High-five for Arsenal as van Persie shreds Chelsea’s defence

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 5

Lampard 14, Terry 45, Mata 80; van Persie 36, 85, 90+2, Santos 49, Walcott 55

A watershed moment. A corner being turned. Light at the end of the tunnel. Accurate in a terse sort of way, but such truisms do not come close to telling the full story of an astonishing game at Stamford Bridge which will linger long in the Premier League annals. Arsenal recovered from going behind twice and then conceding a late equaliser to run out 5-3 winners over a bewildered Chelsea whose once-vaunted defence was in tatters by the end. Robin van Persie will grab the headlines with a clinical hat-trick, but this was a performance of great character and courage by all eleven men to put the lie to the notion that the Gunners are a one-man team.

With both Thomas Vermaelen and Carl Jenkinson considered too marginal to risk starting, Arsène Wenger persisted with the same back four who had started the 3-1 win over Stoke last Sunday. Van Persie resumed his place in attack, with Gervinho replacing Andrey Arshavin on the left.

Szczęsny

Djourou – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Santos

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho

Last season both teams won at home by two-goal margins. Chelsea won 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in October, while three goals in nine minutes propelled Arsenal to a 3-1 victory at the Emirates just after Christmas.

A mere folly of a first half

A frenetic first half saw both teams committed to attack, with defence apparently considered an optional extra. It was not a spectacle for lovers of catenaccio. It was, however, hugely exciting.

Walcott was a constant threat from the right (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The clocks may not go back until later tonight, but Arsenal’s defence started as if they were an hour behind already. Three times in the first five minutes Chelsea players galloped into open spaces down the flanks as Ashley Cole (twice) and Daniel Sturridge raced clear, only for opportunities to go begging.

However Chelsea, whose only Premier League clean sheet so far this season was on the opening weekend at Stoke, were exposed as equally vulnerable to direct attacks as an emboldened Arsenal should have scored twice in the space of a minute, each time courtesy of the much maligned Theo Walcott. First he skinned Cole down the right before delivering a perfect low cross which Gervinho contrived to screw horribly wide. Then another cross found Robin van Persie at the back post, but the Dutchman lifted his half-volley over the bar.

Arsenal were immediately punished for their profligacy. Juan Mata, whose movement across the width of the pitch was causing no end of problems, cut inside the ponderous André Santos far too easily to create space for a cross which cleared Per Mertesacker‘s leap and was nodded in by Frank Lampard. It was a soft goal to concede, born of lax defending.

Ramsey looks increasingly assured as the attacking focal point in midfield (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Although Chelsea had a marked advantage in terms of possession, both teams struggled to assert any semblance of control through midfield, with the most promising attacks coming from quick balls over the top. The trickery of van Persie and the pace of Gervinho and Walcott regularly troubled Chelsea’s back line, while Sturridge scuffed wide after being sent clear by Lampard.

What quality there was in the hurly-burly of midfield came largely from two players: Mata and Aaron Ramsey. The Welsh captain was instrumental as Arsenal drew level, playing an instant, incisive through ball for Gervinho behind the Chelsea defence. The Ivorian waited for Petr Čech to commit before squaring to the waiting van Persie to tap into the unguarded net.

It was Arsenal at their best. However, it was soon followed by Arsenal at their worst. On the stroke of half-time, Mertesacker seemed oblivious to danger as Lampard floated a corner over for John Terry to bundle in unchallenged. Yet again, the visitors had thrown away a hard-earned goal with a sloppiness which would have shamed a pub team.

The one saving grace was that, as vulnerable as Arsenal’s defence had proven, Chelsea’s was just as fragile. At the end of a first half fully deserving of the epithet ‘mental’, there remained the potential for anything to happen.

Full-on madness

Arsenal opened the second half as quickly as they had started the first slowly. Inside 60 seconds van Persie drilled an angled shot against Čech, and Ramsey’s cute lofted effort landed on the roof of the net. Ten minutes later they were ahead.

Santos made up for apoor first half with a fine run and goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

First Alex Song spun away from Ramires and instantly released Santos down the left. The Brazilian left back had endured a torrid first half, but he strode confidently forward before driving a low shot past Čech. It continues a history of Arsenal left backs scoring at Stamford Bridge, and while this was no blockbuster in the manner of Nigel Winterburn or Sylvinho, it was just as important.

Almost immediately, Arsenal were fortunate when Wojciech Szczęsny came charging out of his box and upended Cole. There were covering defenders tracking back, but nonetheless it took a brave and calm decision by referee Andre Marriner to brandish only a yellow card as the home fans bayed for blood.

Chelsea’s supporters had even more reason to be upset five minutes later as Walcott put the visitors in front for the first time. He picked up the ball on the right and drove directly at goal before stumbling. As Chelsea’s defenders hesitated, Walcott bounced back up and burst through two defenders continued into the area before beating Čech at his near post.

Arsenal continued to create the better chances. Ramsey nearly squeezed a shot through the Chelsea keeper’s legs, having stayed on his feet under a Cole challenge which would surely have been a penalty had he gone down. And the Welshman again was unlucky when he arrived late in the area to meet van Persie’s pull-back, only to see his shot deflected harmlessly wide.

Meanwhile Chelsea huffed and puffed to surprisingly little effect as the visitors stiffened their defences. Florent Malouda, Romelu Lukaku and Raul Meireles were sent on to bolster the attack, but André Villas-Boas‘ side lacked both shape and inspiration. That is, until the 80th minute, when Mata provided a bolt from the blue with a sumptuous 25-yard curler which gave Szczęsny no chance. It was a magnificent strike, but Lukaku appeared to deliberately obstruct Santos in the build-up to the goal.

Van Persie's hat-trick strike was his tenth goal in the Premier League this season (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With the Shed End roaring on their team in the expectation of a winning goal they instead had to watch aghast as they brought about their own downfall. Malouda overhit a back pass, and Terry fell flat on his face as he tried to recover. Van Persie pounced and needed no invitation to take the ball around Čech and slide it home.

Chelsea threw everything at Arsenal in the last five minutes in search of an equaliser. Mata had a couple of efforts blocked, one by the excellent Laurent Koscielny. But in the second minute of injury time it was van Persie who killed the game with a flourish. Substitute Tomáš Rosický won an aerial challenge on the edge of his own area and carried the ball forward as Arsenal created a four-on-two. Arteta delivered the final pass for his skipper, who lashed a vicious swerving shot from just inside the box which Čech could only parry into his own net. It was van Persie’s tenth goal of this Premier League campaign.

Cue crazed celebrations. It was two months yesterday that Arsenal were humiliated 8-2 at Old Trafford. Some of the club’s more hysterical fans – fanned by certain factions in the media – started wailing about relegation at that point. No more. Arsenal are still a long way from being credible title challengers. However, victory here was their eighth in the last nine games and moved them to within three points of the Champions League places. With four of their next five matches at home – starting with a Champions League game against Marseille on Tuesday – they have every chance to build on a steady recovery which now shows signs of gathering momentum.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger was full of praise after outstanding individual performances by several of his team. About Robin van Persie he said:

He is of course on fire and he takes advantage through his class. We attack a lot and we create chances overall, of course. The intelligence of his movement around the box and the accuracy of his finishing is exceptional.

Despite being part of a defence which conceded three goals, Laurent Koscielny had arguably his best game in an Arsenal shirt:

I think he was outstanding. He was the one at the back in the first half who looked strong.

And although Wenger was upset by a perceived foul in the build-up to Mata’s goal, he preferred to focus on his own team’s positives:

I was very unhappy [about the third goal] but overall I must say I can only praise my team. We didn’t look disappointed on the pitch and we kept going. We knew that we needed a win here and we kept going to win the game. Overall I feel that they had a good team performance and they have shown great spirit.

In the second half I felt we were much better defensively than in the first half. We gave too many chances away in the first half. But we always looked dangerous through the whole game and I hope the team strengthens its belief with a performance like that to focus on getting stronger and stronger.

It seems churlish to focus too much on the negatives after such a thrilling spectacle, so let’s get those out of the way to start with. Arsenal’s defending, particularly against the top sides, still leaves much to be desired. Santos and Johan Djourou endured nightmarish starts to the game and Mertesacker was at fault on both first half goals – he was sucked needlessly in to the near post on the first and then was too slow to react on the second – but all improved significantly after half-time. Koscielny was colossal throughout – quick, assertive and dominant. He had Fernando Torres in his pocket throughout the game.

As bad as Arsenal’s defending was at times, Chelsea’s was equally appalling – if not worse. That should not detract from the verve of so much of Arsenal’s attacking play, though. Terry and Branislav Ivanović were pulled all over the place by Arsenal’s front three. In stark contrast to Torres, Van Persie was too clever and too clinical for Chelsea, with his incisive movement guiding him to the right place at the right time for each of his three goals. Gervinho’s understanding with the Dutchman looks increasingly natural, while Walcott will have silenced his detractors with a sparkling individual goal and some fine crosses.

Song was dynamic in midfield, and his solid but unshowy partnership with Mikel Arteta was key in overturning Chelsea’s early dominance and making John Obi Mikel, Ramires and Lampard look positive pedestrian in the second half. Ramsey continues to go from strength to strength. A newcomer to the pivotal ‘Fàbregas role’ at the head of midfield, his surging runs and eye for a difficult pass are becoming an increasingly vital part of Arsenal’s attacking play. They still miss Jack Wilshere, but Ramsey is doing a fine job growing into the vacuum.

Of course, Arsenal still miss the class provided by the departed Fàbregas and Nasri. And it remains to be seen how strongly the team can keep going in the final third of the season, a period which has traditionally proven to be Arsenal’s undoing. But, all of a sudden, Wenger’s claims that they remain, at least, a genuine top four contender no longer seem as wild as they did to many just a few weeks ago. The results have been starting to accumulate for several weeks now – and now the confidence is returning too.

Arsenal man of the match: The entire team. Some players performed exceptionally throughout, most notably van Persie, Ramsey and Koscielny. But everyone played their part in a stirring second half comeback which should quash questions about the team’s character and desire once and for all.

About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

8 Responses to High-five for Arsenal as van Persie shreds Chelsea’s defence

  1. Ashis says:

    Thank you

  2. Papadam says:

    A good, fair and well balanced post. Two thumbs up !!

  3. Afro_Warrior says:

    A very nice write up. Glad i read it.

  4. Sheree says:

    L’Equipe ecstatic over the Gunners win. As you know, the French regard Arsenal as their team in the Premiership.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Sheree. It was the archetypal “great game for the neutrals”, although my nerves were shredded until the fifth goal went in.

      I haven’t had a chance to see the highlights yet, but it looked like Villa were a bit unlucky to only get a point on Saturday. Still rolling on solidly enough, though?

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