James Lawton: Arsenal offer Chelsea vital lessons, even in failure

Contrast between two clubs was writ large: one employs a manager, the other puppets

Arsenal had a kind of defeat and Chelsea a sort of victory this week but the real division between these clubs fighting for fourth place in the Premier League was again pronounced rather deeper than this.

It's not the easiest point to make for those of us who entertained seriously the possibility that Arsène Wenger had become a time-expired man at the Emirates but there it was, screaming out from some rather extraordinary action.

While Wenger's stamp, and some of the best of it, was on Arsenal's brave and at times brilliant attempt to banish the 4-0 hangover from their desperate failure at San Siro, Chelsea's caretaker Roberto Di Matteo was unable to conceal his status as the latest messenger/whipping boy of the only man at Stamford Bridge whose voice matters – Roman Abramovich's.

Wenger gambled on the signing who was seen so recently as the symbol of his central error in a summer that demanded expensive retrenchment after the departure of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. He backed 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was mocked as a boy for the future when Wenger seemed so intent on ignoring the need for men of the present, to rescue the season and he came close, despite the effects of flu and lingering injury, to what would have been sensational vindication.

At the same time Di Matteo was left in no doubt that the first name on the team list for the FA Cup victory at Birmingham City should be Fernando Torres.

However you stand – or shift – on the Wenger issue here was the polarisaton of the best of Arsenal and the worst of Chelsea. Wenger, just maybe, was seeing evidence of a new team of excellent competitive character but shaped by his most basic beliefs in how football should be played. Di Matteo, by the harshest comparison, was the go-between enforcing the belief of the owner that, at £50m, Torres is a mistake that, however high the evidence builds, cannot be conceded.

So Di Matteo is told that Torres, scorer of five goals in 50 games and none in the last 23, and so low in confidence that he turned down an invitation to take a penalty as though he had just been asked to climb up on to the gallows, must play, must wipe away a reproach that has been growing ever since he was foisted on Carlo Ancelotti at a pivotal point of last season.

It was a development to underline all the folly that has so consistently bedevilled Chelsea since Abramovich first imposed Andrei Shevchenko on Jose Mourinho – and it provided a chilling riposte to the theory that maybe the fiasco of the appointment of Andre Villas-Boas might have provoked a little self-appraisal by the oligarch.

Arsenal are at that other extreme where seven years without a trophy have apparently done little to threaten the dogged belief that Wenger will one day unearth at least some of the old alchemy. It means that Arsenal and Chelsea are separated, utterly, not only by hugely differing levels of respect for proven football men but also the very foundations of their approaches.

Abramovich reimposed a catastrophic status quo when he ordered the return of a shell-shocked Torres. At the same time Arsenal had some reason to think that their faith in Wenger had brought them full circle to a point where they could again have some belief in future possibilities. This may be heaping a lot of significance on one moral victory – and the fact that for one half at least Milan were quite as bad as Arsenal had been in San Siro – but then there are also the defeats of Tottenham and Liverpool and the clearest evidence that players like Wojciech Szczesny, Laurent Koscielny and, most encouragingly, Oxlade-Chamberlain are stepping up to new levels of performance.

If Wenger can persuade his owners to see the importance of making more than nominal attempts to re-sign Robin van Persie, if Jack Wilshere comes back as whole and potentially masterful as he left, we might have evidence that the club was indeed right, and so many of us wrong, to believe that the best of the manager's work was not consigned to the past.

This, however, is not the fundamental difference between Chelsea and clubs such as Arsenal and, most notably, Manchester United, who believe that, as long as he has their confidence, all football matters properly reside in the hands of the manager.

If Wenger had gone, rightly or wrongly, it is reasonable to believe that his successor would, give or take budgetary decisions, have been allowed to be his own man with his own ideas about how to make a team. Meanwhile, Chelsea predictably award Di Matteo all the working gravitas of a puppet.

Good for Gunners: Blues for Chelsea

Arsenal lost (on aggregate) and Chelsea won on Tuesday, but perversely the Gunners' defeat to Milan threw up several positives for Arsène Wenger, while the Blues' FA Cup win over Birmingham exposed problems that will need addressing.

Good news for Arsenal...

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

The teenager was brilliant in midfield on Tuesday, giving Arsenal an extra option there as well as a muscular wing threat: the type of vibrant youngster to re-ignite a season.

Tomas Rosicky

Arsenal's recent resurgence owes more to Rosicky than anyone. He has rediscovered his touch, his vision, his delightful shuffle, as he masterminded the big home wins over Tottenham and Milan.

The fans

The defeat to Manchester United in January brought unprecedented dissent from the Arsenal fans. But the turnaround has led to a transformation: against Milan there was sustained and vocal support.

Bad news for Chelsea...

Divided squad

The departure of Andre Villas-Boas does not solve the problem of a rump of ageing players resistant to change, nor of a set loyal to Villas-Boas, now presumably disheartened.

Fernando Torres

What sort of striker turns down a penalty? Torres has not scored since October, and looks like he has forgotten how to. Whoever takes charge will have to re-teach him.

Threat to Champions League

Chelsea have not had to fight for Champions League qualification since Roman Abramovich took over so will the players handle pressure of chase for money and prestige?

Jack Pitt-Brooke

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
News
David Ryall in Harry Potter
people
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Wayne Rooney warms up ahead of the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane
football
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015