“Boring, boring, Chelsea!” the Arsenal fans sang at the Emirates on Sunday, reviving an old favorite but changing the name of the team.
After the game ended, 0-0, the Chelsea players made it clear how little they cared what the home fans felt. John Terry punched the air. Branislav Ivanovic and Didier Drogba hugged exuberantly. Ramires jumped for joy. The draw kept Chelsea 10 points clear of Manchester City and Arsenal. By José Mourinho’s math, Chelsea needs a maximum of five points to seal the title. Chelsea and Arsenal have five games left. City has just four.
“It’s a big step towards where we want to go,” Terry told Sky TV after the game. “Listen, it’s still not done mathematically, it’s still possible for other teams to catch us, but it’s a big step. The main thing coming here today was not to let Arsenal gain points.”
The team Mourinho picked certainly suggested he had come to the Emirates to draw. Chelsea started without a recognized striker. Yet for the first 45 minutes the match was anything but boring. Arsenal played some sparkling passing soccer, yet was repeatedly inches away from breaking through.
“In the dangerous situations, we lacked the right decisions,” Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, told Sky.
That’s not the whole story. Chelsea is tied with Southampton for meanest defense in the Premier League. Chelsea made Arsenal’s decisions look bad.
“This was the best performance I have ever seen from John Terry from a defensive point of view,” Mourinho told Sky.
Yet Chelsea was not content to simply defend. It surged forward to counter-attack at every opportunity.
“I think everyone expected us to come and sit like we did with Man U, but we come and we give it a go and it was kind of end to end a little bit probably a little bit too much,” said Terry, a man who dislikes the past tense. “It’s what we didn’t want really.”
Chelsea had the best chances to score. After 15 minutes, Héctor Bellerín cleared off the line from Oscar who was demolished by Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina after shooting. That was one of three penalty appeals by Chelsea in the first half.
Oscar played the remainder of that half but was taken to a hospital at half time with suspected concussion. Mourinho performed some tactical magic. He replaced a midfielder with a center forward, Drogba and somehow made Chelsea far more defensive.
“Second half we was more in control,” Terry said. “We kept the ball a lot more.”
Terry often gives the impression that he is rehearsing for a career as a referee after he stops playing. This time he was unconcerned by the penalty decisions.
“I think he probably got them right, all of them,” Terry said of the referee, Michael Oliver.
Terry wasn’t interested in talking in the past tense. He was focused on the future.
“We are almost there,” Terry said. “The job’s in our hands.”
Plan B – Louis van Gaal’s words said he blamed the attitude of his team as Manchester United lost, 3-0, at Everton on Sunday. His actions suggested he knew that the formation which had worked so well for a couple of months had been cracked by the opposition.
Marouane Fellaini terrorized opponents before he ran into Kurt Zouma at Chelsea last week. On Sunday, after spurning one glorious early chance, Gareth Barry and James McCarthy shut him down. By the end of the half Fellaini was frustrated, on a yellow card and ready to explode. Van Gaal took him off.
If there was a Plan B, it didn’t work. None of the players Van Gaal brought on – Radamel Falcao, Ángel di Maria and, finally, Robin van Persie – altered the game, although that might have had something to do with Van Gaal’s reluctance to alter his lone-striker formation.
Part of United’s problem was that it fell behind quickly to a goal from McCarthy and conceded a second 10 minutes before half time to John Stones.
“In the second half we have to play against a very defensive organization,” Van Gaal told the BBC.
Van Gaal blamed the attitude of his players at the start.
“That was the first match that I found the opponent more aggressive and more motivated,” he said. “We started too late because after four minutes the goal was already conceded and we lost three duels in a row.”
Yet for the second straight week United dominated possession and could do nothing with it. The problem for Van Gaal is not simply motivation.
Bitter exes – There are few things fans love more than hating returning heroes who have spurned them. But sometimes it is hard to let go of the warm memories from the time before the relationship went sour.
At Goodison, the Evertonians‘ bowl of joy at crushing Manchester United could be enjoyed with two cherries on top. One former player who had abandoned them for the luxury of Old Trafford, Fellaini, was yanked off at half time. The other, Wayne Rooney, limped off before the end.
True hatred was in the air later on Sunday as Cesc Fàbregas made his first appearance in Chelsea blue at the Emirates. Fàbregas wore a mask. The home fans still recognized the man who had spurned Arsenal not once, but twice. If he wasn’t wearing earplugs as well, Fàbregas could not have avoided hearing what fans who once adored him thought. They made it very clear, very loudly and not very politely, every time he touched the ball.
Their joy reached a crescendo when Fàbregas, who had another drab game, received a yellow card for diving in the penalty area.
Yet when Mourinho decided to remove Fàbregas just before the end, forcing the midfielder to walk alone to the sideline with play stopped, a strange thing happened. As the whistles and catcalls rose again, so did many of the Arsenal fans. The silent majority stood and applauded their former captain.
Own it – The British media could not agree Sunday whether three quarters of possession equaled nine-tenths of the law. What was clear after Liverpool enjoyed 74.8 percent of the ball at West Brom on Saturday was that the key statistic was zero in a game that ended level at 0-0, despite the imbalance in possession.
That stat might have something to do with West Brom. This was a Tony Pulis side that needed just one point to pretty much ensure Premier League survival. It wasn’t pretty, but the Baggies did it.
There is a correlation between possession and results but it is far from ironclad. There is, however, a clear link between a team failing to turn possession into goals and a manager talking about buying a goalscorer, as Brendan Rodgers has been in the past week.
After 33 matches last season, Liverpool had scored 90 goals. This season the Reds have hit 47. One factor might be that Rodgers spent much of the first half of the season emphasizing defense. He’s been rewarded. Liverpool has conceded four fewer than at this stage last year. Attacking personnel also has something to do with drop in goals scored.
Luis Suárez ended last season with 31 league goals followed by Daniel Sturridge on 21 and Steven Gerrard with 13. This season, Suárez is in Barcelona, Gerrard, who is fading, has six and Sturridge, who is forever injured, just four. The top scorer is Raheem Sterling with seven, and he might be the next star to believe the cash is greener elsewhere.
"Goals have been missing" all season, Rodgers told the BBC after the game.
All statisticians can agree with that.
Many a slip – Saturday was not a good day for the companies that spend a fortune persuading players to sport their footwear. The fluorescent uppers shone brightly in the spring sunshine. But underneath the boots were losing their grip.
At St Mary’s, where Southampton and Spurs drew 2-2, the field looked as perfect as a pool table. It played like a frozen pond. Ryan Mason’s slip with no one near presented Southampton with the chance that became the opening goal. Further slips led to Tottenham’s Ben Davies being carried off with a damaged shoulder and Morgan Schneiderlin, after performing the splits, limping off with an injured knee.
At Turf Moor, Matt Taylor’s standing foot slipped as he took a penalty for Burnley. The shot hit the post. Less than a minute later, James Vardy scored the goal that gave Leicester a 1-0 victory. Leicester climbed out of the bottom three. Burnley remained bottom. If the Clarets goes down, Taylor might do some sole searching.
But the worst bit of footwork was at the Etihad Stadium. After three minutes, Brad Guzan, Aston Villa’s American goalie, seemed to kick the ground as he attempted a pass. He scuffed the ball to Sergio Agüero who popped it into the empty net.
Guzan’s attempted pass broke a full house of cardinal rules. He was standing to the side when he tried it, leaving the net unprotected. He was passing across the face of his own goal. He forgot he was a goalkeeper and thought he was a real football player as he attempted a first-time pass when he should just have booted the ball away.
Villa outplayed the champion for much of the game, but lost 3-2.
Blame Guzan’s boots.