1) The Chelsea fans who made it will be glad they did. Hopefully. This has been the strangest season at Stamford Bridge, in that one domestic final, a third-placed Premier League finish and a European trophy just doesn’t tally with the mood on the Fulham Road. And, because football is contrary sometimes, this performance – or at least the second 45 minutes of it – was weirdly incongruous with almost everything that preceded it.
This was the team that lost 4-0 at Bournemouth, who were beaten by Wolves, and who conceded six to Manchester City and three to Tottenham. And yet: a first trophy of Maurizio Sarri’s career, a thumping 4-1 win over a London rival (to deny them Champions League football), and the sweetest end to what, in apparently false perception, has been a thoroughly rotten campaign.
Only Chelsea have seasons like this. Who knows why, but it just seems typical that after all the bitching, the discord, and the rumours of managerial sackings, they are walking away with a European title.
2) Arsenal? The detail was never going to matter. We’re led to believe that the club’s financial situation is such that, with a likely budget of £45m for the summer, Champions League qualification was fundamental to their chances of competing for the top four next season.
In that respect, this was a binary scenario: either they’d win or they’d lose. The fabric of their defeat is a separate issue, we’ll get to that, but the headlines are gloomy: what are the implications of being locked out of the continent’s elite for another year? Not just in the financial sense, because – as Mediawatch did a fine job of demonstrating this afternoon – the Champions League bounty is often exaggerated, but with regards the club’s prestige.
For the players they hope to attract in the summer, the kind which they desperately need, what is this club’s long-term trajectory perceived to be? It’s another year in the Europa League cold and, in all sorts of ways, that isn’t good for business.
3) Maurizio Sarri’s midfield selection felt like a muddle when it was announced. One of the restricting forces on his side’s football this season has been their failure to move the ball quickly and accurately through the middle of the pitch. The more progressive Ruben Loftus-Cheek was unavailable, there was little Sarri could do about that, but picking Matteo Kovacic ahead of Ross Barkley appeared to be a further misdiagnosis.
In a piece published in The Guardian on Tuesday, Jonathan Wilson wrote of ‘the disjunction between personnel and philosophy’ in Sarri’s Chelsea, and that midfield selection was Wilson’s criticism come to life.
Barkley is an imperfect player with obvious flaws, but he is still relentlessly optimistic. Conversely, Kovacic is more inhibited, his first instinct is always to pass sideways or backwards, and given the issues which persist in Arsenal’s deep midfield and the gaps which typically exist between their centre-halves, Unai Emery would presumably have been delighted at facing such a negative trio.
4) Emery’s tactical imperative was that Chelsea should not be allowed to play short passes into central midfield and that, instead, Andreas Christensen and David Luiz should be forced to pass wide to their full-backs or long towards Olivier Giroud. At its most fluent, Sarri’s football gathers its momentum from short, quick interchanges, and by constructing triangles around the first line of a press.
In response, Arsenal’s front three, with periodic help from Torreira, wedged themselves into that central space, ushering Chelsea away from Jorginho, Kovacic and Kante, and towards the touchline. At half-time, the game had all the makings of a drab 0-0 and, unlikely as it sounds now, that was largely because Arsenal’s strategy worked.
5) Arsenal’s plan for Eden Hazard was clear and, actually, borrowed from Jose Mourinho’s playbook. As the Portuguese did for Lionel Messi in the 2010 Champions League semi-final, Emery sought to marginalise Hazard by building a three-sided prison around him. Most often in that familiar left-sided position in which the Belgian likes to prowl, with Lucas Torreira, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sokratis closing in on his every touch.
6) Again, another early success: it worked relatively well. Hazard can be subdued, but rarely is he nullified completely. Nevertheless, while he simmered with latent intent throughout the first 45 minutes, enjoying plenty of touches and at one point playing Jorginho into a dangerous position, Arsenal denied him the opportunity to be a proper influence. Half of the battle with Hazard is keeping him away from his favourite areas – either on the left corner of the box or just in front of the D – and forcing him instead to wander and to look for space.
7) Unfortunately, the problem with placing such emphasis on one player is that, invariably, it creates space somewhere else. Emerson spent most of the evening sneaking into those blind spots down the left and, having seen a good chance blocked in the first half, he was the source of the opening goal.
It was hardly a surprise, either, given the pattern of the first Premier League game between these sides, all the way back in August. All four full-backs were incredibly influential in that 3-2 at Stamford Bridge, penetrating the final third at will and lashing wasted cut-backs across the area.
Tonight, the finishing was more reliable: Laurent Koscielny might have reacted quicker to Olivier Giroud’s run across him – especially so given how well they know each other – but the header was exceptional and fitting of the occasion.
8) The other observation from Stamford Bridge was the number of chances each side gave up to players arriving late in the box. Unfortunately for Arsenal, that trend continued in Baku. Again, the over-focus on Hazard was complicit, with Pedro drifting into space far too easily and carving across Cech to double Chelsea’s lead.
It was an ugly goal to concede, in spite of the stylish flourish at its end. Torreira’s greatest strength is his energy and the yapping, persistent nuisance he brings to a game, but his failure to track Pedro’s run in the build-up was inexcusable. Torrerira would later leave the pitch in tears and while it’s unpleasant to pile on a young player for a mistake, his indiscipline felt characteristic of the lack of positional discipline which has lurked in Arsenal’s midfield all season.
9) Maybe the entire second half was indicative of what Arsenal currently are. They’re in transition and they’re under new management this season, those are important caveats, but they’re still a very superficial side. Emery is a bright mind, he’s also notoriously diligent in his analysis and preparation, but no matter his plans, dysfunction never seems too far away from his Arsenal.
The speed with which two-nil because three suggests emotional weakness, particularly given how ridiculous Maitland-Niles’s challenge on Giroud in the box was, but that accusation has been levelled at Arsenal so often now that it just feels like a reflexive habit. Lazy, even, because it’s too strange a characteristic to be that simple.
10) Maitland-Niles shouldn’t be treated harshly. He wasn’t as prominent in the attacking phases, but until Arsenal’s collective implosion he coped well with the threats he faced. Yes, he was probably sucked too far in-field for Chelsea’s first goal and, clearly, the penalty he gave away was horribly rash, but those moments were more symptom than cause. He’s not a natural full-back. He’s certainly not a natural wing-back. Hector Bellerin’s injury has given him a first-team opportunity, but it’s been a mixed blessing and that little-boy-lost look he wore for most of the second half was that of a mid-season convert who had been let down by the positional specialists around him.
11) Chelsea aren’t selling Eden Hazard at exactly the right time. If, as expected, he completes a move to Real Madrid in the coming weeks, they’ll be losing a rare player at the very peak of his powers.
He got the send-off he deserved. It wasn’t a Hazard performance for the ages, it wasn’t full of those scything runs and great swashes of flair, but the effect he had on the game in the abstract was testament to what he’s been in English football. He frightens defenders, he makes them panic even when he’s on the game’s periphery. Defences contort themselves to contain him, he stretches their concentration up to and beyond its breaking point.
As was in evidence in Baku, that is a very destructive quality.
His career at Chelsea (has likely) finished in the way it should: with one more classy touch and a finish made to look deceptively easy. They’ll miss him, of course, but so will you. Players like that are scarce, they make English football richer.
12) But is Sarri a rare coach? A unique personality and unusually stubborn, certainly, but the trenches were dug a long time ago and the atmosphere seems set against him. Ultimately, what has winning the Europa League proved? That Chelsea are better than Arsenal and belong in the Champions League? Maybe, but the supporters were already convinced about both of those things and a canter past a flagging opponent in a very strange atmosphere is unlikely to buy him anything more than cursory goodwill.
So then what? The complication in this performance was that it had just enough substance to be seductive. Those midfield concerns proved illusory, Giroud fully justified his selection and was the pivot Sarri has needed, and even Jorginho’s distribution flickered with unusual intent. Is this a tease, or something worth building on?
Or, to put in another way, has this season been such a catastrophe that the only option is to burn the house down once again? Chelsea, even at a point of absolute triumph, are baffling.