Arsenal v Chelsea: The pit and the pendulum

THE ONLY real surprise at the Emirates was the scoreline; Arsenal should have won far more healthily than they did. A two-goal margin really did flatter a Chelsea side that gave new meaning to the term, “Ragbag Rovers”. In little over a year, the club’s new ownership appears to have dismantled two decades of achievement through misinterpreting the asset class they have bought and the nature of team-building. The commitment is there, but the product knowledge is lacking. And Arsenal were hungry and desperate enough to take advantage of Chelsea’s miserable state.

Nobody can blame a lack of money on the part of the new Chelsea regime – they have spent like macho City traders celebrating bonus week, but the cash looks to have been wasted on a selection of players that look like they do not want to be there. Many have been signed because of potential and promise, yet the culture of the club continues to be about immediate success, not delayed gratification, as demonstrated by the reinstallation of the revolving door. Unless there is a swift change in mindset, Chelsea may be launching a fire sale without a fire in the summer. 

Arsenal, apparently, had been on a poor run. Chelsea fans would have given their right arm for that sort of bad sequence of results, a few draws and a defeat. For all the money spent, Chelsea do not have a goalscorer but they do have a disorganised defence and Arsenal revelled in its chaos. 

It took seven minutes for the game to be up, Granit Xhaka, Arsenal’s renaissance man, sent over a cross and Martin Ødegaard sent a superb shot in off the crossbar.  Before the Gunners’ scored their second, Ben Chilwell almost put Chelsea level with a left-foot drive on the run that Aaron Ramsdale did well to push away. But then came two goals in a five minute spell that highlighted Chelsea’s inadequacies, the first a near carbon copy by Ødegaard and then a scrambled effort from Gabriel Jesus. Thirty-four minutes one and it was 3-0. Chelsea were dead and buried and more goals beckoned for the rampant home side as their fans chanted, “you’re going down” at the visitors.

Frank Lampard, who probably cannot get away from “my club” quicker, changed his team in the second half and this, along with Arsenal’s realisation they didn’t have to do too much to keep control, meant the Blues grabbed a consolation in the 64th minute from the willing horse that was Noni Madueke, the former PSV Eindhoven striker who cost a mere € 33 million. Chelsea introduced Mykhailo Mudryk and Arsenal’s loyalists demonstrated their resentment that he chose London SW6 rather than Finsbury Park in the last transfer window by jeering the Ukrainian striker and foolishly and a little tactlessly aiming lasers at his face and body.

In the end, 3-1 really did not do justice to the balance of play over 90 minutes, but Chelsea must have been relieved the game didn’t run dramatically away from them. At half-time, it looked like it could have been a Manchester City-type runaway result. 

The composition of the two teams underlined the current state of the two clubs. Arsenal’s starting line-up and used substitutes cost the club £ 459 million in transfer fees, while Chelsea spent £ 630 million on theirs. Only two home-grown players were employed by both teams. And yet, for all the young talent bought by Chelsea, they had no less than four players over the age of 30 in their first XI. Thiago Silva has been an outstanding addition since he joined, but Cesar Azpilicueta – fine player that he has been – spent the entire game shouting at clouds. Something is very wrong and one wonders how many of the club’s acquisitions in this chaotic new era will be at Stamford Bridge come the middle of 2023-24 season.

As for Arsenal, they have just one nagging problem: Manchester City. This is the Gunners’ season, possibly their best chance of the Premier title because City won’t be weaker next year, they will work tirelessly and economically to put more sky blue water between themselves and their main contenders. Arsenal couldn’t have had a better opponent after their recent run than a directionless Chelsea, but unfortunately for Mikel Arteta, City have to play Chelsea aswell. Arsenal can still win the title, but City have to slip-up. As Liverpool have discovered in recent years, it’s hard to compete with them – and it is not just about money (as Chelsea have shown), it’s also about hoe you spend it.

Chelsea will not get relegated, but ultimately they have to thank the manager they started the campaign with for keeping them up. Thomas Tuchel had a win rate of 50% when he was sacked in September after six games and those 10 points gave them to cushion to survive the 2022-23 season. His record has been much better than the three characters that have followed him in the role.  They might want to think about that one in the dress circle at Stamford Bridge in the coming days.

Arsenal’s Premier League to lose?

THE HALFWAY stage of the Premier League has still to be reached, but Arsenal have the sort of lead that starts to make bookmakers twitchy. Nobody wants to make a strong or loud case for an Arsenal title win, but it is starting to look like a distinct possibility. Going into 2023, the Gunners certainly look the most composed, confident and effervescent team in a season of transition for a lot of top sides. Of course, everyone fears Manchester City and Arsenal have yet to play the reigning champions, but the Guardiola gang have not been at their best on a number of occasions, as their 1-1 draw with Everton over Christmas demonstrated.

Arsenal’s weak spot may be a lack of strength in depth, something City cannot really ever claim to suffer from. Mike Arteta has a very good starting XI and some of the most exciting players in the Premier League in 2022-23, but one or two injuries could derail their title bid. City, to some extent, could have a problem if Erling Haaland picks up a bad injury – he has been brilliant in the goalscoring stakes, but have they become too reliant on him already after one half season? The giant Norwegian has netted 50% of City’s league goals and 27 of the 63 they’ve scored in all competitions.

It is to Arsenal’s credit that their table-topping team, while predominantly bought from other clubs, was constructed for a couple of hundred million pounds less than other big spending clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City. Arsenal’s most impressive player this season, Bukayo Saka, cost them nothing, but they have shown they are getting smarter in the transfer market, as evidenced by the acquisition of Martin Ødegaard (£ 30 million), Gabriel Martinelli (£ 6 million) and Gabriel (£ 27 million). They also signed Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko from Manchester City, paying a total of £ 75 million for the pair.

What has really paid off for Arsenal is patience. Over the past couple of years, Arteta’s future has seemed to change game-by-game, with the doubters calling for his head after some bad results, but equally, his supporters singing his praises after every outstanding performance. Arsenal have benefitted from something of a clear-out, with expensive players like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette both leaving and their most extravagant signing, Nicolas Pépé, is currently out on loan at Nice, his £ 72 million fee hanging like a millstone around his neck.

If Arsenal were to maintain their form and win the Premier League, it would be good for football. Admittedly, they remain one of the wealthiest clubs in Europe, paying high wages and spending money on new players – since 2021-22 their gross spend has been £ 299 million (net £ 244 million), but they don’t have the resources of a City or Paris Saint-Germain. The difference today is that they seem to be making better, more forward-thinking decisions around player acquisition and, consequently, they have the youngest team in the Premier League with an average age of 24.6 years (Premier average 26.9). They also have one of the most cosmopolitan squads, comprising 72% foreign players. A total of 10 players were involved in the 2022 World Cup across seven different nations, including three England players in Saka, Aaron Ramsdale and Ben White, who mysteriously disappeared mid-tournament.

Arsenal’s roll-call of success

Year (time lapse)   
1930 (37) FA Cup winners 
1931 (1)FL Champions  
1933 (2)FL Champions  
1934 (1)FL Champions  
1935 (1)FL Champions  
1936 (1) FA Cup winners 
1938 (2)FL Champions  
1948 (10)FL Champions  
1950 (2) FA Cup winners 
1953 (3)FL Champions  
1970 (17)  Inter-Cities Fairs Cup
1971 (1)FL ChampionsFA Cup winners 
1979 (8) FA Cup winners 
1987 (8)  FL Cup winners
1989 (2)FL Champions  
1991 (2)FL Champions  
1993 (2) FA Cup winnersFL Cup winners
1994 (1)  ECWC winners
1998 (4)FL ChampionsFA Cup winners 
2002 (4)FL ChampionsFA Cup winners 
2003 (1) FA Cup winners 
2004 (1)FL Champions  
2005 (1) FA Cup winners 
2014 (9) FA Cup winners 
2015 (1) FA Cup winners 
2017 (2) FA Cup winners 
2020 (3) FA Cup winners 

The World Cup doesn’t seem to have affected Arsenal’s momentum, judging by their results since the return of Premier League football: a 3-1 home win against West Ham and a 4-2 victory down at Brighton. Naturally, Arteta is refusing to talk about title credentials, but there seems to be a fresh belief at the Emirates that they can end the longest run without a league title since the club started winning silverware in the 1930s. If they manage to beat off the challenge of Manchester City and others who may run into form in the second half of the campaign, it will have been 19 years since their last league title, the famous “invincible” season of 2003-04.

If nothing else, an Arsenal triumph win would prove to the rest of the world that English football is not the property of the middle east – City have won four of the last five Premier titles. Arsenal are one of a group of US-owned clubs that include Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, although the two northern clubs could both change hands in 2024 and become the property of oil states. The US contingent could soon find they are unable to compete with clubs with middle eastern ownership models. Therefore, opportunity has to be grasped when it presents itself for a club like Arsenal (or indeed Chelsea under their new owners).

At the moment, Arsenal have a little scope for error, but City are breathing down their necks and are capable of stringing together long sequences of spectacular results. The Gunners have a vital few weeks ahead of them – they face in-form Newcastle United at the Emirates on January 3, followed by a trip to Tottenham on January 15 and a home game with Manchester United on January 22. By the time they go head-to-head with Manchester City on February 15, everyone will know a little more about Arsenal’s ability to last the pace. At the moment, it looks better than at any time since 2004.