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Sep 29, 2012

New Arsenal, same old problems

London's two challengers for the Premier League have both begun 2012-13 with a new look and a fresh approach, but the balance of power remains the same. The first true test of Arsenal's mettle had them second-best to Chelsea, just as they have been for a long eight years.

Once their creativity had been dulled by some hard-edged Chelsea defending, defensive errors cost the Gunners dear. Winning ugly - with a sprinkling of beauty spots - kept Chelsea top of the Premier League. Europe's champion club are yet to truly sparkle but they are unbeaten and have won all but one domestic game. Their work in progress is yielding results.

The new Arsenal, meanwhile, came unstuck when old failings reared their head. It may have been a first win at the Emirates since 2009 for the Blues, but this match suggested that the gap between the sides could yet widen. For all Arsenal's promising signs, and there were some to cling on to, their London rivals look on a steeper trajectory of development.

"We played against a good team yet we gave the game away," lamented Arsene Wenger who admitted that his team had "completely" failed their second big test in a week, after last Sunday's draw at Manchester City.

"Defensively we were just not at the level we need to be in a game like that," he continued. "We have to show more personality and authority for the goals we conceded."

Chelsea, for perhaps the first time since the Abramovich era began, even going as far back as the 1970s, were the team attempting to supply the midfield feints and flicks. The surges and patience of Frank Lampard were replaced by a triumvirate of playmakers in Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. But these are not players to stand back and admire their own handiwork. All three worked manfully in denying Arsenal space in midfield, before then going on to link well when breakaways were staged.

And the twinkle-toed trio are augmented by colleagues who have long known how to get the job done against Arsenal. Ramires and John Obi Mikel provided a fine shield in front of a defence where John Terry and Ashley Cole were barracked for their every touch. Even in the circumstances of this week's affairs, such activity almost registers as tradition for this particular London fixture. If ever there are two players used to playing through such a verbal barrage, then it is them.

Terry, who ended his day's work by handing his boots to a kid in the crowd, was unbowed. For him, the field of play is often the best place to hide from the madness. "It was the right choice to pick him today," said Roberto Di Matteo. "I am very pleased with the performance. We played a very good team and we didn't allow Arsenal to get into any rhythm."

Terry and Cole offered poise, providing a leadership and calm unmatched by their equivalents in the Arsenal line-up. And Petr Cech, who had what Wenger called an "outstanding" match, with one save from Lukas Podolski was especially excellent. On such foundations is a title challenger built.

Recent suggestions of Steve Bould reviving the obdurate Arsenal defending of his heyday have proved premature. Defending set-pieces still requires work - a great deal of work, in fact. Just as against City, Arsenal's organisation and application denied them. Last week, they had to fight their way back to draw after such a mistake. This time, a doubling of the error meant that the margin to make up was too wide.

Laurent Koscielny allowed himself to be rolled in a grapple with Torres and the Spaniard's reflex finish was excellent. The hapless Frenchman then got the final touch when Juan Mata, as with the first, drilled a wickedly-placed ball across the Arsenal backline. It was the type of defending that has too often cost Arsenal in the days since Bould and co retired, give or take the Invincibles of 2003-04.

"The difference between us and Chelsea when the ball was in the air is obvious," said Wenger. "On the day, when you play at home, you do not expect to concede two set pieces. You then have to take all your risks, and open yourself up."

A confident Torres would seem to spell likely glory for Chelsea yet barely a minute after his goal he revealed signs of malaise. A mistake by Thomas Vermaelen granted him freedom to bear down on Vito Mannone. It also gave him time to think. That can be fatal for latterday Torres. He dithered and dallied and was soon eaten up by Arsenal's rescue squad. He remains a £50 million enigma, capable of brilliance but also ponderous moments that can only reveal self-doubt. That delay allowed Arsenal back into a game that should have already been beyond them.

Another man whose finishing is so often lamented is Gervinho yet his equalising goal was that of a consummate finisher. Gerd Muller himself would have been delighted with the Ivorian's pirouette turn and powerful, unerring shot. Indeed, the last player to patent that type of goal in this fixture was Gervinho's compatriot, Didier Drogba, so long Chelsea's not-so secret weapon against the Gunners.

And if Arsenal lack a defensive organiser in the style of Terry, then they are still bereft of a finisher in the style of, yes, Robin Van Persie. Of the new arrivals, both Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud were supplied with chances to score an undeserved equaliser. Both missed. Giroud's late slash wide met with howls of indignation from an Arsenal fanbase who were beginning to feel optimistic about their new team but now find themselves lamenting old problems.

To compound the sense of déjà vu, Abou Diaby, a driving force this season, limped off with a thigh injury set to keep him out for "three weeks, minimum", according to his downcast but brutally frank manager.

"I never look back, I always look forward," said Arsene Wenger, but it is Chelsea's future which looks far the brighter.

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