Sunday, February 7, 2010

This Joke Isn't Funny Anymore: Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal

In 1984 (the book, not the year), George Orwell wrote that "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows". Under Arsene Wenger's increasingly totalitarian regime, the fans have become used to hearing that two plus two equals five, but an atmosphere of revolt is building.

These last two have been the most disheartening games I can remember as an Arsenal supporter. I can't say I was expecting much better, but it's deeply frustrating to witness a team lose the big games, the same way, over and over. I said during the week that I could bear to see Arsenal lose, but not in the same manner again. And while the performance was improved, the decisive factors were a repeat of last week's and other failures that have apparently been ignored by the players and those who guide them. The shortcomings are numerous and have been talked about here at length before, so where to begin tonight? Why not the goals. Chelsea neatly summed up the dual defensive malaise that defines this Arsenal team. The first- the set piece. You could tell just watching that goal that there had been no meaningful work done with these players as to how they were going to deal with the opposition's aerial threat (this is something I'll return to). Terry's free header, Drogba's unobstructed finish- it was another disgracefully easy goal to concede.

The fact that Arsenal came back to threaten at the other end- with Arshavin denied by Cech- made it all the more sickening to view Drogba's second. On the break of course, and another comically simple goal to concede, when you break it down. One pass and Lampard is running at our back four- Song and Diaby deciding that a 1-0 deficit is grounds to abandon defensive duties. But still- he'll need to play a difficult through ball, right? Well, no, because Gael Clichy is going to inexplicably run infield towards Vermaelen, and away from Drogba, who collects Lampard's simple ball, works his way inside the hapless Frenchman and batters the ball past the increasingly pathetic figure that is Manuel Almunia. Fuck me, this is turning into the most annoying running joke ever devised. You'd need to have a dark sense of humour, I mean, in Larry David parlance, "Heart of Darkness-black", to laugh at this now.

To be fair, Arsenal were the better side for the remainder, but it's little comfort. Chelsea happily ceded ground, defended their area well, and played on the counter. Wenger complained afterwards- more grasping for a non-existent moral victory- that they didn't really come out to play. He does not seem to understand that they wanted to win more than they wanted to entertain. Why would they invite Arsenal into an open game with a 2-0 lead? To him it's reprehensible, and I'll admit that I find it dull and uninspiring, but it WORKED. Any Arsenal fan with a crumb of knowledge of the club's history pre-Wenger would do well to consider the hypocrisy of any condemanation of Chelsea's style. Are these "fans" claiming that they would not have celebrated in 1989, in 1991, in 1994? We're all so sophisticated now, eh?

As I've said before, Wenger's successful seasons at Arsenal have been peppered with accomplished counter-attacking play. I distinctly remember an FA Cup game at Chelsea during which Arsenal endured sustained pressure only to win the game with lightning breaks- as recently as 2003. The final in 2005 is not such a sterling example, because it consisted of United making and squandering chance after chance, but again, nobody offered to give the fucking trophy back because we hadn't put on an exhibition of possession-chess. So let's dismount those fucking high horses and fix this mess, or at least acknowledge that the mess exists.

Arsenal have a multitude of problems on the playing side that are gnawing at any sense of optimism. Many people have Almunia at the top of the list, and I guess that is a problem that should be solved quite easily, but here we are, stuck with him for this season at least. But even if he is finally replaced in the Summer, it would be foolish to think that our problems would end there.

One thing that seems obvious to me is that Arsenal need a defensive coach. Perhaps a strong number two who will have the balls to disagree with his holiness, the Autocrat. Wenger either does not or cannot coach defence. It's there in every set piece, and every time we are sliced through in another devastating and simple breakaway. The transition from defence to attack and attack to defence is too slow. Going forward, we often look ponderous. I've stated here before that we are no longer a force to be feared on the break. In a funny way, building the team around Fabregas, great as he is, has weakened this side of our game. Pace and power has been replaced by poise and stealth, but overall the team is too one-dimensional. Walcott is the only forward player with raw pace and seems to have no idea how to use it- he was invisible again. Other than that, it's pass to feet, pass to feet, pass to feet. No threat in behind, no threat in the air.

That's it though. It didn't take long. Out of the title race as soon as the real games arrived. And the Champions League nothing more than a pipe dream, because good teams will either smother us, or play through us, or both. The season will probably retain a competitive edge, because after Wednesday we may well be involved in the undignified multi-team scrabble for 4th. From a position of strength, we could soon find ourselves staring into the abyss. Or we could just finish third, but either way, there will be no happy ending, because there is no reason to believe that what needs changing will change in the coming months. Maybe the Summer transfer window will provide respite.

Maybe Drogba will leave Chelsea. Meantime, pass the Prozac.

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