Arsenal highlight all that is wrong with Pochettino’s Chelsea

LONDON — What should embarrass Chelsea most is Arsenal are everything that they are not. Tuesday’s 5-0 thrashing at Emirates Stadium showcased the Gunners’ shrewd spending and stylish structure, a combination which threatens to push Manchester City the distance in the Premier League title race.

Mikel Arteta’s side have played two games more but they are now four points clear of third-placed City with Liverpool sandwiched in the middle, at least until City visit Brighton on Thursday. The Gunners can still dream.

For Chelsea, the nightmare is real. Tuesday night’s match rapidly descended into the sort of performance that gets managers the sack. Leandro Trossard opened the scoring after four minutes before a strange first half concluded without any further scoring despite both sides threatening regularly to find the net. Then came four goals in 18 minutes, two from Ben White and two from Kai Havertz as Chelsea capitulated in humiliating fashion.

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“I don’t want your shirt, I want you to fight for ours,” read a banner held up by a youngster in the away end. His plea went unanswered. Trossard and Havertz are examples that put Chelsea’s £1 billion transfer strategy in an embarrassing light.

Arsenal moved for Trossard in January 2023 after Chelsea trumped them in the race to sign Mykhailo Mudryk from Shakhtar Donetsk. He cost £27m compared to the £88.5m outlay for Mudryk. And in amongst their lavish spending spree, Chelsea last summer allowed Havertz to join Arsenal in a move worth around £67.5m.

It was a fee that looked respectable at the time but the German’s improvement with his new club reflects both the stability and culture at Arsenal compared with the turbulence and toxicity of his former club.

Havertz still has something to prove in delivering consistently in the biggest games, but he is showing more as a player than Chelsea were ever able to coax out of him. There is a degree of fortune he has thrived as a No.9 given the plan to use him initially as a No.8 or out wide, but this is where the positive environment and team structure encourages individuals to find the best of themselves.

Chelsea, by contrast, are a mess. There is mitigation for manager Mauricio Pochettino in terms of injuries, a back four thrown together at short notice and the absence of their outstanding player — Cole Palmer — but there are surely certain non-negotiables, and the Argentine made the startling admission that his team gave up, followed by a defence of that lack of application.

“We talked at half-time about how it is not possible to start the game like this,” said Pochettino. “But we started [the second half] in a bad way again. We conceded two goals and in this moment, the team gave up. We were not in the game.”

But does that not lead him to question their character?

“No, it is not the character,” he continued. “I played football and I was in some similar situations with big players, experienced players. I played with [Diego] Maradona, I played with Ronaldinho, I played with [Gabriel] Batistuta. In some part of the season, these types of things can happen and you say: ‘Yes, these guys that were at the top, give up.’

“Sometimes because of the opponent, because of our energy because nothing is for you in this situation and you cannot find nothing positive during the game and this type of thing happens. It will happen for sure with different teams.”

It doesn’t happen with Arsenal these days. The Gunners recorded their biggest-ever victory against Chelsea across all competitions while this was the Blues’ heaviest defeat in a London derby since losing 6-0 to Queens Park Rangers in March 1986. It was achieved with the midfield trio of Thomas Partey, Declan Rice, and Martin Ødegaard — deployed for the first time since August’s Community Shield — and the latter in particular put in a stunning individual display, executing a range of passing few players in the world can match.

Arsenal’s response to exiting the Champions League at Bayern Munich last week has been undeniably impressive.

“What these boys have done in the last 10 days is unbelievable, physically,” said Arteta. “When you look at some of the numbers, it’s unreal but they can do it and they can improve themselves because they want to. They have the mentality that they really want to win it.”

Pochettino was right to point out the patience Arsenal showed in sticking with Arteta through a difficult spell after he won the 2020 FA Cup against Chelsea and the fact they are much further along in their evolution under the Spaniard’s guidance. But the £1 billion outlay accelerates judgements and the timeframe for success. Chelsea’s alarming inconsistency reflects badly on their manager.

“We are capable of having an amazing performance and three days after, we show the extremes,” said Pochettino. “Our standards are not sustained for the bad days. When we have bad days, we are so bad. When we are good, we are capable of everything. It is another thing we need to be aware that we need to increase for the future.”

The gulf between these two sides right now is huge and while Arteta can revel in the limelight, the shadow over Pochettino grows ever darker.