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Jan 20, 2013

Gunners caught cold

In terms of the current state of these teams, we know an awful lot about the whats, hows, whys and, especially, the whos. The real question on Sunday, however, seemed to concern the wheres.

Because, while Chelsea finally overcame their own location issues at Stamford Bridge thanks to the raucous atmosphere created by the visit of a team even more unpopular than Rafa Benitez, it's fair to wonder where exactly the second-half Arsenal were for the opening 45 minutes.

This was a hugely curious game that could arguably have served as a case study in the intriguing ways the exact psychology of an individual football match can waver.

In the first half, Chelsea got up for the game earlier, got ahead and Arsenal got overturned. In truth, it should have been a lot worse than 2-0. It was the second successive big Premier League game in which Arsenal started atrociously - right down to one of their players attempting to wrestle an attacker in the box. This time there was no penalty, but that was eventually offset by the generous decision given to Ramires.

Yet, once Arsenal came out for the second half, added a bit more conviction to their tackles, or even began tackling at all, it was startling how much the entire momentum of the game changed. It was almost as if two different teams had come out. Indeed it left a real sense of frustration, both in terms of what the game could have been as a contest and, for Arsenal, what they could have got out of it. It all could have been so different.

"There is a psychological ingredient, for sure," Wenger acknowledged after the match of his team's poor start. As important as mentality is, though, it's still only one facet of the game. And, ultimately, there are still so many questions about the exact quality of this Arsenal team. For all Wenger preaches about how "very good" his squad is and the difficulty of improving it, they just lack so much.

That was exemplified by the pattern of the second half. Although Arsenal absolutely dominated and Chelsea had to hang on to a degree, Benitez's side were never on the edge. There was never quite the sense that Wenger's side were about to push through. "Unfortunately, we didn't make enough of our corners, free-kicks and the chances we created," Wenger claimed. "That's why we lost the game."

The reason Chelsea won it, though, was because they most certainly don't lack that quality - especially not at No. 10. In fact, the Juan Mata goal that unlocked the game and so unravelled Arsenal was of joyous brilliance.

Taking Cesar Azpilicueta's excellent cross-field ball on his in-step with a touch that was almost the equal of Robin van Persie's at West Ham, Mata then lashed the ball past Wojciech Szczesny with a strike that recalled the Dutch forward's key finish in this exact fixture last year.

Indeed, were it not for United's talisman, the Spaniard could well have a strong claim to be the best player in this division at present. He was undeniably the most influential player on the pitch on Sunday and, every time he got the ball, Arsenal's defence seemed to mentally collapse with the prospect of stopping him. It was he who played the ball for Ramires to win the penalty that Frank Lampard so typically despatched.

However, the lead-up to the first goal more fully reflected Arsenal's problems and the eventual difference between the sides. After Olivier Giroud had missed a chance that Mata probably would have taken, Wenger's entire team seemed to fail to take their positions - or take the decision to make a challenge.

"I feel we were not well positioned on the pitch," Wenger accepted. "We were stretched, gave them too much room to play, and didn't defend tight enough. We were always allowing them to play wherever they wanted."

And, although Mata's eventual goal came from a likely foul that referee Martin Atkinson missed, that in itself only illustrated Arsenal's lack of aggression or ability to live with Chelsea's physicality - as well as their finesse - in the first half. Indeed, it was telling that the away side's eventual goal came from a similar foul. It signalled the change in their second-half approach and suitably energised Arsenal so that the players they do have of genuine quality were able to combine.

Although Santi Cazorla has been clearly suffering from fatigue of late and is a few levels below the player that so illuminated the first two months of the season, the pass that took four Chelsea defenders out of the game also took the breath away. Theo Walcott then reaffirmed his importance to the team - in his first appearance since signing a new contract - with a run and finish that, in truth, is beyond a fair number of their players in such clutch moments.

For the remainder of the game, though, the rest of the Arsenal side didn't really get the chance to prove otherwise. Other than an 87th-minute move that forced Ashley Cole into the very definition of a professional foul, Arsenal couldn't truly trouble Chelsea. Giroud toiled and tussled and, although there does look like there is a very effective top-end player eventually there, he still lacks something. As did his side.

Such issues explained Wenger's surprising decision to bring on Andrei Arshavin. The Russian's own decline, though, was perfectly captured in the 81st minute when he attempted a shoulder-drop and jink - the kind he used to excel in when he first arrived in England - only for the ball to run out of play.

Arsenal as a whole, then, didn't so much run out of time as ideas; Chelsea, meanwhile, had finally got through a home game with a win but without any notable abuse of Benitez.

He was asked about that after the game but, just as when he was asked about Frank Lampard's contract and a host of other external issues, the Spaniard had that same response: "I am concentrating on my job and we have to win together, that's it."

For all the issues and bumps Benitez has encountered, meanwhile, it seems he is set to eventually fulfil the main requirement of that job: return Chelsea to the Champions League. It's difficult to see them finishing either above or below third.

To return to the question of where, though, in what position will Arsenal ultimately finish? "It's very damaging for our position in the league and difficult to swallow," Wenger admitted. "We have lost two big games in the last week and that's very damaging for us. We cannot afford to drop points any more if we want to be in the top four."

Yet, despite their Champions League history and despite the fact their fightback last season didn't actually start until much later in the campaign, it is very difficult to not see them dropping out of their customary positions by the season's end. They are seemingly incapable of any kind of sustained run.

The benefit that should have been gleaned from the late win over Swansea, for example, was non-existent and, as much as Wenger can point to the second-half performance as promise for the future, considerable doubt remains as to whether he can solve the recurring issues that were so evident again in the first. Bringing in higher quality may be one solution but, as the Frenchman said: "We'll see what we can do... We are not close to signing anybody tonight or tomorrow morning."

Similarly, they are also no closer to where they ultimately want to finish.

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