If you’d tuned into this match by accident, you may have thought you were watching an episode of “Premier League Years” from around 2006. Chelsea defeated Arsenal in the Premier League yet again, winning 2-0 on Saturday, and while Arsene Wenger ended his poor run against Jose Mourinho with last month’s Community Shield victory, his league record against his bitterest rival remains hugely underwhelming. Sometimes, it feels like Arsenal simply don’t learn.
This wasn’t quite the archetypal Chelsea win over Arsenal, in fairness. In previous years Chelsea would have simply overpowered Arsenal with a fierce, ferocious and determined midfield diamond, before Didier Drogba battered a meek Arsenal back line. Or they might have outmanoeuvred Arsenal tactically by gaining a midfield numbers advantage or simply by being more efficient at transitions.
Here, Chelsea again defeated Arsenal by being clever but in a more devious, underhanded way. Whatever you think of Diego Costa’s behaviour, it hardly comes as a surprise — Costa has become renowned for his wind-up antics as much as his goal scoring, and Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel Paulista should have been fully aware of this threat. They should have been prepared. Instead, they fell into Costa’s trap, just as Arsenal have so often fallen into Mourinho’s tactical trap.
Predictably, Arsene Wenger was unhappy with Costa’s antics. “[It seems] he can do what he wants — he stays on the pitch, and everyone else who responds to him has to be sent off,” Wenger said.
“I think [his behaviour is] unacceptable and what he does to Koscielny before, he pushes him down, he hits him in the face before the throw, and he always gets away with it, it’s quite surprising.
“I don’t understand Mike Dean’s decision at all, not on the sending-off. Why does Diego Costa stay on the pitch, but Gabriel is sent off?”
Wenger did admit, however, that his players should have composed themselves and been aware of the threat.
“Koscielny has no choice [because he was hit]. Gabriel is guilty for getting involved, of course, he should not have responded at all. We were not surprised [by Costa’s antics] but you expect the right decision. I don’t deny that Gabriel should have been sent off — he deserves it.”
There are, however, essentially two different things happening in this one incident.
The first is simply Costa’s needless foul on Koscielny, striking him in the face as the duo are jostling for position inside the penalty box with the ball nowhere near them. That’s simply foul play, perhaps even violent conduct, and should clearly be condemned. When questioned, Wenger said he didn’t hold out much hope that Costa would be charged by the FA, but it’s the type of event they could, on paper, become involved in.
Diego Costa deserved more punishment for his actions vs. Arsenal but the Gunners fell for his antics in a costly defeat.
The other part is simply silly wind-up stuff that Arsenal should have coped with. When Koscielny confronted Costa just afterwards, the two bumped chests and Koscielny fell to the floor, reminiscent of Jens Lehmann’s and Drogba’s even sillier squabble here in a 1-1 back in 2006.
That was perhaps the most ridiculous, pantomime-style dispute you could ever see on a football pitch: Lehmann pushing Drogba and the Ivorian falling over comically. Then the Ivorian running over to Lehmann, bumping into him and the German falling to ground in ridiculous fashion too.
It was all a nonsense. But at least Arsenal weren’t actively being outwitted in that sense; in Lehmann, they had perhaps the most prolific wind-up merchant in the Premier League. The German did plenty of bizarre, unnecessary things during games, and the fact that he’s such an intelligent, articulate man away from the pitch means either he lost his head completely when he stepped onto the pitch or was simply trying to provoke opponents on a regular basis.
And that’s what the Arsenal side of the mid-2000s had: they were certainly a brilliant footballing side but they could also attempt to gain the upper hand in matches by less conventional means. They were technically brilliant, but also wily, cunning and sometimes deceitful. The scenes after Ruud van Nistelrooy’s penalty miss at Old Trafford in 2003 were terrible, but deep down, Arsenal fans would have been delighted they were sticking together and up for the fight.
Players like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp were sneakier than often documented; the former’s dark side can be summarised by his handball against Ireland in a World Cup 2010 playoff, admittedly a couple of years after he’d left Arsenal. Patrick Vieira often behaved badly, Robert Pires was no angel, and a couple of years ago Freddie Ljungberg was talking about how much he loved playing in front of Lauren. “If someone kicked me,” the Swede said, on national television, “then he’d kick the s— out of him.”
Violent conduct isn’t acceptable, but winding up the opposition is a different matter. After Wenger’s news conference, Mourinho stressed the importance of players keeping their emotions in check throughout derby matches.
“I played against Arsenal 12, 15, 18 times? I don’t know,” he said. “Only once, [Wenger] didn’t moan. On that day [the Community Shield], we lost the game, we lost the cup. It was not good for us, but we behaved in a fantastic way, no excuses, no crying, not moaning.
“I played my derby on twenty-something of September 2000, Benfica v Porto, I told my players before the game that to win derbies, you must have emotional control. If you forget that, you don’t win. I’ve played derbies in Portugal, Spain, Italy and England and it’s something I repeat every derby: you don’t win without emotional control, it’s a basic thing of the game.”
Arsenal’s inability to control their emotions proved costly vs. Chelsea. It’s a side of the game they have yet to master.
When pressed about the Costa incident, Mourinho deflected all questions. “I think you should speak,” he started, raising his voice, “about Gabriel! Paulista! You should speak about him, and his mistakes.
“If you want to speak about Diego Costa with me? He played like he has to play, that’s why you have a full stadium, you have televisions around the world with millions and millions watching because the game has to be played like that. That’s why tomorrow I go, to what I consider comparable in terms of passion, in dedication: New Zealand vs. Argentina [in the Rugby World Cup], because I love it.”
When pressed further on Costa, he didn’t say much about the specific incident. “Man of the match, for me,” with his typical mock sincerity.
And, in a sense, it’s true. Costa looked badly out of form when the ball was played into his feet yet he got an opponent sent off, which proved the turning point, the moment Chelsea became in control. It wasn’t the most admirable piece of sporting play but it was certainly effective.
That’s the type of thing Arsenal are still lacking.
Michael Cox is the editor of Zonal Marking and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.