Wenger’s post-match comments yesterday seemed unfathomable following another defeat to Chelsea, but he gives himself little choice but to adopt such a stubborn demeanour. In the face of such a carbon-copy defeat in which Arsenal’s weaknesses were again so clinically exposed, the Frenchman really has nothing left to fall back on but a defence of footballing aesthetics.
Despite the scoreline – the second time this season his team have failed to score past Petr Cech – Wenger nevertheless insisted his team were ‘completely dominant’ at Stamford Bridge yesterday.
He said: “You have to congratulate Chelsea but we did not get a demonstration of football. But Chelsea were very efficient. We had mountains of possession and could not create it into a goal. We had 70 per cent of the possession. We were not running after the ball for 90 minutes. We were not in a position where we were dominated. We were always in an attacking position and had to risk things going wrong. Our spirit was great. I am completely happy with the performance and the spirit.”
Wenger also added: “They (Chelsea) are very experienced at the back. They make the foul at the right part of the pitch, in the middle of the pitch, to stop a counter-attack. A little push, not enough to be a yellow card. They have a lot of tricks and are very experienced. They do that very well. They got one or two decisions from the referee."
It is Wenger’s suggestion that Chelsea did not give a ‘demonstration of football’ that is, to me, most telling. To him there is only one definition for the game, one way in which it should be played. Whilst we should respect the football that his Arsenal side sometimes produce, the weaknesses in his team created by his single-mindedness should be met by derision in equal measure.
It’s often written about, but in contrast to their north London rivals Chelsea offer a far more complete brand of football. Ancelotti’s team – yes, to an extent courtesy of some very significant expenditure between 2003 and 2006 – have a rich blend of skill, pace, tactical maturity, composure and strength. Against the better teams, Arsenal seem only capable of bringing the first two to the table, and in those circumstances only a perfect performance is likely to yield results.
Chelsea certainly weren’t at their best yesterday, but their more complete brand of football – centred around a club ethos that values winning first - saw them through. That’s not to say of course that there weren’t glittering performances across the pitch: Lampard’s distribution was excellent, and his commitment in the tackle exemplary. Ballack’s radar was occasionally a little off, but he was tireless in midfield and must have covered more ground than any other player. Mikel’s first 45 minutes were probably his best for the club, and the defence – particularly Ashley Cole – were a picture of concentration and professionalism.
And, of course, it was a superlative performance from Drogba, who is surely the league’s best player this season despite Rooney’s reinvigorated showings.
Arsenal did dominate possession (although nothing like to the extent Wenger suggested at around 58%) and yes, they did show good spirit, but both are immaterial. Chelsea knew how to play them and set their stall out to render that possession and spirit redundant in the knowledge that if it didn’t work for Arsenal the game was there for the taking. Both teams had similar numbers of shots on goal yesterday, but it’s no coincidence that Chelsea managed four more inside the penalty box than Arsenal.
So actually – and contrary to Wenger’s assertions – it was Chelsea that gave the ‘footballing demonstration’ to Arsenal yesterday. It was a demonstration of football being all that it can be: a pass, a tackle, a driving run into the box, a steadfast concentration in defence or an intelligent ploy to break an opponent’s move down. Who knows, next time the teams line up against big four opposition it might all click for Arsenal and they’ll get the win they’re looking for - but it remains unlikely while Wenger refuses to play the percentages.
After yesterday’s elation at Stamford Bridge, long may his obduracy continue.