sports: Laurent Koscielny’s unusual goal seals victory for Arsenal over Chelsea
This was a defeat to leave all Chelsea’s frailties brutally exposed and the head coach reverting to his native tongue to make clear the depths of his dissatisfaction. Overwhelmed as Arsenal ripped into them through a one-sided first half, Maurizio Sarri’s team had no incision of their own with which to muster anything approaching a riposte. A side lacking a focal point to their front-line limped away in defeat attempting to recall what had constituted their solitary shot on target, and with the gap to fifth and sixth place trimmed to a precarious three points
Their efforts had been feeble. They are a team treading water at present and Gonzalo Higuaín, a short-term fix at 31 and a striker with no previous experience of the helter-skelter of this division, cannot arrive on loan from Juventus soon enough. How they could have done with the Argentinian in his pomp here as they attempted to retrieve the deficit shipped in that furious opening period, though that lack of firepower was only one aspect of the problem.
Their play was too stodgy, their threat only ever sporadic, but it was Sarri’s attack on their character which will have stung most of all. His post-match laceration questioned his players’ motivation, determination and, as a result, their basic commitment. A club which only recently was built around John Terry and Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Petr Cech, has suddenly been rendered mentally frail. Prone to implosion. A side who roll over who are “never going to be a team well known for its battling and fighting qualities”. That was utterly damning, the kind of public criticism that, when key players had the owner’s ear, might actually have left the head coach’s position under serious scrutiny.
Sarri’s predecessor, Antonio Conte, was once rendered equally livid by a thrashing in this arena, but duly ripped up his blueprint and started again with a completely different approach. Chelsea went on to win the title that season. Sarri, however, does not work that way. He was brought to this club to play a certain way, with a style that established his reputation at Napoli, and he will not change. Yet, if this group really cannot adapt, that inflexibility could end up costing all dear. Their points tally is identical now to the same stage last season, when Conte’s tenure was apparently unravelling, but they have scored one goal fewer. This is a team whose identity is drifting
They had wilted before the break, blown away by Arsenal’s greater intensity. Their defending was made to look flimsy by the excellence of Aaron Ramsey, Alexandre Lacazette and a workaholic Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and a tigerish midfield. Yet, in many ways, it was the inability to recover which was more troubling. Marcos Alonso nodded against a post, the 16th time this season Chelsea have struck the woodwork, but that was as close as they came. The statisticians’ insistence that the visitors had managed a first shot on target since the 64th minute against Newcastle seven days previously had felt generous, whether it referred to Ross Barkley’s attempt, blocked by Laurent Koscielny, just after the hour-mark or Alonso’s cross shot, pushed away by Bernd Leno, eight minutes from time
Regardless, each effort had been repelled with relative ease. It was telling that Koscielny, a player whose form had been rusty ahead of a sixth league appearance after seven months out with a ruptured achilles, looked a centre-half reborn. The days when Drogba would rampage at will in this arena, wrecking Arsenal opponents’ careers en route, have never felt more distant
This was a victory to cherish for Unai Emery after a difficult week. His switch to a diamond midfield, tipped by the Juventus-bound Ramsey, proved a masterstroke, and the furious nature of the hosts’ first-half display showcased Arsenal at their attacking best.
The hosts might have scored three times even before, as the quarter-hour mark approached, Lacazette collected Héctor Bellerín’s centre on his instep amid a clutter of opponents. The Frenchman, initially with his back to goal, twisted smartly away from Pedro and beyond Alonso’s half-hearted attempt to block before, with the angle suddenly horribly tight, spitting away a shot which ripped high inside Kepa Arrizabalaga’s near-post with the goalkeeper pawing at fresh air.
Had they led by only one at the break, Arsenal might have been frustrated given the misses by Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Koscielny and Aubameyang. As it was, the home side would not be denied. Papastathopoulos’s optimistic shot six minutes from the interval turned into an astute cross with Koscielny, stooping on the edge of the six-yard box, looping in a second improbably off his right shoulder
Emery later suggested that progress was being made on Denis Suárez’s loan arrival from Barcelona, the only sour note on a restorative evening’s work a serious knee injury sustained by Bellerín late on. That will need to be scanned “but first impressions are not positive”. His team have already claimed more points – eight – against the top six this season than they did last, and are now hovering alongside Manchester United on Chelsea’s shoulder. Both will smell blood.