Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

James Lawton: Arsenal are an example to Chelsea, even in defeat

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: Manager of Arsenal, Arsene Wenger shouts instructions during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg match between Arsenal and AC Milan at Emirates Stadium on March 6, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Arsenal had a kind of defeat and Chelsea a sort of victory this week but the real division between these clubs fighting for fourth place in the Premier League was again pronounced rather deeper than this.

It's not the easiest point to make for those of us who entertained seriously the possibility that Arsène Wenger had become a time-expired man at the Emirates but there it was, screaming out from some rather extraordinary action.



While Wenger's stamp, and some of the best of it, was on Arsenal's brave and at times brilliant attempt to banish the 4-0 hangover from their desperate failure at San Siro, Chelsea's caretaker Roberto Di Matteo was unable to conceal his status as the latest messenger/whipping boy of the only man at Stamford Bridge whose voice matters – Roman Abramovich's.



Wenger gambled on the signing who was seen so recently as the symbol of his central error in a summer that demanded expensive retrenchment after the departure of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. He backed 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was mocked as a boy for the future when Wenger seemed so intent on ignoring the need for men of the present, to rescue the season and he came close, despite the effects of flu and lingering injury, to what would have been sensational vindication.



At the same time Di Matteo was left in no doubt that the first name on the team list for the FA Cup victory at Birmingham City should be Fernando Torres.



However you stand – or shift – on the Wenger issue here was the polarisaton of the best of Arsenal and the worst of Chelsea. Wenger, just maybe, was seeing evidence of a new team of excellent competitive character but shaped by his most basic beliefs in how football should be played. Di Matteo, by the harshest comparison, was the go-between enforcing the belief of the owner that, at £50m, Torres is a mistake that, however high the evidence builds, cannot be conceded.



So Di Matteo is told that Torres, scorer of five goals in 50 games and none in the last 23, and so low in confidence that he turned down an invitation to take a penalty as though he had just been asked to climb up on to the gallows, must play, must wipe away a reproach that has been growing ever since he was foisted on Carlo Ancelotti at a pivotal point of last season.



It was a development to underline all the folly that has so consistently bedevilled Chelsea since Abramovich first imposed Andrei Shevchenko on Jose Mourinho – and it provided a chilling riposte to the theory that maybe the fiasco of the appointment of Andre Villas-Boas might have provoked a little self-appraisal by the oligarch.



Arsenal are at that other extreme where seven years without a trophy have apparently done little to threaten the dogged belief that Wenger will one day unearth at least some of the old alchemy. It means that Arsenal and Chelsea are separated, utterly, not only by hugely differing levels of respect for proven football men but also the very foundations of their approaches.



Abramovich reimposed a catastrophic status quo when he ordered the return of a shell-shocked Torres. At the same time Arsenal had some reason to think that their faith in Wenger had brought them full circle to a point where they could again have some belief in future possibilities. This may be heaping a lot of significance on one moral victory – and the fact that for one half at least Milan were quite as bad as Arsenal had been in San Siro – but then there are also the defeats of Tottenham and Liverpool and the clearest evidence that players like Wojciech Szczesny, Laurent Koscielny and, most encouragingly, Oxlade-Chamberlain are stepping up to new levels of performance.



If Wenger can persuade his owners to see the importance of making more than nominal attempts to re-sign Robin van Persie, if Jack Wilshere comes back as whole and potentially masterful as he left, we might have evidence that the club was indeed right, and so many of us wrong, to believe that the best of the manager's work was not consigned to the past.



This, however, is not the fundamental difference between Chelsea and clubs such as Arsenal and, most notably, Manchester United, who believe that, as long as he has their confidence, all football matters properly reside in the hands of the manager.



If Wenger had gone, rightly or wrongly, it is reasonable to believe that his successor would, give or take budgetary decisions, have been allowed to be his own man with his own ideas about how to make a team. Meanwhile, Chelsea predictably award Di Matteo all the working gravitas of a puppet.



Good for Gunners: Blues for Chelsea



Arsenal lost (on aggregate) and Chelsea won on Tuesday, but perversely the Gunners' defeat to Milan threw up several positives for Arsène Wenger, while the Blues' FA Cup win over Birmingham exposed problems that will need addressing.



Good news for Arsenal...



Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain



The teenager was brilliant in midfield on Tuesday, giving Arsenal an extra option there as well as a muscular wing threat: the type of vibrant youngster to re-ignite a season.



Tomas Rosicky



Arsenal's recent resurgence owes more to Rosicky than anyone. He has rediscovered his touch, his vision, his delightful shuffle, as he masterminded the big home wins over Tottenham and Milan.



The fans



The defeat to Manchester United in January brought unprecedented dissent from the Arsenal fans. But the turnaround has led to a transformation: against Milan there was sustained and vocal support.



Bad news for Chelsea...



Divided squad



The departure of Andre Villas-Boas does not solve the problem of a rump of ageing players resistant to change, nor of a set loyal to Villas-Boas, now presumably disheartened.



Fernando Torres



What sort of striker turns down a penalty? Torres has not scored since October, and looks like he has forgotten how to. Whoever takes charge will have to re-teach him.



Threat to Champions League



Chelsea have not had to fight for Champions League qualification since Roman Abramovich took over so will the players handle pressure of chase for money and prestige?

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