Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Chelsea assert themselves on Arsenal, but it’s not close to enough as Mauricio Pochettino rues dropped points

LONDON — As Chelsea and Arsenal lined up in the Stamford Bridge torrent, a familiar tale was inverted. On one side, a bruising group of enforcers and imposers, big names with the physicality to impose themselves on their opposition. Across the pitch, a cadre of players who for all their technical excellence looked like giving up several inches in reach. Immediately the mind went to Didier Drogba swatting aside fresh-faced center backs. This time, however, it was Arsenal who were primed to be the bully boys.

You would have thought so, at least, and yet for 90 minutes this still-coalescing Chelsea side delivered what you might term the proto-Mauricio Pochettino performance. Their energy levels seemed without end, their diligence remarkable. Beyond even that, they asserted themselves on Arsenal. This felt less like a redux of past battles between north London and west than those games where Tottenham, a team forged in the effervescent image of a young Pochettino, ran through the Gunners.

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How they only got a point will baffle Chelsea supporters well beyond this season. The hosts were exceptional and the good luck in both their goals was utterly eclipsed by the misfortune to run into the old Arsenal from the minute Robert Sanchez shanked his clearance in the direction of Declan Rice. For a moment, Stamford Bridge was paralysed with memories of Nwankwo Kanu in 1999; if any team has proven their ability to swing contests at the death it is Mikel Arteta’s. It was harsh enough that the visitors got away with one point, to claim two more would have made them thieves in the night.

“Up until 77 minutes when we conceded the first goal, the game was under control,” said Pochettino. “We didn’t concede too many chances to a team like Arsenal, an amazing team. We’re disappointed. I think we dropped two points.”

From the moment a sloppy Oleksandr Zinchenko pass in his own area was forced to a Chelsea shirt in the second minute, it was apparent Arsenal were off it. Perhaps it was the sodden turf that gripped onto any pass that wasn’t hit at bullet speed. Maybe the midfield selection was a little off, this game less demanding a player who can burst to claim loose balls rather than the more elegant, considered Jorginho. Those things can be true whilst it also being the case that an industrious Chelsea knocked Arsenal off their axis. 

They were able to set the pace of this contest and dictate the territory, Pochettino’s decision to push Conor Gallagher higher allowing Chelsea to block some of the passing lines out for the visitors. When they did advance into the final third they found opponents up for a battle, none more so than Marc Cucurella, while Martin Odegaard picked a wrong time to deliver such a disappointing performance. The captain typified Arsenal: too late to loose balls, his passing radar askew for once. Perhaps this was just a freak game for him and his teammates. 

Certainly, there was something out of the ordinary to the goals they conceded. Mykhailo Mudryk flicked a cross against the outstretched arm of William Saliba, when Chris Kavanagh went over to the pitchside monitor he concluded that the Arsenal center back had had his arms in an unnatural position. A yard or so away from his opponent, he hardly had a chance to address that. Arteta was booked for his protestations after the final whistle. 

“The law is clear as well in where the ball has to be in relation to the action. It’s very close and it’s impossible to jump without lifting your hands. Mechanically it’s impossible,” he said.

Arsenal might have felt aggrieved over that but when Gallagher is winning loose balls, Moises Caicedo going stride for stride with Declan Rice and the battle on both flanks going Chelsea’s way, the hosts were going to get in position for lucky breaks. The impressive Cole Palmer had flashed wide before the first half was out while Raheem Sterling had brushed off the struggling Zinchenko before teeing up Malo Gusto to drive over.

The next goal was coming for Chelsea … just not like that. Mudryk might claim that his coaches had briefed him in advance about David Raya’s aggressive positioning for crosses but his laser focus on the options available to him in the box suggested this was more super shank than a moment of impudent brilliance. If there were mitigating circumstances for Raya’s potential error on what might have been the third goal, a pass straight for the goalkeeper to Palmer. Arsenal fans were chanting Aaron Ramsdale’s name. Arteta’s mind might appear to be made up on who his number one should be but he has some work to do selling the message.

Ultimately the truly game-changing error came from Sanchez, passing the ball straight to Rice, one of the few Arsenal players to perform at a level approximating their standards in the first 77 minutes. Give this Arsenal team a shot in the arms and they can move mountains.

Rice was once more on hand to claim a clearance, the ball coming to Bukayo Saka, who for once got clear of Cucurella. Leandro Trossard, invariably so impressive off the bench, stole in at the back post and Arsenal were level. It still was not enough for them.

“The way the team reacted to the second goal is phenomenal from the players on the pitch and the players on the bench thinking how the hell am I going to change this game,” said Arteta. “I loved that. I really liked as well going into the dressing room and it’s really quiet, after drawing 2-2 with Chelsea and coming back from 2-0 down, because I know that they wanted more. That’s the positive.”

Equally, Pochettino saw signs of a youthful team still learning its way through errors. Arteta can attest from experience that those happen for longer than any manager might like. However, this team, forged in such chaotic fashion, already has the look of one that is capable of putting their manager’s style into action. When they do, they were more than a match for one of the best teams in England.

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