LONDON — When Arsene Wenger gets things right, there are few greater sights in football. Against Chelsea on Saturday, the Arsenal manager was spot-on. If he can replicate this kind of performance in the coming weeks, there is a real chance of the Premier League trophy returning to the Emirates after a 12-year absence.
The 3-0 victory over Chelsea was a triumph in many ways. It came at the beginning of a week that will see the Frenchman lauded for his two decades in charge in north London. It came in a derby where Arsenal had failed to score in the past six league meetings and picked up a mere two points. Most satisfyingly, it was against a side that have bullied Wenger’s team relentlessly in recent years. At the Emirates, it was Chelsea who left whimpering and feeling persecuted instead.
Arsenal opened like a whirlwind. So often the north London club have shown more style than substance, but right from the off, they were in charge and determined to push home their dominance. Wenger left Olivier Giroud on the bench and started with a front four of Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott, Alex Iwobi and Mesut Ozil. Some questioned the lack of physicality up front, but it was a masterstroke as Chelsea’s tottering defence could not cope with Arsenal’s pace.
The threat was twofold. On the ball, the home side were quick and vibrant, their movement disrupting Antonio Conte’s plan to keep his team compact and disciplined. Off the ball, Arsenal created even more chaos. They pressed Chelsea deep in their own half, and their work rate in closing down opponents denied the visitors time on the ball.
It paid off. Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill have been below par all season; Sanchez added to their discomfort by harrying them relentlessly. When the Serb felt the pressure of the press in the Arsenal half, he looked backwards to Cahill. The Chilean attacker seemed to have read his thought process even before the Chelsea full-back had acted. The back pass to Cahill was undercooked, but even then, Sanchez was second favourite to get to the ball. The Englishman was slow of thought and foot, though, and the Arsenal forward was the opposite. Sanchez nicked the ball, bore down on goal from 40 yards and looped the ball over the onrushing Thibaut Courtois with ease. Just 12 minutes had gone and Chelsea looked in disarray.
Conte’s team had started the game happy to let the home side have the ball until they reached the edge of the Chelsea box. It looked like Wenger had read the Italian strategist’s mind and seen the policy’s flaws. Their system allowed Ozil time on ball.
Given room and the right sort of movement ahead of him, the German is deadly. He was instrumental in the second goal, which came two minutes later. Flitting around the midfield, Ozil luxuriated in the open space and drew the packed blue lines out of shape. Iwobi, ranging in front of him, was similarly unnerving to a static Chelsea line. A quick exchange with the German left the 20-year-old with room to survey the area. Hector Bellerin had powered into the box and the rest was simple. Iwobi released the full-back, who squared for Walcott to double the lead. It was too easy.
One of Arsenal’s longstanding flaws is they switch off when things appear to be going their way. Against Chelsea they kept on full throttle. The third goal, as half-time loomed, illustrated their pace and appetite.
Chelsea were pushing forward without wit or shape and when the ball came out to Ozil on the edge of his own box, N’Golo Kante dived in. The German turned him with contemptuous ease.
There were more than 70 yards between Ozil and the Chelsea goal, but only Cahill, David Luiz and Courtois barred his way. The Arsenal playmaker charged forward in the company of Sanchez, and the two Arsenal players’ movement flummoxed the defenders in an embarrassing game of two-on-two. Ozil slipped the ball into Sanchez’s path and the Chilean chipped a cross to the back post. Although the German mishit the ball, it looped onto the back post and into the net.
This is the kind of form Wenger needs from his two superstars. They have the ability to match the best players in the Premier League but too often underachieve. Sanchez can become marginalized when he drifts wide, and Ozil sometimes appears frustrated when his teammates do not match his ability. His passes can look like he is testing his colleagues’ control instead of playing to their strengths.
Against Chelsea, both were focused and incisive. Performances of this quality would give Arsenal a real chance to win trophies domestically and in Europe.
There were other good signs for Wenger as his team now look ahead to a Champions League group game with Basel. Santi Cazorla picked out Ozil with beautifully weighted balls, which allowed the German the chance to turn and assess his options. Granit Xhaka, on as a substitute, added new verve and thrust to Arsenal’s game in a second half when they were in control.
At the back, Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi were composed and in control. A partnership could be blooming. Diego Costa, often the nemesis of Arsenal’s defence, failed to push them around. The Chelsea striker lost his cool when Koscielny outmuscled him late on and ended up with a yellow card. It was almost as satisfying to fans at the Emirates as an Arsenal goal.
In this sort of form, Wenger’s team will cause problems for Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, the early pacesetters in this Premier League season. Chelsea were poor and have a multitude of problems, but if Arsenal play at the sort of intensity that swept away Conte’s team, they can trouble any side in Europe. Pressing with such purpose disrupts the best sides, and the Gunners have the pace to take advantage when they force the opposition to turn over possession.
Yet the obvious caveat remains: Arsenal have a bad habit of following good results with mediocre performances. This is where Ozil and Sanchez can lift the side. They are game-changers. The manager just needs them to do it more often. Greatness is just a fingertip away. Wenger needs his superstars to step up on a weekly basis and help him reach it again.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.