Before Arsenal’s loss to Chelsea on Saturday, Arsene Wenger said “results against direct opponents are always so important” and that the Gunners needed to show against the Blues that they “are capable to deal with all the kind of problems consistency demands.” Arsenal weren’t able to handle the obstacles Chelsea presented at the Emirates Stadium. And now the question becomes “Are Arsenal direct contenders for the title alongside the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United?”
Judging by Arsenal’s poor performance against Chelsea, the answer is no. Roberto Di Matteo’s side outplayed the Gunners on their home pitch. Old fragilities, such as an inability to defend set pieces, reappeared despite the presence of new defensive guru Steve Bould. A lack of decisiveness in the final third prevented Arsene Wenger’s men from stealing a point at the end. In other words, the frustrating Arsenal returned.
Even the new signings, who hadn’t been part of Arsenal’s previous failures, were disappointing. Arsenal’s creative leader of the attack, Santi Cazorla, was suffocated by Chelsea’s defense. Lukas Podolski did not have any influence on the match and was withdrawn in the second half by Wenger. The German’s replacement, Olivier Giroud, missed a fantastic opportunity to even the score in extra time.
Giroud hasn’t impressed since his move from Montpellier in the summer. Critics have likened him to Marouane Chamakh, but that would be a cruel comparison from Chamakh’s perspective since the Moroccan actually scored eleven goals and deputized well for an injured Robin van Persie in his debut season at the Emirates Stadium. While Arsene Wenger insists that Giroud will thrive in the Premier League, he hasn’t trusted the French striker enough to start him in either of the Gunners’ last two league matches. It’s difficult for a player to adjust to the English game when he’s only playing in 20-minute spurts.
Arsene Wenger made two questionable choices for his starting eleven against Chelsea. Firstly, Laurent Koscielny was preferred to Per Mertesacker after the big German center-back was named Man of the Match against defending champions Manchester City by a fan poll on Arsenal’s official website. In his post-match press conference on Saturday, Wenger said that the decision to start Koscielny ahead of Mertesacker was “based on the opposition we played.” Perhaps the Arsenal manager is suggesting that he thought Koscielny was better equipped to handle Chelsea’s pace. The explanation lacks logic because Mertesacker didn’t look the least bit sluggish against City. What the German lacks in pace is negated by his supreme positional sense.
Wenger’s second mistake Saturday was starting Aaron Ramsey on the flank. The Welshman is not a winger, even though Wenger continues to put him out wide. Ramsey didn’t perform poorly on the wing at the Etihad Stadium, but he also didn’t light the world on fire. Arsene Wenger’s idea in starting Ramsey on the wing is that it will allow his team to keep the ball and give Jenkinson more defensive help on the right side. The only problem is Ramsey isn’t a good defender, and he also doesn’t do a great job at keeping possession.
While the criticism of Arsene Wenger’s team selection may seem like second-guessing after both players had (predictably) poor displays on Saturday, the reality is that many Arsenal supporters (including myself) were annoyed with the manager’s two awful choices when the starting eleven was announced prior to the start of the match.
A combination of unorganized defending, poor finishing, and questionable managerial decisions has placed Arsenal in a state of limbo. After last week’s hard-fought draw at the home of Manchester City, the Gunners’ were widely considered to be title contenders once more. A reassessment might be necessary following Chelsea’s victory at the Emirates Stadium, though it would be unfair to assess the Gunners on the basis of one terrible performance. At the moment, Arsene Wenger’s team is floating in between the title fight and the battle for the top four. No definite conclusion can be drawn from Saturday’s loss. In the coming months, as the season grinds on, Arsenal’s realistic ambitions will come into focus. At the moment, the Gunners’ fate is just blurry.