Arsenal vs Chelsea: Blundering Per Mertesacker plays into Blues' hands with wild challenge

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The Independent Football


Maybe Arsenal were too blinded by their own searing sense of injustice last September to take away from Stamford Bridge the memory of Diego Costa, what he does and what he had done to them that day. Jose Mourinho dressed it up in his pretty words afterwards, suggesting that we preferred “badminton” to an appreciation of the man who had just provoked Arsenal into defeat on the pitch by insinuating his way into Gabriel Paulista’s head and provoking him into being sent off – the key staging post on the way to yet another defeat against the side whom Arsenal just cannot, for the life of them, put to death.

The criminal aspect of Per Mertesacker ploughing into Costa and being sent from the field only 18 minutes into the resumption of the hostilities between Arsenal and their bête noire was that it did not even require Costa’s usual fun and games. Just a pass arced by the enterprising and effervescent Willian into the path of the striker in the left channel, and then Mertesacker sliding across the slick turf, out of control as he slammed into Costa and brought him plunging to the ground. For the briefest of moments, Costa made to launch one of his protestations and when, after due consideration, Mark Clattenburg dispensed the appropriate punishment, the player didn’t seem awfully sure what to do with his hands. 

He was rarely full of such uncertainties, yesterday. Here, in Chelsea’s best Premier League performance of the season by a comfortable distance, we saw all the old traits – as attached to Costa when his team’s spirit fires as they are absent when the chips are down. The theatrical slap of the corner flag, early in the second half, to encourage some noise from the Chelsea contingent. The burst of pace which took him into the six-yard box and forced Petr Cech’s reflex, palmed save, 20 minutes in. The incandescent reaction, midway through the first half, when Cesar Azpilicueta cramped his style after he had made to shoot from close range. The pantomime villain’s exit: slow, provocative, drawing the enmity out of the stadium. And the goal which, in the light of what happened in this season’s reverse fixture, carried such bitterness for Arsenal: Costa punishing Gabriel’s slow reactions to pounce.

There was no capitulation from a group of players who at any time across the course of the five years – since they last beat Chelsea in the Premier League – might well have retreated into themselves. Arsenal can certainly take some consolation from that. Hector Bellerin and Aaron Ramsey were among the commanders of a second half which lived for them, though there were few strikes on goal and Thibaut Courtois’  indifferent handling helped them most. 

Yet to witness the way Arsène Wenger’s players allowed Chelsea to be restored to life so surely and demonstrably was an agony for all who are fascinated and absorbed by that beautifully romantic idea of the  Frenchman proving that what was achievable in 1998 and 2002 and 2004 – a Premier League title – might actually happen again. 

There we were, no more than 10 minutes into this match, and Arsenal were operating a defensive line so astonishingly deep that Cesc Fabregas and Willian were free to run fully 15 yards, right into the final third, gobbling up the space with impunity. How could this be? How could they have planned it like this? From the position Chelsea had occupied before the game – on their uppers, 11 places and 19 points behind Arsenal – Wenger’s side were offering them creative oxygen. Those wide-open spaces were like a blank canvas for Fabregas, whose performance was unrecognisable from anything seen this season: a return to the giddy heights of the  previous campaign.

And if Arsenal had hoped that they could fight Chelsea blow for blow, man for man, then it was their manager who took away the chance. There was a muted gasp and transparent shock – not least on the player’s face – when Olivier Giroud’s number was put up in light on the dot matrix board so that Wenger could re-establish a four-man defence in Mertesacker’s absence. When Costa scored within about 30 seconds,  the decision seemed even more painful.

Mesut Özil filled Giroud’s central striking role for a while, though it was not a battle he was going to win, not with John Terry standing in front of him. Özil came up against Oscar, not exactly a man-mountain, soon afterwards and even he left him prone on the turf, clambering up half-dazed a moment later. Theo Walcott, standing 5ft 9in, was tried in the same role, to similar effect, though it was when Ramsey looped his clever pass into the six-yard box to create Arsenal’s best opportunity that Giroud’s glaring absence revealed itself for what it was. A head-height ball for someone of Giroud’s standing became an impossibly difficult, gymnastic leap of a volley for Mathieu Flamini.

Wenger offered a rationale behind the Giroud decision, declaring that removing him was the only way of retaining the pace to go “long distances” while maintaining a defence, and seizing on remarks about the player’s ankle complaint. He also went as far as he could to accuse Costa of gamesmanship, by referencing that game last autumn in which Gabriel was provoked into a red card. “Clever,” was what Wenger called Costa, though that was not an expression of praise. “I don’t accuse him of anything,” he added, a smile playing across his face. As  subtle as a brick and very unconvincing.

For the real story, you had to hear Guus Hiddink – whose side have not lost in eight games – answer the question about what he had done to  resurrect Costa and Fabregas and extract something from them. “Not much. Just working every day,” was his reply and he was right. Chelsea had done what they always do; Arsenal had done what they always do; and when that happens, there tends to be only one winner.