The fight-back, when it came, could not make up the gap.
For the second successive Sunday, Arsenal only started playing in the second half, when they were already 2-0 down to a better-resourced team. The result is that they are six points off fourth place and 11 behind Chelsea. Yesterday’s winners are not a flawless team but they do have enough good players to be sure of a top-four finish, which is more than can be said of Arsenal.
Arsène Wenger’s side might have recovered to take a point but they did not deserve one. The distance between the sides was far wider in the first half than the second. The game, in a sense, was decided before half-time. But, in another, it had been decided with every day of drift, with every diffident window that Arsenal have wasted for the last few years.
As the travelling fans made very clear, this Arsenal squad is in need of heavy investment. They robustly advised their club to spend money, and wondered aloud what exactly chief executive Ivan Gazidis does in his job.
Arsenal’s famous ‘self-sustaining model’ can look fairly exposed at Chelsea, a club with the opposite problems. Here at Stamford Bridge there may be too much what Arsenal lack – purpose, ambition and ruthlessness – but perhaps not enough of the patience which Arsenal seem to be drowning in. Not everyone would hold up Chelsea as a perfectly-run club but they have won two Premier League titles, four FA Cups and one Champions League since Arsenal lifted anything.
Of course, winning is easier when you buy better players. That, more than anything, seemed the difference between these two flawed sides in the first half yesterday. Chelsea’s front four – Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Oscar and Fernando Torres – cost more than £125million. Arsenal’s – the same side from Wednesday night – did not.
After just five minutes Arsenal could have gone ahead. Theo Walcott, in his first appearance since signing the new contract which may just mark a pause in Arsenal’s slide, brought the ball in from the right. He saw Olivier Giroud running in behind and played him through. Giroud took the ball, paused, but struck it wide of the far post.
From the goal-kick Ramires won the ball – probably illegally – from Francis Coquelin. Cesar Azpilicueta played a diagonal pass to Mata, in the great plain of space between Bacary Sagna and Per Mertesacker. Mata controlled the ball perfectly with his left-foot. Sagna was charging across but Mata is astonishingly calm in these situations, and his pause was followed by a driven finish into the near top-corner. In that one minute the issue seemed clear. Giroud is a good admirable centre-forward, a French champion and France international. But he is not an exceptional player, and is no replacement for Robin van Persie. At £12million he was fairly priced. Mata, though, is an exceptional player, of remarkable imagination and technique. He cost roughly twice what Giroud did. Arsenal might have bought him but they did not. And yesterday he showed them what they missed.
But as the first half continued, efficiency ceased to be Arsenal’s problem. In truth they could barely compete. Chelsea were first to every loose ball in midfield. Arsenal exerted neither control nor pressure. In front of the back four they had Abou Diaby, making his third straight start and patently exhausted, and Coquelin, swamped in Diaby’s effective absence.
It was no surprise when the second came. Diaby, nowhere near the pace of game, was robbed by Mata, who was setting it. He found Ramires, who was tripped by Wojciech Szczesny. Martin Atkinson generously only booked Szczesny, but Frank Lampard converted the penalty anyway.
From that point Chelsea started to play with a fluency that they have only shown on the road so far under Rafael Benitez. This was Benitez’s eighth home game but by far the best performance, the only wins before this coming against Nordsjaelland and Aston Villa. There was less animosity directed at the interim manager – home goals are a pacifier – and even the anxiety in the second half was fairly mild.
Chelsea, though, should have gone into the break more than 2-0 up. Hazard burst past Kieran Gibbs and Thomas Vermaelen but saw his shot saved. The move of the match went through Hazard, Oscar, Hazard again and Mata before Ramires escaped Gibbs and shot over.
Arsenal had no right to still be in the game but they were and did improve in the second half, pushed Chelsea back and even created chances. Mertsacker and Walcott had shots saved, and Giroud headed at Petr Cech.
Walcott spent most of the first-half being flagged for off-side but when he caught Gary Cahill too deep he pulled a goal back. Santi Cazorla slid a delightful pass in, and Walcott – with the conviction of a man with his future secure – curled the ball into the far top corner.
It was as if confidence could only belong to one side or the other and Arsenal were now in possession. Walcott shot wide, Cazorla hit a 20-yard free-kick into the wall and Vermaelen hit one from the same position just wide. In added time Giroud headed over but Arsenal, for all their passing, never had the incision of Chelsea in the first half. They had improved, certainly, but the damage had already been done.