Saturday evening saw Arsenal comfortably win was what seen by many as a must win game for Unai Emery’s side versus their London/traditional top four rivals Chelsea at The Emirates. Aided by another lethargic and ordinary Chelsea performance, two first half goals from Alexandre Lacazette and captain Laurent Koscielny were more than enough to ensure that Arsenal moved just three points off Maurizio Sarri’s side in the table. And with Manchester United securing their sixth league win a row under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer over Brighton at Old Trafford, they too are now just three points behind fourth spot which seemed like an impossibility when they dejectedly trudged off the pitch at Anfield just over a month ago.
The above trio of clubs will almost certainly be entangled in a race for fourth spot in the table for the rest of season. Many will argue that Spurs in third, without Harry Kane until March and now without Dele Alli for what looks like a two to three weeks at least, may be pulled back into the quagmire of a battle for a top four place after their potential title challenge derailed in recent weeks. Yet Harry Wink’s crucial last minute winner at Fulham on Sunday means they remain seven points (with a superior goal difference) in front of the red armies in hot pursuit of the blues and whites immediately in front of them in the standings. Though of course if Pochettino’s side do not strengthen during the January window (which they likely won’t) and they continue to struggle with injuries and form, then they could find themselves looking far more over their shoulders than anything else.
Before Spurs’ hard earned three points on Sunday, the two teams immediately behind them in the table faced off on a particularly bitter Saturday evening in a game where the home side really couldn’t afford to lose. And Arsenal’s players, perhaps sensing this fact, smothered themselves all over a sluggish Chelsea side in the first portion of the game and were already two goals to the good at the interval. Of course, with Arsenal’s defence being as shaky as it is, the visitors would have felt they still had a chance of getting something from the game with a half of football still remaining. Though despite endless spells of neat and tidy possession in the second half and a slight raise in intensity, Sarri’s Chelsea looked exactly like a team that has scored just ten goals in their last ten games in all competitions. Olivier Giroud’s twenty-odd minute salvo to relieve an ever frustrated Eden Hazard of false 9 duties barely affected what was by then a very comfortable seeing out of a game by an Arsenal defence that usually doesn’t do that sort of thing particularly well.
Arsenal’s huge win, marred by an awful injury to Hector Bellerin, which looks like a season ender for the Spanish right back, meant that Unai Emery’s team kept themselves in touching distance of a Champion’s League spot after their dour performance at West Ham last week. Though if ever optimistic cries for defensive recruitment from the club’s fan base are not met this window, then you can see Arsenal’s form continuing to be somewhat inconsistent. As in truth a good portion the league’s back-lines would have been able to contain what was a Chelsea attack lacking any sort of bite. Nevertheless, if Unai Emery can keep his world class front-line firing and attempt to build bridges with out-of-favour Mesut Ozil then that might be just enough to keep Arsenal in the top four hunt until May even if their defensive frailties also continue until then.
As for Chelsea, a very promising start to life under ‘Sarri-ball’, which saw them go twelve games unbeaten in the league, now seems like a distant memory. Their over reliance on star man Eden Hazard eventually morphed into him resuming the false nine duties cast upon him by former boss Antonio Conte. A move, alongside the infamous shifting of N’golo Kante from his favoured position, that looks more and more like a major tactical error by Sarri as the weeks roll by and Chelsea continue to struggle in front of goal. As much as Hazard tries for the team in the central striker position, it’s evident to what seems like everyone but the Chelsea boss that his wonderful characteristics as a player are completely wasted in that improvised role. In Sarri’s defence, clearly he has resorted to this option as he feels the strikers at his disposal are not good enough for the club and more importantly his system, which may well be true. Yet with Chelsea struggling to even fill the box during attacks, you sense something has to change in the near future if Sarri is to bring back Champion’s League football to Stamford Bridge next season.
Incoming Gonzalo Higuain, who has done the trick for Sarri in the past, looks to be the man who will allow Hazard to go back onto the wing as Alvaro Morata completes a loan move to Atletico Madrid and Olivier Giroud continues his love-in with English benches. Yet with Sarri’s stinging comments after the Arsenal defeat, where he called his players ‘hard to motivate’ and ‘mentally weak’, still fresh in Chelsea ears you wonder if a thirty-one year old striker will be enough to get ‘Sarri-ball’ rocking and rolling again. In essence, possessing even a decent, regularly playing striker would solve a significant amount of Chelsea’s problems, yet after two dreadful away performances to top six rivals combined with those let’s say very brave remarks from their manager making the headlines, you wonder if ‘Sarri-ball’ will ever be fleshed out properly under a club hierarchy that doesn’t tend to give new managers a few seasons to get things going.
And as ever, in a league as competitive as the premier league, which as featured in thesixyardring last week also now boasts a certain Manchester United winning games every week again, the sad fact is that Sarri will have to fix things very quickly if he stands any chance of keeping his job for even the medium term. Yet in truth, his recent comments, alongside his insistence in playing his two best players out of position while one of them is deciding whether to spend the rest of their career at the club or not are not helping matters at all. And you don’t have to go back too far in Chelsea’s history to find an admirably stubborn Italian who was pushed from the ship before being given the chance to steer it back on course.
If you enjoyed this article or any others on thesixyardring feel free to like/share/RT them or alternatively mention them to friends as quip that ‘you could put (insert tall friend) up front for Chelsea and he could do a job for them’ before nodding in triumphant unison.