Performance of the Weekend – Arsenal (vs Chelsea)
That is what Arsenal are supposed to look like. Despite its modern scowl, football is still capable of producing heartening moments which feel symmetrical and right. On the 20th anniversary of Arsene Wenger's arrival, it was fitting that he should oversee a performance which, on that day at least, vindicated his often-maligned approach. Wenger is perceived as British football's flawed ideologue and has spent much of the last decade being pelted with derisory accusations. His teams are soft and imbalanced, his transfer strategy ponderous and ineffective. And how many times have those old grievances been stoked by a galling loss to Chelsea?
Chelsea, who he hadn't beaten in nine league attempts. Chelsea, who always, whatever the circumstances, seem able to trample on his delicate philosophies.
Not this weekend, though. Antonio Conte's team may have arrived in north London riddled with uncertainty and ripe for plucking, but their inadequacies shouldn't disguise how brilliant Arsenal actually were. Theirs was a performance of consummate swagger, dashed with pace, imagination, accuracy and resilience. Gary Cahill ushered them on their way on Saturday evening with a horrendous error, but they were able to multiply and channel that momentum into a lethal first-half performance.
Some time ago, Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville spoke of playing Arsenal during their ‘Invincibles’ pomp and how, at their very best, the attacking players' movement and use of the ball would leave an opposing defender dizzy. Times have changed, of course, but this looked every bit the situation Neville was describing: every one of Chelsea's frailties were explored and exposed during that first 45 minutes and with each goal conceded they sunk further into chaos.
Post-match, it was a period which Wenger would describe as "nearly perfect", and quite rightly so. However, Arsenal have rarely been short of style and even during their annual dips they play with a flourish. So the novelty this weekend was their stubbornness. The game may have essentially been won before the second half even began, but there was never even the slightest sense that Chelsea were a danger.
Arsenal possess an unwanted reputation – they are, slightly unfairly, tagged as a team capable of throwing away even the most sizeable lead. But there was no wobble here. There was no drop in concentration and neither were there any obvious fragilities. Their past with Chelsea is haunted and so, even at 3-0, the visiting players, fans and most of those watching at home would have expected a stumble or two. But, the late Michy Batshuayi chance aside, it never came. Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi looked a true, imposing partnership and the whole of the defensive unit admirably resisted Chelsea's intentions of penetrating the half-spaces around the penalty-box.
Eden Hazard made no impression on the game, Cesc Fabregas was withdrawn having been a bystander and even the snarling Diego Costa, so often a defining factor in this fixture, was held comfortably at arm's length.
Yes, Arsenal were attractive with the ball and played with the usual pretty panache, but they were organised and defiant without it, too. It might not have any long-term significance and individual wins shouldn't lead to broader discussions about titles or trophies, but how appropriate that Wenger's team should mark his day by playing football as he imagines it – and for that not to be a punchline.
Goal of the Weekend – Juan Mata (for Manchester United vs Leicester)
Eesh, how pretty was that?
Football, as Al Pacino said in Any Given Sunday, is a game of inches. He may have been talking about a different sport, but so be it: here was further proof. At the end of a move which involved all 10 outfield players, the combination between Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata was quite wonderful. The game is generally at its most appealing when talented players make complicated moves look simple, and this was that: the perfectly weighted chip by Pogba, the precise lay-off by Lingard, and the lashed finished by Mata. Individually, none of those phases were particularly remarkable, but knitted together they created an infinitely watchable passage of play.
As a side note, it was interesting to see the urgency of Manchester United at the beginning of that move. Under Louis van Gaal, United became extremely lateral and easy to defend against, often playing their own way into cul-de-sacs. This was markedly different, though. This was vertical, penetrating football and a soothing antidote to last season's perpetual stasis.
Player of the Weekend – Mesut Ozil
One moment from Ozil's performance stood out above all others and it came at the beginning of the move which led to Arsenal's third goal. Receiving a short pass from Koscielny, he pirouetted around N'Golo Kante to launch the counter-attack from which he himself would score. Very few players do that to Kante; fewer still make it look so effortless.
It was a little touch which helped create something much bigger and characterised the role he played on Saturday night. While often accused of vanishing in important games, that's really an indication of how misunderstood he often is. He is a garnishing player rather than a structural one and someone who exists on the pitch to complement those around him. He is not dynamic and, although he accumulates plenty of assists, his influence is most often felt in the tone and feel of a game rather than in its highlights. He is essentially the anti-Alexis Sanchez: a plotter, facilitator and a mover of the attacking focus. The Kante moment aside and beyond his half-completing goal, he spent the evening probing at Chelsea's structural weaknesses, identifying space in front of and around the visiting defence and then pushing and prodding his team-mates into it.
At his very best, Ozil floats through games. He dances nonchalantly into the play, sets its rhythm, and then drifts away. That was the Ozil that Chelsea encountered: the ethereal one who can't really be touched. In that kind of form, he evaluates opportunities quicker than any other player on the pitch and none of Conte's back six got remotely close to subduing him.
It was bittersweet, though. That game was both a vivid portrayal of his worth and yet also a reminder of why he attracts such derision. Even in the fiercest games, he appears languid and in opposition to the British audience's narrow definition of commitment. That means, inevitably, that some will always choose to frame his cavalier excellence as disinterest. But look closer at his performance this weekend: he glowed. His timing, his decisions and his execution were all near-perfect and even when he appeared to be on the game's periphery, he was actually its central character.
Moan of the Week – the deeper issues at Chelsea
In David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic have a friend for life. Chelsea are creaking and their defence is a mess. Ivanovic has plummeted to a new athletic nadir and Cahill, without John Terry alongside him, often looks disorientated (in truth, he did alongside Terry anyway). Both were dreadful against Swansea, neither improved against Liverpool, and they were again calamitous at the Emirates on Saturday. Yet, because of his past follies and distinctive appearance, Luiz remains the most common fall guy.
The Brazilian has his obvious flaws and nobody would describe him as a calming influence, but Chelsea's woes are being far too readily attributed to those quirks. He is a symptom rather than a cause and, actually, is being used as an excuse not to discuss some of the club's infrastructural issues.
Beyond legitimate points about Luiz's haphazard positioning, there are more serious criticisms to be aimed at long-standing players who have passed their sell-by dates and, ultimately, at Michael Emenalo, the technical director. Chelsea's recruitment has been rotten over the past few seasons and this defence, like Luiz, is the consequence. He was the final available option on deadline day and was reflexively signed to fill a hole that he didn't fit. How can that be? How can a club owned by Roman Abramovich and managed by one of the game's elite coaches be limited to making clumsy lunges in the final hours of the transfer window?
The old accusation levelled at Emenalo related to his near-exclusive focus on attacking players. Over time, that was revealed as an imaginative approach to combating the Financial Fair Play regulations and an attempt to stockpile a range of appreciating assets. Several years on, though, how has nothing changed? Why, despite suffering the ignominies of 2015/16, does this side still look so imbalanced?
Be it complacency, oversight or a refusal to acknowledge glaring deficiencies, Chelsea are now paying for a failure to properly equip their first team.
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