Comment - Chelsea's performance was worse than anyone could have imagined
This was the biggest match in the season for the best team in the country and they produced a performance far worse than anyone could have imagined. Never underestimate football’s capacity to surprise.
Antonio Conte railed against the very concept of ‘relaxation’ this week and yet here his team looked as if they were doing everything possible to enrage their workaholic manager. They were slow, sloppy, lazy and complacent. It was anathema to Conte, a picture of exasperation on the sidelines throughout.
Conte knew what the stakes were here. Chelsea were one game away from the double, something no English team has achieved since 2010, and their certain place in history.
All Chelsea had to do was to beat a team that they are patently better than. A team who finished 18 points and four places behind them in the Premier League table this season. A team who they steam-rollered 3-1 the last time they met, in February. A team struggling in what their own manager describes in public as an “absolutely horrendous” psychological environment. A team whose best three centre-backs were out, forcing them to build their defence around a man who has not played for more than a year.
The only way Chelsea could lose this game, in short, was by not showing up. Playing the way they have done all season, ever since they were beaten by Arsenal back in September, would surely have been enough. And yet somehow they found a way, putting in one of the most surprising and disappointing no-shows in a major final in years. This was even worse than Manchester City in 2013, who lost to Wigan Athletic. They were sacking Roberto Mancini and it distracted the players. What was the Chelsea players’ excuse?
This Chelsea team is meant to be built on a solid defence and this was by a distance their worst defensive performance of the season. Here against Tottenham in the semi-final they conceded plenty of possession but few chances against a team who struggled to find the right pass. But today Arsenal managed to get in almost every time and it was only bad finishing and bad luck that restricted Arsenal to two goals.
Danny Welbeck, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil all hit the post, Gary Cahill had to hook one off the line, Thibaut Courtois made more saves than he usually had to. Chelsea were ripped open almost every time Arsenal went forward, in the gaping space in behind and down the sides their defence. Which is the exact opposite of what everyone expected before the game kicked off.
But it was not just about the individual performances of Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpicilueta. This was a team-affliction, a collective failure that cannot be pinned on any one slip or error. In midfield they were even worse. Ngolo Kante has been the best midfielder in the country for two years but this was his worst game since he arrived in England. Him and Nemanja Matic were out-manouevred by Arsenal’s pair of Ramsey and Granit Xhaka. They could never get a foothold in the game, never impose themselves and by the time Cesc Fabregas came on, 62 minutes too late, the game had got away from them.
Of course the strength of this Chelsea team is that Diego Costa and Eden Hazard can always bail them out but this time they could not. Costa was Chelsea’s best player, desperate to say goodbye in the best possible way. Even with little service he made maximum mischief, shaking off Rob Holding for Chelsea’s best first-half chance. He beat Holding again for Chelsea’s implausible equaliser, a brilliantly taken goal. But that was not enough, Chelsea were still ragged, tired and open. Arsenal went straight down the other end and won the game.
It certainly did not help that Chelsea had to play most of the second half with 10 men. Victor Moses had just been booked for pulling back Welbeck so picked the worst possible moment, 10 minutes later, to throw himself to the ground in the vicinity of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He was sent off and with 10 men Chelsea lost all ability to stop Arsenal on the break.
In the end it was Chelsea’s good fortune that they escaped with a 2-1 defeat and for Conte it was that gulf between the two sides, the gulf of application, focus and desire, that will enrage him the most. The last time they came here, against a Tottenham team much better than Arsenal, they held on through the difficult moments and pulled away at the end. Here, with one hand on the double, they lost their grip at the start and never looked like getting it back.
Independent News Service