LONDON — Three thoughts from Chelsea 3-1 Arsenal in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon.
1. Arsenal’s title hopes end, Chelsea continue charge
The title race is becoming a procession. Chelsea’s 3-1 victory over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge left Antonio Conte’s side 11 points clear at the top of the Premier League. Only the most optimistic of Chelsea’s rivals could imagine overtaking them with 14 games left.
Marcos Alonso scored the opening goal in the 13th minute but Eden Hazard’s classic dribble in the second half illustrated the gap between the teams. Conte’s Chelsea were disciplined, direct and brimming with killer instinct. The final blow came with Arsenal self-destructing. From their own corner, Petr Cech’s errant kick presented Cesc Fabregas with an easy chip for the third goal. Arsene Wenger’s men were shapeless, directionless and lacked fight. Oliver Giroud’s late goal provided little consolation.
The goals told the story. Alonso gave the home side the lead with a strike that was all about appetite. Victor Moses crossed from the right and the ball seemed slightly behind Diego Costa. The striker leaned back and produced a header so powerful that it hit the bar before Cech could get a hand to it.
The question was who would get to the ball first as it dropped. Alonso reacted quickest as the Arsenal defence stood transfixed. Hector Bellerin made a half-hearted attempt to clear but Alonso attacked the ball with aggression and hit both ball and man with force. The header flew into the net and Bellerin was left in a heap on the floor. The Arsenal full-back had to be taken off after suffering concussion but it was no foul. The ball was available and Bellerin’s rather weak attempt to contest the header left him on the back foot and vulnerable in the collision.
The rest of the Arsenal team looked equally stunned by the goal. Costa was allowed to shoot into the side netting and Wenger’s side looked bewildered. Even though the visiting side had plenty of possession, they created little.
When Hazard made the game safe for Chelsea, the winger showed up another of Arsenal’s weak areas. The Belgian picked up a loose ball in the centre circle in his own half in the 53rd minute and only had one thought: running at the Arsenal defence. The winger shrugged off Francis Coquelin, rode a challenge by Alex Iwobi and taunted Laurent Koscielny with a shimmy or two before shooting past Cech into the net. It was a magnificent goal, an illustration of the Chelsea’s killer instinct. Hazard is in unstoppable form and his confidence spreads through the team. It is hard to see any of their top four rivals narrowing the gap at the top of the table.
Arsenal were wretched by the end. When Cech misdirected a weak clearance to Fabregas it looked like complete surrender.
Nacho Monreal’s cross gave Giroud the chance to make the scoreline more respectable but the gap between these teams was massive. Arsenal never looked like taking the points.
2. Sweet revenge for Conte over Wenger
The low point in Conte’s season came at the Emirates in September when Arsenal stormed into a 3-0 lead in the first half and took a dispirited Chelsea apart. How things have changed since then.
Conte restructured the defence and went to a three centre-back system that relies on David Luiz to keep his discipline and not range into midfield as he tended to do earlier in the season. A bigger risk was using Moses and Alonso as wing-backs. The contribution of that duo for the opening goal was obvious but they worked the lines and exploited the space behind the Arsenal full-backs all game.
Luiz looked nervy in the early exchanges — Chelsea suffered a scare when Thibaut Courtois and the Brazilian centre-half dithered instead of clearing and Mesut Ozil stole the ball. His pass set up Iwobi, whose shot was deflected wide.
Luiz then misdirected an easy pass out of play but once he settled, the defence looked more solid. The 29-year-old dropped off into the sweeper position, making himself available as an outlet pass whenever any of the back five were in trouble. He has turned into one of Chelsea’s most solid performers.
For much of the game, Chelsea were content to sit deep and hit the visiting side on the break. It was a strategy that had advantages. Arsenal are prone to giving away possession in dangerous areas and with N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic quickly on any loose balls, the home side were able to spring Hazard and Pedro, whose pace the leaves defenders stranded.
Arsenal were in trouble every time. They were playing catch up literally and metaphorically when Chelsea charged forward.
3. Ozil and Sanchez go missing
Costa and Hazard have been talismanic for Chelsea this season but Arsenal’s superstars were pale imitations. Alexis Sanchez and Ozil possess the talent to power the Gunners towards a title, but too often go missing. They had little impact at Stamford Bridge.
Ozil had a chance just before half time when he found himself free at the back post as the Chelsea defence ball-watched. The German took too long to balance himself to shoot and then changed his mind and dribbled back towards the onrushing Chelsea defenders. The opportunity was wasted.
Too often the 28-year-old seems to put style over substance. His passing range is superb but he imposes himself on games too rarely.
At his best, Sanchez is a danger to any defence but his contribution against Chelsea compared badly to Costa’s rugged display. In the middle of the second half, the Chilean sent in a dangerous cross but there were no Arsenal players in the area to take advantage.
Wenger’s team had plenty of the ball, often deep in the Chelsea half but the lacked incision. With Matic and Kante pressing hard and alert to any mistakes, Chelsea switched from Conte’s organised, disciplined, rigid unit to a flowing, vibrant attacking force in the time it took for Arsenal to misplace a pass.
Arsenal had their chances and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gave Gabriel a splendid opportunity in the first half but the defender’s header was saved superbly by Courtois.
To compete with Chelsea, Wenger’s team had to take their chances, especially with Sanchez and Ozil so ineffective. Instead, they produced a meek performance.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.