- There always has to be talking point around the periphery of this kind of game and, today, it was Jose Mourinho’s preference for a restricting rather than pro-active tactical set-up. As news of the Chelsea team leaked out, the same transparently sour barbs flew across social media; the Portuguese started the game with no recognised forward, opting for Oscar at the tip of his formation with Eden Hazard, Ramires, and Willian in supporting roles behind.
But wasn’t that understandable? Chelsea are notoriously reliant on well-conditioned players in that area of the pitch, so given the choice between a system which incorporated a false-nine and one which was built around a half-fit, thirty-seven year-old Didier Drogba, wasn’t Mourinho right to opt for the former?
- In the first-half, he was vindicated. Chelsea created the better chances despite, at times, defending with eleven men inside their own half. There was the hint of a counter-attacking philosophy, certainly, but the real story was how well Oscar, Hazard, Willian and Ramires combined from deep positions to create flowing moves into the Arsenal half. That they were able to do that shouldn’t provoke sneering contempt, but rather admiration for how well drilled this team is and how much energy they exert in both directions.
- Two penalty decisions, both correctly ignored. On twenty-two minutes, Santi Cazorla took an ill-advised swipe at Cesc Fabregas in the home penalty box, but ‘contact’ does not always mean ‘foul’ and Fabregas, booed at every point, went to ground entirely by choice.
Ten minutes later, the home fans were howling for a spot-kick. Neat build-up play allowed Hector Bellerin to hook the ball back across the Chelsea box to Cazorla, whose half-volley ricocheted off Gary Cahill’s leg and onto his arm. No penalty, no way.
- The third incident, the earliest of the three, was more ambiguous. Oscar beat David Ospina to a long Cesc Fabregas through-ball, poked it past the Arsenal ‘keeper, and was then clattered in the process. On a literal basis, it was a penalty; Ospina clearly impeded the Brazilian and by the letter of the law it was a foul. Precedent confused the issue, though, and Michael Oliver presumably declined to point to the spot on the basis of what he - and the rest of us - have seen dozens of times before: when goalkeepers simply get in the way in that situation, referees rarely penalise them.
- Thirty-seven minutes in, Chelsea created the game’s first clear chance. Willian carried the ball into the Arsenal half and the opened up the hosts with a carefully weighted ball pass into the feet of the breaking Ramires. The Brazilian took possession in stride, but his shot lacked power or decisive direction and David Ospina made a comfortable collapsing save.
A missed chance, but an example of how well Chelsea do go from back-to-front.
- At half-time, Oscar was replaced. According to reports he presented symptoms of concussion at half-time and, as a precaution, was replaced by Didier Drogba. The Ivorian played as an orthodox focal point, with Ramires dropping back into deep-midfield and Cesc Fabregas pushing into a slightly more advanced role ahead of him and Nemanja Matic.
- The second forty-five was a staler, less enjoyable version of the first. With the heavy-legged Drogba unable to replicate Oscar’s pressing, Arsenal found avenues of out their own half easier to come by, but that never translated into any genuine pressure and, just as in the first period, Courtois remained largely untroubled, with his defensive unit protecting him admirably from the hosts growing offensive pressure.
- Seventy-five minutes in, Arsene Wenger made a proactive move. The quietly impressive Coquelin was removed, Danny Welbeck was introduced to the left side of the attack, and Aaron Ramsey dropped into midfield. It prompted a reaction of sorts, with Chelsea dropping deeper into their own half and the Arsenal front-four - which by now included Walcott wide on the right - looking vaguely threatening.
- As ever with Chelsea, they did an excellent job of taking away the middle of the pitch from their opponents. A couple of isolated snap-shots aside, Arsenal struggled to exert any sort of influence in central areas and, invariably, when their last - and best - chance finally came, it was from out-wide. The introduction of both Welbeck and Walcott was a recognition of this and their pace, presumably, was supposed to exploit the only areas on the pitch in which Chelsea ever offer any space.
- On 91 minutes, Monreal found space on the left, stumbled to the by-line, and fizzed the ball across the six-yard box for Ozil and then Welbeck to thrash at unsuccessfully. It was a moment of promise, but it was also vaguely damning. Yes, by that point Mourinho had clearly accepted the draw and his team had retreated accordingly, but it was still the sort of chance which should have led to a goal. Ozil is not a natural goal-scorer and Welbeck had enjoyed very few touches to that point, but it was the kind of opportunity that a more ruthless team would have converted - and perhaps that is one of the key differences between Arsenal and Chelsea. As impressive as the former are in their build-up phases and as creatively potent as they can be, they lack a player who can punish those teams who back off and present them with half-chances.
- A goalless draw and more ammunition for the anti-Mourinho brigade. Truthfully, though, this was as much about Arsenal’s inability to win the game as it was Chelsea’s determination not to lose it.
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