Everyone knew Chelsea’s reception of the Gunners would be a tricky one for Arsenal to come out victorious from at Stamford Bridge, a ground the north Londoners had tasted success just once since 2011.
Arsène Wenger’s conundrum began to find its form when Granit Xhaka was shown a red card in the hard-earned 2-1 victory at home to Burnley, a dismissal reciprocated by a then furious Arsenal boss en route to the pair grabbing themselves four-game bans.
That might not have meant a great deal with a cup-tie versus Southampton and a supposedly low-risk clash at home to an off-tune Watford side awaiting the title hopefuls, but it did leave Arsenal at a clear disadvantage against Chelsea in the following fixture.
The trip to the St. Mary’s Stadium proved to be a success, as the Saints also chopped and changed in the fourth round of the FA Cup, but the Gunners’ incompatibilities in midfield were clear versus Watford.
Xhaka-less, whereas Mohamed Elneny was representing his country in the Africa Cup of Nations, Wenger turned to an Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin pairing against the Hornets, a duo that was bypassed with ease and dismembered within 20 minutes via the former’s injury, enough time to leave Arsenal 2-0 down already.
This all conditioned the Gunners’ hand at Stamford Bridge, without key components in midfield, now including Ramsey, and with the added woe of apparent knocks being carried by Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain and Coquelin, the pivot that would be backed against the West London outfit.
With a deep-seated crisis in the middle of the park, Arsenal were tasked with defeating the title favourites, of which the luck with injuries has seen the Blues necessitate to extend their starting XI to no more than 13 players – Quite the contrast.
But even under less than favourable circumstances, the Gunners might well have managed to worsen their chances of withholding success against Antonio Conte’s side.
Wenger opted for a relatively untried Chamberlain – Coquelin pivot, both, as mentioned, reportedly carrying knocks, to set up a two vs. two against Nemanja Matic and the ever-impressive N’Golo Kanté.
The results proved to be obvious, as the Chelsea pair, subsidised by the club’s wing backs, took control in the moments before Marcos Alonso’s opener and, later, took advantage of Arsenal’s middlemen’s physical limitations through counter-attacks.
All facts considered, domination by Kanté and co. was predictable, but the north Londoners might well have made their own bed when fielding just the two central midfielders.
With both Chamberlain and Coquelin failing to transport the ball to the likes of Mesut Özil, the midfield pair were contrarily left to fend for themselves defensively due to the German’s tendencies to not track back.
The same scenario has repeated from time-to-time with a tried and tested side, making Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 look more like a 4-2-4 and highly-susceptible to counter-attacks – a dangerous set-up versus a team of Chelsea’s ilk.
A change many ‘Gooners’ have called for is a transition to a 4-3-3 set-up, pushing Özil into a forward role instead, and it’s a formation that could have been debuted against the Premier League leaders even with limited options.
On the bench sat Ainsley Maitland-Niles, a wide man by trade, but one that has excelled in a central role on more than one occasion. Could the energetic youngster not have added something this Saturday? With Chamberlain and Coquelin supposedly not in peak condition, how could you not turn to an extra body for help?
Today will go down as a missed opportunity for Wenger and his men to have closed the gap on their title rivals, and in Maitland-Niles’ addition they may have discarded their only hope of being disciplined enough to do so.