Follow the Ball – Game 5: Arsenal vs Chelsea

 
Nearly a month into the year and we’re on for game number five of the campaign. For those of you that haven’t read one of these before, the idea is simple (I think) and you can all of the Follow the Ball posts here.

Through 2016 I will be watching a series of games in a winner stays on style. I kicked off with Arsenal thanks to a Twitter poll (my own fault really) and have then followed the winning team through their first four matches of the calendar year. My hope is that when we get to the knock-out stages of the European competitions, one of the English sides will lose a leg and I can spend some time watching football on the continent.

Game 1: Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle United
Barclays Premier League, Saturday 2nd January 2016, Emirates Stadium

Game 2: Arsenal (c) 3-1 Sunderland
The Emirates FA Cup, Saturday 9th January 2016, Emirates Stadium

Game 3: Liverpool 3-3 Arsenal (c)
Barclays Premier League, Wednesday 13th January 2016, Anfield

Game 4: Stoke City 0-0 Arsenal (c)
Barclays Premier League, Sunday 17th January 2016, Britannia Stadium

Four games so far in 2016 and four good results for Arsene Wenger and his players. All four matches have tested Arsenal and they have been good enough to match all four challenges. This feels like a game on different level to the previous four.

Despite the struggles of Chelsea this season, I get the feeling that Arsenal need to beat Chelsea (a team with a great recent record against them) to prove to themselves (players and fans alike) that they are bona fide contenders for the league crown…

Game 5: Arsenal vs Chelsea
Barclays Premier League, Sunday 24th January 2016, Emirates Stadium

The Skinny: The recent history of this match has not gone in the favour of Arsenal. If you ignore the Community Shield from earlier this season (any match that allows more than three subs to be made is a friendly), then Arsenal haven’t scored against their London rivals since January 2013 when Chelsea won 2-1.

Arsenal need that poor run to change and need to come away with a positive result (Closer to pre-match note: In light of the Manchester City’s draw with West Ham on Saturday, a draw counts as a positive result). Having been impressive at home with victories against Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Manchester United so far this season they are fully equipped to do a job on Chelsea as well.

The Blues, as everyone is well aware, have not been their usual selves so far this season and should results go in a certain way the Premier League Champions could kick off the match just three points above the relegation zone. I doubt everyone at that end of the table will win their matches (Closer to pre-match note: they didn’t) to put pressure on Chelsea, but it is still worrying for them that despite being unbeaten in their last six league matches they have been unable to climb clear of the relegation battle.

Fundamentally however Chelsea remain a very good group of players as poor as their performances have been. If Arsenal aren’t fully prepared for what I expect will be counter-attacking football from the away side, they may pick off the league leaders and put a dent in their title challenge.

The Match: Oh, Arsenal; just when I had started to believe in you. The game hinged on the red card to Per Mertesacker. With a man advantage Chelsea were able to push on, looking for the opening goal and then keep them at arm’s length as they saw out the match with the lead.

It was supposed to be a chance for Arsene Wenger and his players to show their hand in the title race. With Man City dropping points on Saturday and no-one admitting to themselves that Leicester City are title contenders, Arsenal could have done themselves a huge favour with a win – continuing to set the pace in the league and banishing their poor recent record against Chelsea. As Dominic Fifield suggested in The Guardian Arsenal’s psychological barrier remains.

Much has been made and probably will be made of Mertesacker’s thought process in the moment before he brought down Diego Costa. It’s odd to me that his attention would have been on anything other than making sure he made an inch-perfect sliding tackle and dispossessed the Spain international. Instead he was looking across the line – presumably at the assistant referee or his partner in central defence.

Cesc Fabregas had a very good game. He has been supposedly out of sorts this season (I haven’t seen enough of him to know either way) but looked assured in the midfield. It was one of the best all-round midfield performances I’ve ever seen from Cesc. As well as controlling the play with his passing, he put in a solid shift defensively and I remember a number of tackles (note: checked the stats and he made six tackles, more than anyone else in the match).

Games like this prove Chelsea can still have a say in the outcome of the Barclays Premier League even though they won’t get close to the top handful of positions.

The Result: Arsenal 0-1 Chelsea

In the days before this match I had an actual out loud conversation about the possibility of Arsenal going through 2016 without losing a single game (albeit with a few away draws versus Barcelona for good measure) and it didn’t seem an unlikely prospect. As always, it’s the hope that gets you in the end.

What’s next? MK Dons vs Chelsea in the FA Cup