x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A history lesson for Wenger

Wenger threw a lot of bodies at the Chelsea defence but at the end it was still the team with diminishing financial resources that retained the high ground.

LONDON // Arsene Wenger does not believe in history. Perhaps because history still is not ready to believe in Arsenal's current incarnation. Chelsea's previously irresistible financial resources are diminished. 

A once yawning differential in personnel is closing, yet the results remain with them. It may be the compelling momentum to success, the self-sustaining belief that comes with holding the title. It might be the fragility of Wenger's puritan proposal that technique and movement can outdo organised physique on an earthy English stage. Either way, Chelsea retain the high ground.

Again Didier Drogba propelled the blade that did for Arsenal, but the cut was all the deeper for the courage of Wenger's method. His was a gamble that deserved to succeed. Desperate for a result that would wrench mental strength from Chelsea as it would provide self-belief for Arsenal, Wenger came to Stamford Bridge utterly committed to the attack. He threw more bodies at Chelsea's defence than any other Premier League manager dares and should have been rewarded with an immediate goal. They unsettled Chelsea early on, fell behind, yet pushed them to the whistle. Wenger's side came close to an historic day, but ended it seven points behind the champions.

"I think we have made a demonstration that you can play well and lose the game," said Wenger. "The game should have been over before we started it. I give a lot of credit to my team but we have to be more clinical to win championships. We cannot lose a game like that." Typically resilient, Chelsea's win came at the end of a week in which Carlo Ancelotti, their manager, lost his father, Giuseppe. 

"It's been really difficult," said assistant manager Ray Wilkins. "The first day after the events it was a little bit lacklustre but over the last two days the team trained exceptionally well. For us to beat them is a delight. It's not always very pleasant to look at, but it was effective." 

For the first time in the Roman Abramovich era, Wenger has a deeper pool of players to work with than his Chelsea counterpart - yet here an uncomfortably large number were absent. Six customary starters were sidelined, amongst them the outfield spine of Cesc Fabregas, Thomas Vermaelen and Robin van Persie.

Wenger made no attempt to harden up his line-up or employ the smother-and-counter tactics that worked for Manchester City last weekend. Abou Diaby started high behind his centre forward leaving "holding" duties to the 18-year-old Jack Wilshere. The tactic was to push four men directly against Chelsea's defence and its novelty should have brought reward. 

In the first minute, a succession of passes left Bacary Sagna in position to cross. His early ball stranded John Terry, allowing Marouane Chamakh a free head at goal that seemed netbound until Alex deflected it wide.

From Samir Nasri's corner, Chamakh produced another header only for Laurent Koscielny to leap up in the six-yard box and turn it the wrong side of the home crossbar. When Petr Cech was called upon to do his own defending a spectacular full-length stretch denied Andrey Arshavin. Arsenal's issue was at the other end of the pitch. Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci, the centre-backs had not faced Chelsea before; Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna and keeper Lukasz Fabianski had been brutalised by them. As a unit they belied their nervousness by belting balls into the crowd like over-anxious Sunday league players.

If Chelsea were struggling to find the movement of their early-season victories there was the sense that when they did a goal would result. That moment came in the lead up to half time. Eager to establish credentials, Ramires, the Chelsea midfielder, dispossessed Alex Song with a finely timed tackle. John Obi Mikel shuttled the ball to left-back Ashley Cole who sprinted into the area and squared for Drogba. Brutally paced and placed, the Ivorian's shot thumped off Fabianski's near post and in.

Wenger moaned to the fourth official - "100 per cent a foul," he claimed - before watching first Florent Malouda then Michael Essien assault the ankles of Sagna and Diaby. The feeling was of a maudlin, old record repeating itself. Refusing to lie down to it, Arsenal opened themselves up still more. Diaby's powerful shot deflected wide, Chamakh claimed a penalty under a fair Ramires challenge then directed a close-range header off target. An Arsenal goal would not come and the space sacrificed in pursuing it ultimately cost them.

Though Cole was unfortunate to be flagged offside when converting a deft Nicolas Anelka pass in the best of a series of counters, Alex's free kick was incontestable, blurring 35 yards past Fabianski. Wenger stood disconsolate, cruel history taunting him once more.