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Arsenal have cemented their place as London’s finest with the help of Chelsea cast-offs

Mikel Arteta’s use of two former Blues players in Kai Havertz and Jorginho has helped open up a chasm between the two clubs

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Tuesday 23 April 2024 07:16
Jorginho and Kai Havertz have settled in north London
Jorginho and Kai Havertz have settled in north London (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Between Nicolas Jackson and Noni Madueke wrestling over a penalty and the Senegalese’s semi-final misses at Wembley, there was actually some respite for Chelsea last week. The prospect of their discards winning the Champions League had started to loom large; until one of them, Mateo Kovacic, missed his spot kick in Manchester City’s shootout defeat to Real Madrid on the same night, with Jorginho and Kai Havertz starting, Arsenal made a tame exit to Bayern Munich. A day earlier, Chelsea’s Champions League-winning captain Cesar Azpilicueta had been taken off at half-time in Atletico Madrid’s loss to Borussia Dortmund; if Kepa Arrizabalaga goes on to win the competition for a second time, it will at least be as a substitute again. There is nothing too chastening for Chelsea there.

Tuesday’s reunion with Jorginho and Havertz, however, is a reminder of a comparatively recent triumph that feels increasingly distant. Havertz delivered the 2021 final winner against City; Jorginho did a double, then winning Euro 2020 to secure a podium finish in the Ballon d’Or. The chances are that more of that Thomas Tuchel team will start for Arsenal than Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday; if Ben Chilwell is on the bench or sidelined again, it may just be Thiago Silva, who is likely to leave this summer. If the Brazilian’s 39 years mean he has stayed longer than most anticipated, the break-up of a team was hastened in other respects.

An era ended. Chelsea competed in the Champions League in 18 of 20 seasons before this, and won the Europa League in one of the others. Now an Arsenal victory would apply mathematical certainty to what has long been obvious: Chelsea would be unable to get a top-four finish and thus a return ticket to Europe’s elite party. Mikel Arteta’s lone piece of silverware came at Chelsea’s expense, in the 2020 FA Cup final, and if he is otherwise yet to acquire the trophy-gathering habit that the Blues demonstrated for nearly all of Roman Abramovich’s ownership, Arsenal now look like the capital club who will be the constants in the Champions League.

Mikel Arteta is searching for a second trophy as Arsenal manager (Getty Images)

There are 27 points between them. The eventual gap last season stood at 40; which, as Chelsea had finished above Arsenal in each of the previous six campaigns, is quite a shift in the balance of power. And yet the dynamics of the relationship involve transfers, the ever-present in any discussion about Chelsea. If they passed FFP in part by selling a hotel, it was partly also because of Arsenal’s willingness to pay £65m for Havertz. It was, in some ways, a remarkable price for a player who has become their conundrum now but it reflected his unique attributes. The German may be neither a conventional midfielder nor a prolific goalscorer but his effectiveness in 2024 has led to Arsenal fans appropriating the criticisms in song: “Sixty million down the drain, Kai Havertz scores again.” Jorginho’s reinvention has been involved fewer minutes, but he has been a deluxe alternative, starting fewer games but often finishing as man of the match when he does; it is not a status his successors in the Chelsea midfield have enjoyed too often. In each case, Arteta has shown he has had a strategy to use the Stamford Bridge old boys.

Which makes it still more intriguing to ponder what might have been had Arteta succeeded in his pursuit of two of his targets in January 2023. Get Moises Caicedo for £70m – rather less than the £115m Chelsea ended up paying seven months later – when the Ecuadorian was trying to force a move from Brighton and it is thought Arsenal would still have had the funds to buy Declan Rice in the summer; but not, presumably, Havertz. If Caicedo and Rice could have had the makings of a formidable barrier in front of the Arsenal defence, Chelsea have instead conceded twice as many league goals as the Gunners with two record-breaking signings in their midfield.

Leandro Trossard has proved a shrewd purchase (Getty Images)

There are ways in which being forced to switch plans has not harmed Arsenal. Mykhailo Mudryk looked destined for the Emirates Stadium until Chelsea gazumped Arsenal in an £88m deal. Arteta instead bought the rather cheaper Leandro Trossard. Since then Mudryk has six goals and two assists, the Belgian 15 and 12 respectively. And if they cancelled each other out in October’s draw – Mudryk putting Chelsea 2-0 up, Trossard earning Arsenal a point – the cut-price alternative has a habit of delivering in major matches. In a title race, after competing in the Champions League, Arsenal now have more of them than Chelsea.

Which, along with the reality that surely even this Chelsea cannot spend forever, could alter their places in the footballing food chain. There was a time when Arsenal used to take Chelsea’s cast-offs, with diminishing returns. David Luiz and Petr Cech at least had some moments to savour in a red shirt, Willian rather fewer. Meanwhile, Olivier Giroud went to Stamford Bridge and won the Europa League – scoring the opener against Arsenal in the final, earning the penalty for Chelsea’s third goal and setting up the fourth – and then the Champions League. Yet now Arsenal have two of those Chelsea tossed aside, and another who they bought after losing out on a player to Chelsea. They will not be champions of Europe this year, as Chelsea were three years ago, and the title of champions of London does not quite carry the same cachet. But, for the first time since Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles, they are set to finish ahead of Chelsea for consecutive seasons.

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