25 January 2016

Ahh, let those Baby Blues have their Bottle...

Chelsea can't beat Arsenal when both sides are at full strength—or by scoring from open-play. It's that simple. It's astounding how a squad so talent-deep has to resort so often to such skeevy tactics to beat us. It's as if they're parodying a caricature of the villain's role. In the latest installment, Diego Costa did what he does best by getting Per Mertesacker sent off (although this time the fault lay entirely with our centre-backs) and then scoring the only goal, earning three points that does more to resuscitate Chelsea's moribund season and less to undermine Arsenal's optimistic one. Fine. They can win the battle and lose the war for all I care. We have bigger fish to fry than these.

Cards Against Humanity, indeed...
Let's be clear from the start, though: we shot ourselves in the foot. By the time Costa found himself through on goal, we had lost the plot. Why it was Mertesacker marking him and not Koscielny is an open question. Why Mertesacker made such a foolish attempt at tackling him is another. At one level, Mertesacker had to know that Costa would make the most of any contact, and there was contact. For Costa to flop around like an electrified fish out of water is beside the point. Clattenburg made the right call. At another level—one that might require more time to think than Mertesacker had—he might have wondered whether it would be better to let Costa through on goal. Even if Costa scored, we'd still be at full strength. That's arguably better than getting sent off, leading as it almost inevitably would to conceding a goal anyway, something we did minutes later.

Set aside the emotional trauma of losing to Chelsea at home. I know it stings. I know we all wanted to heap more dirt on the casket that has been Chelsea's campaign. Many of us, I'm sure, had looked forward to this fixture as one in which we would lay waste to an enervated enemy, sending a strong signal of intent to the rest of our rivals along the way. Unfortunately, this is not that Chelsea. Under Huddink, they've now gone undefeated in their last eight outings. That kind of form sustained over the rest of the season would vault them to into contention, but this is the first result of any real significance. Time will tell if they can in fact build on this. They rely to an incredible extent on the Machiavellian machinations of Costa, who is just as likely to get sent off as he is to score. Enough about them, though.

What's more notable, despite our unfortunate tendency to bottle it, is the bottle we showed over the remaining 70-plus minutes. Yes, it's true that Chelsea sat back and parked the bus, but we also carved open any number of chances and can only rue our own wasteful finishing for the result. In other words, take away Costa's cunning connivery—heck, even if you don't—we had our chances. All we needed was a bit of finishing. If only Flamini had controlled Ramsey's lob before halftime instead of volleying it. If only Monreal was comfortable shooting with his right. If only...

Speaking of "if only", I do have to wonder about Arsène's substitution after Mertesacker was sent off. He sent in Gabriel, which makes perfect sense, given our need for a centre-back, but he took off Giroud.Twenty minutes in is too early to assess who's game and who's lame, but it seemed odd all the same to take off our only centre-forward worthy of the name. Sorry. Overdid it on the rhyming. Think back to all of the corners we earned (6) and crosses we sent in (24), Could Giroud have latched to any of them? Would he have been the man to finish Ramsey's lob before halftime? Questions like these become especially pertinent given how we had already lost Mertesacker, our only other player with height to offer on set-plays at either end. Giroud's absence deprived our attack of any real focal point for most of the match. Walcott was largely invisible, an issue of increasing concern in recent weeks.

Still, I seek and find a silver lining. Yes, we blew a chance to rise to the top of the table while defeating a hated opponent. However, the fight we showed while playing down a man for more than an hour—if shown for even a fraction of that time in each ensuing match—will go a long, long way towards winning the Prem. In recent seasons, we've been brittle, fragile, susceptible to the kind of setback we imposed on ourselves. Go back to previous seasons if you dare and ask yourself how this squad would have responded to going down a man and conceding within five minutes. We'd've folded faster than Superman on laundry-day. It could have been catastrophic. 8-2. 5-1. 6-0. Say what you will about the outcome; admit that the response was far better on this day than it's been in the past. We fought tooth and nail and gave Chelsea more than a few bum-clenching moments, enough so that several of them will have knickers so soiled that they'll have to be composted rather than cleaned.

None of this restores us to the top of the table, of course. Then again, it's January. We've survived as brutal an injury-spell as any we've seen—and that's saying something. Alexis came on and rejuvenated us, very nearly salvaging a point on his own several times. Coquelin, Welbeck, and Cazorla are back in training and might be available as soon as the weekend. We're level with Man City and just three points behind Leicester. This team of ours has more spine, more guts, more desire than it's had in recent memory—certainly more than those rent-boys at Stamford Bridge or the Etihad have shown. There's only squad that can deny us a Prem title this time through, and it doesn't don blue of any shade nor does it wear white either. For five minutes, we saw that squad—wearing Arsenal red, mind—do its worst. For most of the rest of the match, we saw a squad that is willing to fight against long odds to earn a solitary point.

I'll take the loss if it means we attack the rest of the season with the same dogged determination we saw on this day. After all, there are still 15 matches and 45 points available for the squad that wants them. My money's on this Arsenal bouncing back off from this one and grabbing more points than anyone else over the remaining four months. Put your shoulders to the wheel, Gooners. We're in this over the long haul...