Tuesday 23 July 2019

Hard-bitten Blues exploit Gunners' mental frailty

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0

Arsene Wenger looks on as Gabriel leaves the field following his red card in the defeat against Chelsea
Arsene Wenger looks on as Gabriel leaves the field following his red card in the defeat against Chelsea
Chelsea's Spanish midfielder Pedro vies with Arsenal's Spanish defender Nacho Monreal during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge
Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic
Diego Costa of Chelsea and Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal clash

Dion Fanning

When Diego Costa walked off at half-time at Stamford Bridge yesterday, it was either a sign of Arsenal's iron discipline or an indictment of their approach that not one of Arsene Wenger's players attempted to make his journey to the dressing-room an uncomfortable one.

Gabriel, their young and naive defender, had just been sent off after flicking his foot in Costa's direction. In football terms, Costa had done nothing of consequence but, thanks to his niggles and his general desire to be a pain, Arsenal were a man down and all that followed was inevitable.

On Arsenal's part, once the very angry Gabriel had finally left the field, there was an absence of rage as they headed off at half-time. Maybe they realised there would be no point, or else they were resigned to their fate.

In the second half, the formalities were completed when Kurt Zouma headed in a Cesc Fabregas free-kick and an Eden Hazard shot deflected past Petr Cech, but the game had been lost when Gabriel reacted.

Arsenal are not the kind of side to overcome these odds. Wenger had refused to make his side's late return from Zagreb in midweek an excuse for anything that happened against Chelsea but, for the second time in four days, his team had to play much of a game with 10 men. They ended it here with nine when Santi Cazorla picked up a second yellow card.

Costa was ponderous and heavy in many aspects, but his contribution was vital and he is the kind of player it is hard to imagine Arsenal possessing.

They played with a very different centre-forward - Theo Walcott. Walcott might be the acceptable face of football. He playfully tapped a Chelsea fan on the cheek when he ended up among the home supporters in the first half and his general demeanour was one of an enthusiast for the game, although an enthusiast who still hasn't grasped the offside rule.

Costa, on the other hand, is a menace. Like Al Capone in The Untouchables, he believes you can get further with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word, although Costa has also decided to forego the kind word.

He might be in for an uncomfortable time from now on. His part in the confrontation with Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel could be a moment when he crosses from cartoon bad guy to marked man. Ultimately, he won't be helped by the failure of Mike Dean to spot the series of swipes and pushes to Koscielny that began the incident in the Arsenal box and which culminated with Gabriel reacting in the centre circle. Referees don't want to feel like they're being had.

Costa has done well to get this far. He was last sent off in December 2012, when he headbutted a Viktoria Plzen player during a Europa League match. It was only the second sending off in his career, even if he was retrospectively suspended last season after stamping on Liverpool's Emre Can.

Wenger criticised the naivety of Dean while acknowledging that Gabriel deserved to be sent off. But he reserved most of his displeasure for Costa.

"I think his behaviour is unacceptable. He hits Koscielny in the face. He always gets away with it. It's surprising. I don't understand Mike Dean's decision at all."

The FA might look at Costa's actions. "It's the least they could do," Wenger said.

Mourinho, naturally, saw it differently. Costa was the man of the match. Mourinho had played Arsenal so many times and only once had they not moaned - when they beat Chelsea in the Community Shield.

Derbies were about keeping "emotional control", a message he also gave his players before these games. Arsenal, he clearly felt, had lost control, not like Costa.

"If you want to speak about Diego Costa, it is just to say he played like he has to play. And that's why you have full stadiums and you sell to television around the world, because the game has to be played like that.

Not only was Costa man of the match in Mourinho's view, he was responsible for the global popularity of the Premier League.

Some of this was a sideshow but the main event was the result. Wenger's desperate record against Mourinho's Chelsea continued but the injustice might have masked the telling of a familiar tale,

Arsenal had an opportunity against a Chelsea side as vulnerable as they have ever been when the two managers have met. Instead, Chelsea had their first clean sheet of the season and Mourinho was able to talk about the improvements all through his side and deal comfortably with the questions about John Terry's omission which, he said, allowed Chelsea to play a high line.

Arsenal wanted to get Walcott away on the break and their attacks had an unwelcome urgency, a little bit of panic as if they feared they wouldn't come round again.

Chelsea's attacks were more probing, a search for mental weakness. They were the hard-bitten cop sitting down in front of a callow suspect and promising them a long night of questioning. They moved the ball from side to side, trying to isolate Hector Bellerin or to drag Gabriel from his position and toy with him. Ultimately, it would be Costa who would bring them down but they should have had a penalty when Gabriel pushed the improved Eden Hazard off the field in the box.

But if this was about mental toughness and emotional control, Chelsea were always going to have the advantage.

When Zouma headed in the first goal, that was that. By the time, Hazard's shot flew off Calum Chambers and into the net, Arsenal were playing with nine men but many more had effectively left the arena.

Mourinho could point to the result, Chelsea's first home win in the league this season, and insist things were finally going his way. Arsenal could point to the injustice and complain loudly. But there was something telling in their resignation. Their weariness suggested they had simply found another way to lose.

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