Chelsea aren’t boring, they’re just better

Ken Early says there’s little point in Arsenal or anyone else complaining about their style

Chelsea’s John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic show how much the point gained in draw with Arsenal means to them. Photo: Adrian Dennis/Gety Images

Chelsea’s John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic show how much the point gained in draw with Arsenal means to them. Photo: Adrian Dennis/Gety Images

 

The nil-nil is one of football’s enduring image problems. People who don’t get the sport wonder how you can play any game for 90 minutes with nobody having scored any points.

Usually a 0-0 scoreline tells you that neither team has played well. But there are occasional goalless thrillers: Italy’s 0-0-and-penalties triumph against Holland in the semi-final of Euro 2000, in which Fabio Cannavaro announced his genius to the world, or Ireland’s Richard Dunne-inspired miracle 0-0 in Moscow.

Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Chelsea yesterday wasn’t in that class, but there were a few minutes just before half-time when it was briefly one of the best games of the Premier League season.

Arsenal were moving the ball around on their right flank between Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Hector Bellerin. As the three of them dodged and drifted at the points of a shifting, revolving triangle, you had to admire the adhesive control, the speed and precision of interchanges that made the play look like basketball.

Perfect unison

The mental effort involved in maintaining concentration and team co-ordination of that intensity is immense. It was Arsenal who tired first. Their intensity ebbed away after half-time. By 70 minutes, they seemed to have settled for a draw.

Second Captains

There are a couple of ways to score when the opposition is tracking every move and closing off every space, and Arsenal had tried all of them.

You can sling a hopeful ball into the goal area and hope your centre-forward reaches it first. In Olivier Giroud Arsenal have a centre-forward whose sharpness at the near post had brought him 14 goals in 19 Premier League games. But he had never scored in five previous games against Chelsea, and yesterday we saw why. He was beaten to everything by John Terry or Gary Cahill.

The other way is called, in basketball, “shooting from downtown”. Unfortunately, Arsenal’s best effort at scoring from range was also the only time Giroud got to the ball first, as he inadvertently blocked Ramsey’s blast at the edge of the area.

Chelsea’s desire was obvious to the end, not just in the chest-beating exultation of John Terry at full-time, but in the way Cesc Fabregas and Cesar Azpilicueta celebrated crowding Hector Bellerin out of play.

Slapping Azpilicueta on the back, Fabregas showed that he’s learning to appreciate the dirty, gritty parts of the game Mourinho loves so much. His return to the Emirates will probably be remembered chiefly for an unjust first-half booking for simulation, but by then he’d already made one important contribution that turned the tide of the game.

Arsenal had made a fast start and Chelsea were struggling to contain the irrepressible energy of Alexis Sanchez. The pattern of the game changed in the 16th minute, when Fabregas took advantage of a pocket of space in midfield to send Oscar clear with a lofted pass over Arsenal’s defence.

The way in which Ospina rushed out to flatten Oscar proved to be the most controversial moment of a match that had few obvious talking points. Oscar came off at half-time with what Mourinho called “possible concussion”. At full-time the Chelsea manager said he was “scared” about the player’s condition, though evidently not scared enough to take Oscar off immediately after the incident.

Although it was a Chelsea player who had been hurt in the collision, the Oscar incident actually seemed to have a more unsettling effect on Arsenal. Fabregas can take the credit for that. The intimidating quality of his pass had reminded Arsenal of Chelsea’s Floyd Mayweather-like ability to pick off opponents with a single devastating punch. With Arsenal’s defenders suddenly reluctant to push forward, the home team lost their rhythm and that was the spell in which Chelsea’s defenders at last got a firm grip on the game.

Mutual sacrifice

Chelsea will be champions not because they’re boring but because they’re better, and while that remains so clearly the case there’s little point in Arsenal or anyone else complaining about their style.

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