1301: Premiership: Chelsea's best fo
by : Jeremy Goodwin
Patrick Vieira recently remarked that if there is one thing he has learned from playing football in the English Premier League, it is that the season is long. By that he meant that each team has its ups and downs making predictions of outcome a waste of time, at least until the final couple of months. Even so, what is it about this year’s race that sets it apart from the past dozen or so since the Premiership was born from the old First Division? In my opinion, it isn’t so much that Manchester United has started uncharacteristically slowly, or that Arsenal stormed to the front with unusual speed, but that thanks to Chelsea’s infusion of cash and restructuring, there are now three teams rather than two in a league apart from the rest.
The others can only talk about winning fourth, fifth or sixth place. That the big three stand alone is true whether one judges it by the amount of silverware won, their cash flow, the value of the franchises themselves (including the size and quality of their stadiums), or simply the depth of their squads, their style of play and the number of games they have won. Even their coaches are amongst the most accomplished and influential in the history of the game. Do they share a formula for success? And in what manner do they differ? Taking the current leaders, Chelsea and Arsenal, as a case in point can we predict a winner after all?
The Gunners and Blues have run neck and neck all season, but they couldn’t be more different. Chelsea’s advantage over most is one of adaptability to change. They have had three different squads and three different managers in three years, each one more successful than the last. Arsenal’s is their ability to remain unchanged as they adapt the skills of new and ever younger players to the way of the old guard. On the financial front, Arsenal FC is the shrewdest buyer of talent in the market, whereas Chelsea has outspent any club in the history of football. As a result, both have similar world-class squads of international players, but their manner of winning and avoiding defeat differs greatly.
Until Manchester United recently ended the Gunner’s 49 game unbeaten run in the Premiership, Arsenal looked unbeatable. That run was longer than any in the history of the English game and second only to AC Milan’s record of 58 games unbeaten. No one on the planet has been as exciting or awesome to watch as Arsenal. Winning the Premiership undefeated last year broke a 118 year-old English record, but one of over a dozen broken. Yet Arsenal, following that single and controversial loss to Manchester United, has won only three of their last eight, drawing the rest and are, by their own standards, flailing. Perhaps that is a bit harsh, but they have dropped to second place. How is it then that Chelsea, who were until recently so boring to watch in comparison, passed them by? The answer lies in the quality of their defense and flexibility of tactics.
Last season, after 19 successive failures, Chelsea finally beat Arsenal in the dying minutes of the quarterfinals of the European Champions League. Both teams played well but it was Chelsea’s defense that won them the game. They cut off the supply to Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp and won on the counter attack, ironically using Arsenal’s trademark tactic against them. In short, Chelsea knew when to play defensively and when to attack. Arsenal didn’t.