People tend to obsess, when they read football reporting and commentary, over issues of objectivity. It is often asserted that a supporter of a club should be mistrusted when he or she is consulted to give an opinion on their team, as their view is surely a ‘biased’ one. It is fair to assume that most journalists, since they have sufficient interest in the game to make a living writing about it, support a team or at least did when they were younger. Television broadcasting is awash with ex-professionals with their thinly veiled allegiances to ex clubs. So the search for an unbiased view is a futile one.
Incidentally, being objective is not the same as being ‘even handed’. One can fall down heavily on one side of an argument while still viewing the issue at hand with a cold mind and intellectual honesty. Supporters of clubs are exactly the people who should be asked for an opinion on a topic related to their team, since they are the people who watch them every week and are familiar with the fluctuations of form, tactics etc. The view of the footballing public in general tends to lag behind that of individual fan bases; taking months for instance to give a player positive recognition when supporters of that team had been signing his praises all along. Stereotypes can be hard to shake off.
This issue came back to me following the match between Arsenal and Chelsea on Sunday. It dawned on me that a several well-worn stereotypes are being peddled about both teams and managers, none of which are really appropriate. One manifestation of this, has been the obsession with the ‘boring boring’ taunts from Arsenal supporters towards Chelsea, since it neatly fitted the narrative of Chelsea being obdurate, cynical, arch pragmatists. In any case, what made them media treat the chant as if it were Arsenal fans’ judicial appraisal of the game is anyone’s guess.
The vast majority of fans if asked by the time they got home would accept that Chelsea are worthy champions. They were simply trying, in their own stadium, to have a dig at a much detested rival. Of course the chant was silly and not grounded in facts. But then, Arsenal are not ‘by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’ either, but fans still sing that to try and get behind their team and create an atmosphere that often is lacking at The Emirates.
Arsenal vs Chelsea is an ideal fixture for the media since they are often viewed as the complete antithesis of each other. Both teams possesses what the other lack; its entertaining, offensive Arsenal against the durable but tedious Chelsea. Its the Bank of England club with a history to match against the club bankrolled by an oligarch who made a killing purchasing previously publically owned assets after the fall of the Soviet Union. Its Arsene Wenger who just tells his players to do what they like and pays no attention to the opposition against Jose Mourinho who moves players around the pitch as if it were a chessboard and spends hours dissecting opposition as if they were a lab rat.
These are the stereotypes. But the truth is rather more complicated. True, there is a clash of philosophy and styles but neither team is as extreme in their nature as the stereotypes suggest. It’s a long time since Arsenal were a side driven solely by ball possession; that was back in the days of Alex Hleb and Cesc Fabregas. During that era, just after the stadium move, Arsenal were a fantastic footballing side with incredible powers of ball retention under pressure, but were lightweight and inexperienced. They were rattled when teams got physical with them, were vulnerable to slip ups against inferior opposition and exposed at set pieces. Look back at the archive filled with defeats at Bolton, Blackburn, Wigan, at home to Hull, for the evidence of this. The apotheosis of ‘that’ Arsenal was surely the 2011 League Cup defeat to Birmingham City.
That era is long gone, and Arsenal are a different type of team now, but the stereotypes persist. One recalls Jason Roberts demanding that Reading ‘get physical’ with Arsenal prior to the recent FA Cup semi-final. Though their dismal record at Stoke persists, this type of tactic no longer disturbs Arsenal. In the past two seasons they have been remarkably consistent against bottom half teams; the best in the league in fact in these fixtures. They are an experienced team, with added height in recent years thanks to the additions of Olivier Giroud and Per Mertesacker. Following the loss of Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie, with less quality at his disposal Arsene Wenger formulated a more pragmatic approach and eked out a number of tight wins to beat Tottenham to 4th in both 2012 and 2013. They have been very adept at squeezing out narrow wins recently to, as results at Crystal Palace QPR, Newcastle and Burnley testify.
Following Sunday’s game, Chelsea’s defending was contrasted with Arsenal’s suggesting that this was the reason behind the 10 point gap in the table. In fact, in the five meetings against Chelsea since Mourinho’s return, Arsenal are yet to score a goal, suggesting the problems lie further up the pitch. But of course, this can’t be squeezed into the narrative, because Arsenal are free flowing artists and that’s the end of the discussion.
The same goes for Chelsea. They are the league’s best defensive unit and their tactic in recent weeks, prompted by the loss of their two best strikers and a tiring squad, has involved sitting back and soaking up pressure. But they are still the second top scorers in the division. They hold the record for the most goals scored in a season, achieved under Carlo Ancelotti in their double winning season of 2009/10. They were the League’s top goal scorers when they first won the title under Mourinho in 2004/5.
In the first half of this season they were definitely the best footballing team in the division, and they are noticeably less direct when compared to Mourinho’s first stint at the club when they counter attacked through Robben and Duff. Through Hazard, Oscar and Willian they are extremely measured and patient when moving the ball in the last third, too much so I suspect for some Chelsea fans. True, they are rather more chameleon like than Arsenal say, willing to change tact to meet the needs of the match at hand. But they are not quite as negative in their approach as many would have you believe.
In terms of team structure, Arsenal and Chelsea are remarkably similar. Both operate at present with in a 4-2-3-1. In the two in central midfield there is a defensive-minded ball winner (Matic/Coquelin) and a deep lying ball player (Fabregas/Cazorla). On the left of the three is right footed dribbler who looks to cut inside (Hazard/Sanchez), in the centre is a traditional creative midfielder or no. 10 (Oscar/Özil), and on the right a technically proficient hard worker (Willian/Ramsey). Up front there is a centre forward in the traditional mould who is adept with his back to goal and at linking play (Costa/Giroud). Arsene Wenger may well give his players more freedom within that structure; one would have to check the oft cited ‘heat maps’. Matic is a more polished and imposing player than Coquelin and Costa, given that he offers more in behind, is a more complete striker than Giroud. Nevertheless, there is some irony to be found in such tactical similarities.
The purpose of this article is not argue that there is stylistic equivalence between Arsenal and Chelsea. There are obvious differences between them and their two managers. But the depiction of each team as being at the extreme of either an offensive of defensive style needs not be done away with. It limits the discourse surrounding both teams to a narrow set of inferences and obstructs any form of nuanced analysis.