Eleven years on from their first meeting, Arsene Wenger has yet to defeat Jose Mourinho in a competitive game. This unenviable record was made all the more bitter for Gunners fans today, by the loss of both Gabriel and Santi Cazorla to red cards. While Mike Dean will bear the brunt of the blame for this, why is it not the players, or Wenger himself, that the spotlight must be turned on?
I’ve already written at length about Costa in an earlier article, but it’s worth once again analysing his worth. Costa creates space, runs tirelessly, and most of all, he causes the opposition to lose their concentration. He ended the first half by pushing Laurent Koscielny in the face, pushing him over, and then being pushed in turn by Gabriel. After accepting his yellow card, he then claimed he was stamped on by Gabriel, leading to the latter’s red card. In the second half, he pushed over Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, off the ball, and in general seemed to be comfortable in his ability to keep Arsenal’s defence on their toes. Costa was branded ‘disgraceful’ by Wenger in the post-match interview, but is it a term he deserves?
Well firstly, what makes a footballer ‘disgraceful’? In my opinion, it would include a player who dives, a player who feigns injury, or a player who often makes rash challenges. Are Arsenal innocent of having players like that? Is any team? Has Wenger forgotten Wilshire’s attempted head-butt on Marouane Fellaini? Has he forgotten the entire career of Patrick Vieira? Costa operates on thin ice, but he has almost always been punished for his misdemeanours. Consider the alleged stamp on Emre Can last year- he was given a three game ban, rather than ‘getting away with it.’ Costa is confrontational but not especially violent. He’s aggressive but you wouldn’t expect him to actually do anything. He deserves the yellow cards that he gets, but I wouldn’t say he necessarily deserves a red.
And why does the blame not go on Arsenal’s players? Gabriel’s challenge on Eden Hazard was arguably a penalty. Firstly, once he had a yellow card, Gabriel then kicked out idiotically on Costa- why should Costa not react? Less than a minute previously, Koscielny had gone down clutching his face when pushed by Costa’s chest- why is it only Costa who gets the blame? Saying that Costa ‘wound him up’ isn’t enough. Gabriel is a professional footballer.He is also an adult. He needs to learn to not react.
Secondly, Santi Cazorla. Aside from a majestic pass to Walcott early in the game, Cazorla was a mistake waiting to happen. His second yellow was obviously ridiculous, but it came as the second stupidly late challenge since his first yellow card (he also had upended Hazard around five minutes previously). Cazorla was the captain today. You need to think, you need to be calm, and you definitely need to stay on the pitch when you’re down to ten men.
For Chelsea, the game against Wenger once again went according to plan. But Arsene has pulled the most Mourinho trick in the book- finding anything to blame. Costa, as usual, is an easy target. So is Mike Dean. But Arsenal were very, very poor in the first half, with one shot on target. Walcott is very obviously unable to compete against a top class defence, and even when he found himself in space, shot a weak side foot straight to Asmir Begovic. Alexis Sanchez was uncharacteristically poor. Ozil was characteristically non-existent. Look through the game for any moment with Ramsey where the ball didn’t go straight through to Begovic, or out for a goal kick. It’s ridiculous to claim that Arsenal had a foothold in the game up until Gabriel’s red card, and were robbed of victory.
Plus, why should ten men have so little of a chance against eleven? Chelsea are in their worst from for 17 years, a routine win against a limited Tel Aviv side notwithstanding. They have let in at least two goals a game. Ivanovic has been routinely pointed out as the weak link in a surprisingly shaky defence, playing against one of the best wingers in the league. Arsenal offered nothing today. They became, as is becoming increasingly obvious, disheartened as soon as Gabriel was sent off. While it completely changes your game plan to lose any player, Arsenal’s passing style means that these losses should be mitigated- in essence, the two players that were sent off are probably the ones that it was best to lose- a central midfielder and a limited centre-back. Ozil and Alexis were on the pitch, creating one shot about 15 yards past the post between them. Coquelin, who is meant to be Arsenal’s defensive lynchpin, was more like a hatpin.
Their lack of fluidity, and more importantly, of preparation, were more of an undoing than Mike Dean’s decision making. Right at the death, Arsenal didn’t even go on the attack- Chelsea were only one goal ahead, Arsenal were down to nine players- what was the harm in going all out? Once again, Wenger’s inability to adapt was his undoing. The defining moment came late in the 70th minute, an Arsenal cross from the left headed out only to Aaron Ramsey in acres of space 20 yards out, who didn’t hit it hard and low with his first or even second touch, instead turning on to his weaker left foot- making it obvious he would turn once again, straight into Kurt Zouma, who cleared. It’s becoming ever more obvious for Arsenal.
To summarise, yes, Diego Costa uses every trick in the book- but so have hundreds of players for years. Craig Bellamy has never really been criticised for using the exact same approach. Nor has El-Hadj Diouf, who spit at players. Wayne Rooney’s early years, when he was good, are full of the same thing. And nor, really, has Roy Keane, the master of the dirty challenge. The real truth is that Arsenal were rigid in their fluidity, the same problems of avoiding to shoot are still there, and Wenger still has so much to learn.