Monday, April 27, 2015

We were only being boring...for a reason

The general consensus this morning, following yesterday's predictable 0-0 draw between Arsenal and Chelsea, is that the Blues are boring. Oh, what delightful irony.

No one is any doubt that yesterday's match at the Emirates lacked goals - actually, it lacked shots on goal, too - but it certainly didn't lack excitement. Barclays Premier League football simply can't. The pace and physicality alone means that you'll always have something to keep you occupied. Of course, we don't watch football for the spectacle of two teams going at each other like rutting wildebeest. Goals, and preferably spectacular goals, have to be a part of the entertainment.

And, despite the bilious nonsense about Chelsea killing football from those flooding radio phone-ins, Twitter and comment boxes yesterday evening, it shouldn't be forgotten that in being ten points clear at the top of the league, Chelsea have taken 65 goals from 33 games, and have a positive goal difference of 39, five more than Manchester City. That doesn't strike me as particularly boring, although I'll readily concede that Chelsea were at the most entertaining best up until Christmas, with Costa scoring almost every time he was on the pitch, and Fabregas providing some of the best delivery play I've seen Chelsea produce in the 35 years I've been visiting Stamford Bridge.

But yesterday, with the Premier League's runaway leaders and a resurgent Arsenal going up against each other just over a month from the end of the season, what were people expecting? Free-flowing carelessness?

That the blame for a 0-0 result should fall solely on José Mourinho is ludicrous. It takes two teams to make a game and Arsène Wenger would have - or, at least, should have - known that this fixture would have found Mourinho at his most infuriatingly pragmatic.

If it hadn't been apparent in the build-up, it was certainly obvious when the teamsheet was posted: no recognised striker (albeit the ageing Drogba on the bench), a frontline featuring the mercurial Hazard (and, now, deserved PFA Player of the Year) flanked by the increasingly anaemic Oscar and the talented but uneven Willian, Matic and Fabregas holding the midfield, and the Premier League's most efficient back four behind them.

Let's not be naive: if you or I were managing Chelsea, sitting on top of the league since God-knows when and with points to spare, the electric striker who mostly put you there out injured, and the rest of the squad visibly looking jaded, what else would you do, when a prize that has eluded them since 2010 lay so tantalisingly close? You wouldn't want to blow it now.

I won't deny that the game lacked flair, or that Mourinho packed the midfield, but that should have been Wenger's problem to solve. Arsenal have clearly shown their mettle in recent weeks, and have been particularly good at home. But yesterday they simply didn't ask enough questions of Chelsea. They just didn't have the approach. I've seen the same at home: teams coming to Stamford Bridge simply to park the bus and thwart their hit-on-the-break play. Thus, there have been times when I've trudged out of the Bridge, just about happy with three points from a goal nicked in the final minutes after an hour or more of similar to what we saw yesterday, albeit with the bus parked by the visitors.

At the Emirates, Chelsea were disciplined: John Terry defied his age to earn Man Of The Match with distinguished aplomb, with Cesar Azpilicueta, in particular, brilliantly solid at left back. Their organisation overall, as the visiting side, was impeccable. And Arsenal? They are the side people should find frustrating. They have the talent - their league position says so - but they lacked the nouse to unlock Chelsea. They've won just two of their last 13 league games against the Blues, and have gone eight hours without even scoring against them. Add to that, they've had just one shot on target in their two league fixtures against Chelsea this season.

Arsenal and Chelsea: "what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object"

Can Chelsea be "blamed" for that? Well, sorry if I misread the instructions, but I thought the object of the exercise was that one side aims to score more goals than the other in order to win. Which, if I understand the principle further, means that each side has to do as much as it can to prevent the other from scoring.

Somewhere between the two, I agree, should be exciting attacking football. And if not, we end up with, to quote The Joker, "...what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object."

If, as expected, Chelsea do win the Premier League this season, there is only one message for the teams around them who failed to beat them: do better next season.