Arsenal should be celebrating victory over Chelsea - instead the same old defensive mistakes let them down again

Jack Pitt-Brooke
The Independent
Against Chelsea, Arsenal's defending was as bad as ever: Getty
Against Chelsea, Arsenal's defending was as bad as ever: Getty

This was the first time in years that Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere all played well at the same time, and for 90 minutes too. It could have been one of the great Arsenal performances of recent times, a long overdue combination of their best players, a rare big night when they all play with the handbrake off, as Arsene Wenger likes to put it.

But they only took a point, and that earned in added time at the end through Hector Bellerin. Even that they nearly lost in the final seconds when Davide Zappacosta thumped the ball against the cross-bar.

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So why were Arsenal left frustrated again at their inability to turn performances into points, their greatest single problem in recent years? Because of the same defensive mistakes that have plagued them all season, and before that.

Since Christmas, Arsene Wenger has abandoned his brief dalliance back with a back four to return to the back five which has characterised Arsenal’s play for the last year. After seeing how his side was overrun by Liverpool here on 22 December, lucky to only concede three, he realised that the expected improvement in creating chances and incisive play with the 4-2-3-1 was not worth it. His team had to try to lock games down better than they had been.

But when they went to Crystal Palace they conceded twice to a team not exactly built to create chances. The three centre-backs were powerless to stop Wifried Zaha darting down the left, getting a ball into the box for Andros Townsend to finish. At West Bromwich Albion on new year’s eve they let their win slip by conceding a late penalty.

Then here against Chelsea the defending, despite the extra man, was as bad as ever, reminiscent of the recent games with Manchester United and Liverpool, on 2 and 22 December. On both of those nights Arsenal conceded three goals and it was only poor finishing, especially from Alvaro Morata, that limited Chelsea to two here.

With no Nacho Monreal or Laurent Koscielny this was always going to be a patched-together Arsenal back three, but this game was further evidence of why Calum Chambers was not involved at all in the Premier League before the trip to Selhurst Park. He was next to Shkodran Mustafi, nominally the senior man in this backline but also a defender who has shown himself to be prone to recklessness during his time at Arsenal.

All night Morata and Eden Hazard found it too easy to slice through Arsenal, and Hazard set up another good chance for Cesc Fabregas with a clever flick late in the first half. But Fabregas could only fire over.

Even when the two Chelsea goals came, after Wilshere had put Arsenal ahead, it was because of individual errors and miscommunication among a tired Arsenal backline. First Hector Bellerin kicked Hazard in the box, too late to win the ball, sending Hazard sprawling before he converted the penalty. Then, the goal which put Chelsea 2-1 up, came when Ainsley Maitland-Niles allowed Zappacosta to get a cross in from the right and no-one picked up the run of Marcos Alonso into the box.

Marcos Alonso thought he had won the game (Getty)
Marcos Alonso thought he had won the game (Getty)

It was like the goal Andros Townsend scored for Palace on 28 December: what is the point of Arsenal having three centre-backs when they cannot stop goals from low crosses into the box like that?

Bellerin managed to make amends with his brilliantly taken goal to make it 2-2 but even then there was still time for Morata to race through another huge gap that should not have existed. Fortunately for Arsenal his shot his Petr Cech, and Zappacosta’s hit the bar. Arsenal, as they did against Liverpool 12 days ago, escaped with a point.

When Wenger was discussing that game, and explaining what his preferred defensive system was, he joked that in his heart of hearts, rather than a back four or a back five, he would rather just play one defender. There are some nights – like this one – when it looks like his players have taken it slightly too literally.

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