner of the loss was such that it raises bigger questions than how to deal with another title challenge that’s over so early in the season.
The only thing the Gunners can complain about is the opening goal and, in fairness, in games like these it’s so often a decisive factor. Marcos Alonso didn’t deliberately elbow Hector Bellerin, but when you render an opponent almost unconscious with a forearm smash, you shouldn’t be surprised if a foul is awarded against you.
The only little bit of credit Arsenal get from the Stamford Bridge encounter is that they didn’t hesitate in taking the Spanish full-back off. We’ve seen teams too many times allow players who have clearly been concussed to play on, so it was absolutely the right thing to do to replace him.
It should also spark some debate as to whether a change enforced by a head injury like this should fall outside the three substitutions regulation. While it might possibly be something teams could exploit, the reality is football, and sport in general, needs to make provision for incidences when player welfare trumps everything else.
Beyond that incident, however, Arsenal can have few complaints about the result. Chelsea were simply better in every way. More organised, more disciplined, far less careless with the ball, and the second half in particular was profoundly disappointing from an Arsenal perspective.
The first 45 minutes weren’t great, but had they gone in level it wouldn’t have been entirely undeserved. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain picked out Gabriel with a fantastic ball, but the Brazilian wasted the chance to equalise, heading straight at Thibaut Courtois. Would an Arsenal goal have inspired them, and perhaps rattled Chelsea?
We’ll never know, but with a full half to go, and aware that defeat would end their already slim title chances, Arsenal’s players simply failed to react in that second period. They were hopeless at times, making unforced and unnecessary errors that put them under pressure and prevented them from building momentum.
It was no surprise then that such a limp performance was evident in the second goal. While some will choose to credit Eden Hazard for what he did, it was a goal that owed far more to Arsenal’s insipid defending that the Belgian’s skillset.
Francis Coquelin was weak, Laurent Koscielny — usually a man who defends on the front foot — backed off the point where it was easy for Hazard to dink the ball beyond Petr Cech, and at that point the game was done and dusted.
The Chelsea man’s impact was in stark contrast to that of Arsenal’s star players. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are incredible talents, but were found wanting on the day. The loss was not all down to them, far from it, but on a day when you need your big players to step up and make the difference, they were nowhere to be seen.
The biggest question though has to be asked of the manager. Arsene Wenger does not deserve the abuse or vitriol aimed at him, but to ignore him as the common denominator as another title challenge falters seems foolhardy. If there were mitigating circumstances before with restricted cash flow, they’re not relevant any more. He has spent big money bringing players like Sanchez, Ozil, Xhaka, and Mustafi to the club, yet the failures remain all too familiar. When the pressure is on, Arsenal are likely to buckle, and ultimately that buck has to stop with him.
As the Arsenal board consider the future, they’d be minded to look at the league table, and unless they’re satisfied with more of the same, they should really be thinking outside of the Wenger box.
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