Arsene Wenger went with the ten fit players who battered Chelsea at the Grove sixteen League matches ago with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain occupying the midfield berth vacated by Santi Cazorla. Lucas, surprisingly, did not make the bench as Arsene opted for two defenders, midfielders, and forwards. What would follow would define our Premier League challenge this season.
Arsenal started brightly and with less than two minutes on the clock Alex Iwobi’s drive from just outside the box was deflected away for an unproductive corner. The Gunners early on were pressing high up the pitch, a tactic which proved so successful in the last meeting of the sides. We also looked to have started in a 4-3-3 formation with Alex Iwobi on the left of midfield and Mesut Ozil deployed on the left wing.
Importantly Skhodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny won their first battles with Costa as the Gunners defence settled into their task. Chelsea’s first opportunity came in the eleventh minute when Cahill met a cross in front of goal but bounced his header over the top. A warning to the Gunners? Indeed it was. Costa’s header against the bar rebounded into play and Alonso, leading with a flying elbow into Bellerin’s jaw, headed home the opener in the thirteenth minute past a static Cech.
Temporarily reduced ten men, Arsenal had to send on Gabriel for their concussed right-back. Costa engineered an opening on the right side of the box but smashed his hopeful effort into the side-netting at Petr Cech’s near post. When Hazard galloped clear down the left Mustafi took a yellow card for the team to deny the Belgian. Over an hour against Costa with a yellow card would test the defender’s discipline.
In the wake of the goal we appeared to revert to 4-2-3-1 with Ozil returning to the centre and Iwobi pushing on down the left flank. As the half hour mark arrived Costa’s selfishness enabled us to deal with a rapid counter attack. He had two colleagues unmarked to his right and had he used them we could have been in deeper trouble. Nacho Monreal was floored by first Moses, and then a nasty looking challenge from Azpilicueta.
Arsenal’s early promise had been dampened by the goal. The pressing was less enthusiastic now. On the break Ozil tried to put Theo Walcott through but his first touch was heavy and the chance was gone. From a pair of corners we threatened to level matters, but Gabriel’s header and Coquelin’s deflected shot were comfortably saved by Courtois. Gabriel in particular will have been frustrated. It was a big chance.
Costa went through Coquelin who admirably didn’t react. He is maturing, his self-control not always having been a strong point. In the second of four added minutes Coquelin teed up Ozil but Courtois was equal to his near-post effort. The sounding of the half-time whistle did for the ‘holic pound. Arsenal, used to improving in the second-half these days, had time to regroup at the break just a disputed goal behind.
At the start of the second-half Koscielny had to be alert to deny Hazard an opportunity to go clear, but generally Chelsea dropped deep, perhaps expecting Arsenal to up their tempo again. They were comfortable playing on the break. A misplaced pass under pressure from the skipper ended with Hazard firing one way over the crossbar. Another warning.
Coquelin’s careless backheel in the Chelsea half was picked off. The ball was played to Hazard who simply out-muscled the Frenchman on a mesmeric, mazy run that ended with him slipping the ball past Cech. It was a wonderful goal, but woeful defending from the Arsenal. The inertia in the aftermath was worrying. Where was the arrival of at least Danny Welbeck, if not also Olivier Giroud. We needed an immediate response. Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
Finally, eleven minutes after going two down, Olivier Giroud was sent on. The withdrawal of Coquelin was surely a fitness thing? Our midfield base was now a horribly exposed Ox and Iwobi. Danny Welbeck followed a few minutes later in a footballing equivalent of a ‘hail Mary’. Theo Walcott trudged unhappily to the sideline. Matic immediately drew a yellow for a Xhaka-like challenge on Danny which drew ironic cheers from the travelling faithful.
Azpilicueta took out Alexis and again escaped caution. Chelsea were breaking the game up, and we didn’t need Gabriel to ease into Hazard with an elbow, also unpunished. We were playing into their hands. Conte screamed “compact” at his team, and they obeyed his orders to concentrate on stifling the game.
The lively Welbeck found Giroud but the big man couldn’t turn quickly enough and Chelsea smothered the ball out for a corner. Arsenal sensed something. Courtois had to dive full length to deny Welbeck, and Mustafi thumped a header from the ensuing corner just off target. Conte responded by sending on Willian and Fabregas for Pedro and the outstanding Hazard.
Unbelievably Cech chipped a ball straight to Fabregas and the ex-Gunner chipped it into the gaping goal. With that horror moment another title chase was tamely surrendered. Giroud’s header from Monreal’s cross was little consolation. It always feels the same, and Gary Neville summed it up.
“Not strong enough, not resilient enough, and ultimately not good enough.”
When you have been used to steak it is sickening to be served sausages every meal.