The problem with sequels is that they usually run out of steam by the time you reach the third or fourth instalment. At Arsenal, they are into double figures and the story never changes, especially when they come up against Chelsea.
The Gunners’ 3-0 September’s victory over Antonio Conte’s team not only now seems a distant memory, but it also looks increasingly like an aberration. Arsenal rarely come out on top against Chelsea and, after being outplayed and outmuscled in a 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge, normal service has been resumed.
This was Chelsea’s eighth home league win against their London rivals in the past 11 games, with the visitors having won just two of those fixtures. And it is a damning indictment of Wenger’s philosophy that Chelsea are pretty much everything that the Frenchman does not want his team to be.
Conte’s side is powerful, imposing and, when necessary, direct. Chelsea are also showing themselves to be winners. By contrast, though that is something Wenger desperately wants his team to be, it is impossible to envisage Arsenal’s current crop as anything but nearly men as long as they are compromised by the recurring failings that their manager has been unable — or unwilling — to eradicate.
In short, Arsenal and Chelsea are like chalk and cheese. Chelsea may lack their rivals’ aesthetic quality, but nobody at the club will care too much for that if they are being dazzled by silverware at the end of the season — something that is increasingly likely after this latest victory.
“I consider Arsenal one of the six teams that can fight for the title until the end of the season, so to put them 12 points behind is very important for us,” said Conte after the game. “In four days, we have had two games against two great teams. I think we are showing we deserve to stay on top of the table. But there are 14 games to play and 42 points to take, so no, the title is not over.”
For all of the flair within the Arsenal side, there is a crucial lack of steel to complement it, but anybody watching Wenger’s teams during the past decade would have arrived at the same conclusion. They lack backbone and resolve and, when the heat is on, buckle under the pressure. It is something that Wenger has allowed it to persist, like a leaking roof or a dripping tap.
Chelsea, by contrast, are on course to win their fifth Premier League title in 12 years because they know how to win and how to win when it matters. Moreover, they have a manager who has been astute enough to know that, when something isn’t working, the only course of action is to correct it.
When his team were brushed aside at the Emirates, eight days after losing at home to Liverpool, Conte ripped up his tactics and imposed the 3-4-3 system that had worked so successfully for him with Juventus in Serie A.
Conte initially had concerns that his players would not grasp the formation quickly enough for it work in the Premier League but accepted that he had no choice but to make the change. Since doing so, Chelsea have not looked back, winning 16 and losing just one of their past 18 games.
One manager — Conte — accepts something isn’t working and makes changes, while another — Wenger — waits for the day that his beautiful vision becomes a reality.
He will be waiting a while, yet with the Arsenal hierarchy lacking the impatient desire for success that has seen Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich dispense with so many managers, Wenger might be allowed to embark on another road to nowhere next season and beyond.
The contrast between the two teams and their managers was evident throughout Saturday’s game. Arsenal’s players were no better than half-hearted, just days after being told by Wenger that they were not “mentally prepared” ahead of their 2-1 defeat at home to Watford.
Theo Walcott lazily allowed Marcos Alonso to escape him in the penalty area and head in Chelsea’s first and five Arsenal defenders failed to stop Eden Hazard doubling the lead. While the Belgian lifted his team to another level with individual brilliance, Mesut Ozil drifted around in an apparently one-paced — slow — dream world.
Arsenal’s playmaker is undoubtedly a talented individual, but he rarely performs away from the Emirates and does not make the difference that Hazard does for Chelsea.
Is Ozil a flat-track bully? There is an argument to suggest that he is, but then the same applies to Arsenal as a whole. Chelsea are anything but and they are beginning to look unstoppable on their march toward the title. “They don’t lose against the big teams and that is always the secret to win a championship,” Wenger said.
Chelsea’s players are so in tune with their manager’s demands that it is impossible to imagine any of them committing Walcott’s mistake or allowing an Arsenal forward to waltz through their half to score a solo goal.
Conte demands and receives high intensity and focus, while Wenger merely gets a team of players that stroll around, most of them looking for somebody else to make things happen. Beyond Ozil and Hazard, compare the performance of Walcott to his opposite number Victor Moses; it was like night and day. Chalk and cheese, again.
Overall, Chelsea’s players ran a collective 117 km during the 90 minutes. Arsenal managed just 112 km. Ozil rarely got beyond a jog and, despite his team’s position, nonetheless felt the need to try back-flicks in the centre-circle during the final 10 minutes.
When asked about his team’s performance, Wenger said: “We were really naive and not clinical in our defending. We lost the ball many times. In situations we lacked maturity and experience. Individually some of our players were not at their best today.”
They are all perfectly valid observations, but Wenger has made similar remarks before and nothing has changed. Maybe nothing will while he remains in charge but, as he contemplates how to make Arsenal winners again, Conte and Chelsea will power on toward glory.