Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Still Leaking

photo by donjd2via PhotoRee

The 148th meeting between Arsenal and Chelsea Monday afternoon was a match much like many others between the two clubs.  For large portions of the game I had the feeling I'd seen this movie before: lots of tiki-taka Arsenal possession, passing and probing, but no worthy Gooner end product, with Chelsea looking to spring Drogba on the counter-attack for a morale-crushing blow.  But ten minutes in the middle of the match told the tale of how things have changed of late between the two clubs, and provided a dramatically different ending than we've become accustomed to, as Arsenal cruised -- that's right, cruised -- to a 3-1 victory.

The papers are full this morning of Carlo Ancelloti's obituary as Chelsea coach, which may be true, but in my opinion at least, would represent a totally undeserved fate for the suave Italian.  The news is also chock-a-bloc with opinions as to how the ghost of Ray Wilkins is still haunting Chelsea's Christmas present, but I feel this is an oversimplification.  Clearly there are problems at Chelsea: age, lack of depth and even more damning -- lack of spirit -- among them, but the bigger question is how did it come to this for a side who won the league -- according to the London-based pundits -- back in October?

The newspapers are also full of Gooner pride, and bold predictions about how Arsenal have finally overcome the dreaded Blue menace, and are now confident enough to go on and win the title.  I don't think so.  This is a good but ultimately flawed and inexperienced Arsenal side, and although i think they'll finish comfortably in second or third place, i don't see them challenging for the title at season's end.

The contrast in the Gunner's last two games is instructive.  Yesterday's game -- especially in the opening twenty minutes -- was a remarkably open affair, with both sides attacking with gusto, and placing little if any emphasis on defense.   Drogba was left completely unmarked on several occasions, and if Van Persie, Walcott and Wilshere had been more composed from the opening whistle the home side could have been two or three goals to the good by the time the pace slowed down a bit.

Two weeks ago, while playing Manchester United at Old Trafford, however, Arsenal saw an entirely different opponent: organized, relentless defenders who harried the Gooners each time they tried to touch the ball and interrupted their flowing brand of football.  Arsenal created only one real opportunity that day and were well-beaten.

But back to the ten minutes that told the tale of the game: Chelsea undone in the portion of the game immediately proceeding and following the halftime interval by some mistakes you'd be more likely to see on the schoolground than in the Premier League.   Most worryingly for Chelsea, the opening gambit took place right through the pride of the team: their vaunted central defense.  Truth be told, the goal had been coming for awhile, with Arsenal gaining strength as the half wore down to a conclusion -- Fabregas tip-toeing through the middle, Nasri's fine free kick handled by Cech -- but when the breakthrough came it was still stunning: Wilshere finding Fabregas (who would have generated a penalty when he was pulled down by an overmatched Ferreira in the box) with a nice through ball before Alex Song hit the back of the net.

Chelsea never recovered despite the break which occurred shortly thereafter, coming back onto the pitch looking shellshocked -- they thought this was Arsenal they were supposed to be playing, how could they be behind? -- and Essien and Malouda contributing shocking misplays to hand the game over to the home side.  The midfield and defense looked overrun, and the entire squad lacked the composure you would normally associate with champions.

What happened next was instructive: Ancelloti, clearly unhappy with the way his squad was playing, yanked Malouda and Mikel, and replaced them with.....  Who?  Ramirez and Kakouta?  If nothing else, these moves represented like-for-like substitions, as Ramires, Kakouta and Mikel are all lightweights, and Malouda appears to have completely lost his way since leading the league in scoring seemingly eons ago.

And it's this problem that haunts Chelsea most right now: having let the likes of Ballack, Cole and Carvalho go, they have nothing in reserve. We've talked before about the thinness of the current Chelsea side, but here was it in action: a staring lineup containing the overmatched Ferreira, and a pre-game bench consisting of Turnbull, Bosingwa, McEachren, Van Anholt and Bruma in additon to the afore-mentioned Ramires and Kakouta.  Not exactly seven subs to strike fear in the hearts of Arsenal, or any other squad for that matter.  

Roman has let the cupboard become shockingly bare  over the last year.  With the injuries they've faced -- and injuries, as we all know, are part of the game -- this Chelsea side has little to no chance to reclaim it's crown.  The defense is still leaking goals, the bench has no bite, and the SS Chelsea is taking on water at an alarming rate.  Look in the mirror, Roman -- you've no one to blame for this but yourself.

This is a bonus farlieonfootie for December 29. 

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