Chelsea and Arsenal's divergent paths get painfully highlighted in Premier League loss

Chelsea beating Arsenal 2-0 in their second Premier League game of the season felt predictable - and indicative of the latter's decline.

Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku put in a dominant showing against Arsenal. (Image: Twitter)

There was a brief moment in the second half of the Premier League game between Chelsea and Arsenal that the Gunners began to look lively. Already 2-0 down at that point, Mikel Arteta’s men began to hog the ball and look to get forward. This was in part at least due to the opposition ceding the initiative – something that was understandable given the Blues’ defensive solidity and Arsenal’s toothlessness going forward. It might have offered fans returning to the Emirates Stadium a bit of hope but it was a false dawn. Thomas Tuchel threw on N’Golo Kante, Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech from the bench. Chelsea began to get forward in numbers again. And although they did not score again, one got the feeling they seemed in no danger of conceding either.

And so it proved. Chelsea, fresh off drubbing Crystal Palace 3-0 in their opening league game, went joint top of the table. Arsenal, succumbing to their second straight 2-0 loss, currently sit 19th.

Yes, the league table in the opening weeks means nothing. And yes, there’s every chance Arsenal will get better in the coming weeks, with older pros returning and newer signings becoming more familiar with their surroundings.

Yet the loss felt like much more than your usual derby defeat. It felt like an indication of two clubs, both among the most recognisable in England, taking two very different paths.

Chelsea, the newly-crowned European champions, looked every bit the part of a side many are touting to win the league. Arsenal, for their part, looked dull and uninspired.

But how did it come to this?

It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that both sides were competing in the final of the 2019 Europa League.

Chelsea and Arsenal since 2019 – the trajectories

2018-19 was a key season for Arsenal as they were in their first full season without legendary manager Arsene Wenger. His successor, Unai Emery, had a mixed debut season in England but still managed a fifth-place league finish.

However, that only guaranteed Europa League football. But there was another way to the Champions League available to them – win the Europa League final that year.

Chelsea, for their part, were under new management – again. Antonio Conte’s two-year spell at the club was over and in came Maurizio Sarri from Napoli. However, the chain-smoking Italian struggled in the first few months at the job.

However, a turnaround came in the second half of the season. They ended up finishing third and made the final of the Europa League.

To make things better, they won the trophy and ensured Arsenal would miss out on Champions League qualification for 2019-20.

Emery oversaw a string of poor results that led to his eventual sacking later in his second season. In came Mikel Arteta, a rookie coach but with the experience of having worked under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City for three years.

Things started brightly enough for Arsenal, as they got some key wins and even beat Chelsea to the FA Cup. But finishing eighth the league was not a good look.

A further transfer outlay in the summer did not help and the Gunners once again finished eighth in the league. To make matters worse, the side now look like they have regressed.

Chelsea, by contrast, maintained their top 4 status even during a mixed 2019-20 season with club legend Frank Lampard in charge.

Lampard’s sacking in January brought in Tuchel, who surprised everyone by reaching the FA Cup final, winning the Champions League and finishing fourth in the league.

Why do both sides look so different?

It would be easy to suggest that Chelsea’s spending spree in the summer of 2020 put them in a better position than Arsenal. But that would only be looking at part of the story.

Chelsea’s massive transfer outlay last summer was down to the fact that their transfer ban in 2018 left them with cash aplenty to spend. It was also down to the money they smartly raised from outgoing player sales.

Yet spending money hasn’t been an issue at Arsenal. Indeed, the club have thrown plenty of money at transfers in recent seasons. At present, the issue appears to be about an average squad and a lack of proper playing identity.

For one, Arsenal do not possess a squad as deep as their London rivals. To make matters worse, they had key players – Alexandre Lacazette, Willian and Ben White – missing due to positive COVID-19 tests. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was on the bench, but only because he too recently recovered from COVID-19.

Chelsea, by contrast, could throw on the likes of Werner, Kante and Ziyech from the bench. But it doesn’t just end there.

Where Chelsea differed from their rivals was in having a clear style of play. Tuchel has worked out a system that best suits his players and they have brought in to what the coach wants from them.

Chelsea’s gameplan is simple – the forwards overload the central areas, with the wing-backs providing width. In defence they are well-equipped to both see off persistent danger or guard from counter-attacks.

Arsenal, by contrast, don’t have a set style of play. The passing moves and off-the-ball runs are non-existent in the final third, leaving the side to heave in cross after cross. And the less said about how they defend the better.

Will things get better for Arsenal any time soon?

The simple truth is that, at least in the short term, things will get worse for Arsenal before they get better. Their next league game sees them travel to the Etihad Stadium – the home of defending champions Manchester City.

Favourable fixtures against Norwich and Brighton follow, but after that comes a North London derby against Tottenham. Thus, in the short term, things will probably remain the same.

How the long term goes is up for debate at this point. Guardiola himself has spoken glowingly about Arteta’s tactical nous and how much of a difference he made at City.

Yet the simple fact is that there is little evidence of any positive change at the club right now. There remain far too many squad players simply not up to the job at the side. And the football style lacks purpose.

As of now, there are no major rumblings about Arteta potentially losing his job. But after two transfer windows that have seen a significant outlay, one gets the feeling an immediate upturn is needed to justify still keeping him around as manager.

More of this, after all, will only see the gap between Chelsea and Arsenal grow further.

Shayne Dias

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