It there was a better way to celebrate the imminent 20th anniversary of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, then it’s hard to imagine what it would have entailed. Maybe a result such as this against a Chelsea team managed by Jose Mourinho would have topped Saturday evening. Not much else.
The analysis of Wenger’s 20 years has essentially been condensed down to a Sven-Goran Eriksson team talk: ‘First half good; second half, not so good.’
And it is true that for much of the last 10 years they have played like a shadow of the teams he produced in his first 10 years. But on Saturday at The Emirates it was like a throwback to the happy days of Highbury; as though this team wanted to remind him of that glorious past. Maybe they even dared dream of something similar emerging in the future, before Wenger retires.
Nothing has illustrated the difference in Wenger’s first 10 years and the last 10 years more clearly than the performances against Chelsea. For a decade west London’s arriviste team couldn’t get close to them in Premier League clashes; but having finally overcome them decisively in the 2005-06 season, it has seemed as though they would never loosen their hold or relinquish their dominance.
Chelsea’s recent treatment of Arsenal has been close to systematic bullying at times. A 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge and the odd victory notwithstanding, Arsenal have generally collapsed and disintegrated at the sight of Chelsea.
As such, this was a bizarre role reversal.
There was the slow, disjointed side conceding space aplenty at the back and unable to defend counter attacks. And there was the more aggressive and hungrier side ready to pounce on such weaknesses. In short, all the ingredients of an Arsenal-Chelsea match, just with the identities switched.
Arsenal were impressive in all areas, pressing the ball with a ferocity rarely seen here, and unsettling Chelsea from the off. Theo Walcott, Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi were all superb as was Mesut Ozil, though that was to be expected. But it was Alexis Sanchez who led the way, and not just with his finishing and assists. He set the tone with his intensity and sheer bloody mindedness. He was outstanding.
For Gary Cahill it has been a miserable start to the season. Even if we can agree he was fouled by Leroy Fer at Swansea last week, Sanchez seemed to sniff a vulnerability, a propensity to dwell for a micro second on the ball.
So when Ivanovic rolled the ball back to Cahill early on, Sanchez was on to him, hassling and harrying. And he forced the mistake, robbing the ball and advancing on goal before delivering the exquisite chip over Thibaut Courtois that befitted his prior work.
Cahill clutched his head in despair; partially exonerated last week, he doubtless can see where this is heading when John Terry returns. Yet there was worse for Chelsea. Arsenal, unusually, sensed vulnerability and looked in the mood to exploit it.
They moved the ball crisply and aggressively, Iwobi at the heart of the move in the 14th minute which pulled Chelsea one way, then the next. The upshot was that, with neither Eden Hazard back tracking nor Cesar Azpilicueta in position, Bellerin was fed by Iwobi on the right, pulled the ball back unselfishly and Walcott converted from close range. Usually it is Arsenal who capitulate within 15 minutes of this fixture. It all felt decidedly surreal.
Francis Coquelin, who had been excellent for the opening 30 minutes, attempted one enthusiastic defensive block too many and had to limp off after 31 minutes, to be replaced by Granit Xhaka.
It made no difference to the intensity. Arsenal were seemingly transformed from the team which seemed to crumble against Chelsea. Suddenly they were a pack predators hunting down a weary, weakened opponent. It wasn’t just the old guard, such as Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic who looked unfit for purpose.
N’Golo Kante was awfully ponderous when Ozil robbed him on 40 minutes, and the man who defied running stats last season was last seen jogging back as the German sprinted clean away. He exchanged passes with Sanchez, who perhaps should have shot, but returned the ball to Ozil, who volleyed it into the ground and saw it loop over Courtois, hit the post and rebound into the net.
If there has been a better 45 minutes for Arsenal in Wenger’s recent years, it was hard to recall it. Chelsea had what might be referred to as a muted response: Hazard fired into the side netting on 45 minutes. And Willian shot just wide of Petr Cech on 21 minutes after good work from Hazard and Diego Costa. Otherwise, they were lamentable: out-run, out-battled and out-classed