Crushing defeat leaves Stamford Bridge boss with serious questions to answer.
Arsenal, bloody hell. Who could possibly have seen that coming? The Gunners shot down their critics, and battered Chelsea’s creaking defence, in a stunning 5-3 victory at Stamford Bridge on Saturday; a victory that puts them right back in contention to secure a coveted top 4 place come the end of the season.
Granted, both Chelsea’s and Arsenal’s back lines were guilty of some glaring errors in shipping eight goals between them. But this was a game that revealed a great deal more about both sides other than their ability to make vital errors, and for Chelsea the outlook is not good.
More than the lack of concentration that allowed Arsenal to hit five past the helpless Petr Cech, what will worry Blues boss Andre Villas-Boas is the way in which the Gunners were able to carve through his side on numerous occasions. In truth, with better decision-making and better finishing, Arsenal could have bagged ten. Chelsea weren’t just beaten, they were outplayed.
At times, the Blues’ midfield and defence were statuesque whilst Arsenal’s attackers danced a merry waltz around them. Simple, incisive passing and moving was enough to confuse and undo the Chelsea side.
The real concern for Villas-Boas is that these same players, with the exception of a few new recruits, have subdued a better Arsenal side than this one. Indeed, prior to last season’s 3-1 defeat at The Emirates, Chelsea had convincingly beaten Arsenal in the preceding four games, with an aggregate score of 11-1. So what’s changed? Regardless of this victory, the Gunners have not become world-beaters over-night; far from it.
The truth lies in the fact that the squad that Villas-Boas has inherited is simply not up to playing the way that he would like – at least not against skilful opponents such as Arsenal. The Portugese is encouraging his side to play a more fluid game; something of a fusion between the direct, forceful approach that has become the Blues’ hallmark during the Abramovich era, and something more akin to that epitomised by their opponents on Saturday.
A team that has, for years, been set in its ways, with an over-reliance on Didier Drogba for goals and Frank Lampard for creativity, lacks the dynamism necessary to play a more open, expansive game. They will leave gaps and lose their shape more often, and, playing this way, they lack the speed, both physically and mentally, necessary to keep a tight ship.
In most of the Mourinho and Ancelotti years, Chelsea, like a boa-constrictor, squeezed the space and the life out of teams such as Arsenal, which prey upon quick counter-attacks. By opening his side up, and playing a higher defensive line, Villas-Boas played right into the hands of Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, revealing more than a few chinks in the Chelsea armour which the Gunners, even when stripped of two of their most potent weapons in Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, still have the firepower to exploit.
Villas-Boas is to be commended for encouraging his team to play more attractive football, but if they are to succeed then they will need more skilful players like Juan Mata and fewer direct players such as Frank Lampard. The evolution will take time, and there could be many more growing pains along the way.
In the meantime, the Blues boss must learn to be more pragmatic and tactically sensitive when up against quick, skilful opposition, and revert to the old Chelsea way. A most disconcerting thought might cross Villas-Boaz’s mind tonight. If Arsenal can hit Chelsea for five, then what might Manchester City might do?