Chelsea stayed on top of the Premier League with their 2-1 win at Arsenal on Saturday, but with the season still in its infancy, the lessons we draw from early-season games may be more informative than the actual results. With that in mind, let’s take inventory of what we learned from the early match at the Emirates:
What we learned about … Chelsea:
1. They’re more than Eden Hazard – Through the first weeks of the season, many were bending over backwards to try and quantify how many goals the 21-year-old Belgian phenom had contributed, leading to a mysterious phase where some outlets were awarding him assists for penalty kicks created. The efforts came from a good place, trying to find some way to describe the huge impact Hazard was having on Chelsea’s results, but today at the Emirates, Hazard was barely noticeable. He had some nice runs with the ball and put in a first half cross that would have blown out both of Arjen Robben’s hamstrings, but none of it had a major impact. Chelsea was able to win a huge game without a huge day from their best player.
2. It’s never going to be pretty – The pragmatism that drove Chelsea to last year’s Champions League has become endemic to their play. Today they didn’t generate a ton of chances (you could argue they only really created one), but they didn’t need to. For all the money this club’s spent on attackers, their success is predicated on their ability to get ahead and hold on. The approach may not be as dominant as it was during the José Mourinho era, but it may yet prove as effective, even if Roman Abramovich would ideally want something a little more attractive.
3. Chelsea are title contenders – Some will say they’ve been contenders all along, but from a team that finished sixth last season, we needed this result to see Chelsea as more than knockout tournament specialists. Given Arsenal were coming off a well-earned point at Manchester City, today’s was a telling result. Although Chelsea may not be favorites to win the Premier League, but they can’t be far off.
What we learned about … Arsenal:
1. They’re close, just not there yet – It’s hard to be too down on Arsenal given they’re just played two title contenders to a 3-2 aggregate over the last 180 minutes. This team lost last year’s two best players (Robin van Persie, Alex Song). To be at this level so early in the season should be seen as an accomplishment.
2. Dominating the ball is overrated – Their problems in attack are the same as ever. The type of players that make Arsenal so good in the middle third hold them back as they approach goal. While that wasn’t a huge problem on Saturday, having a better penalty area presence certainly would have helped. Continuing to use Gervinho through the middle, it’s unclear Arséne Wenger is willing to do what it takes to fine tune this attack.
3. Set piece defending needs to get better – All three goals allowed over Arsenal’s last two games came off set pieces. Even if that’s an aberration, Wenger has to treat it as a cause for concern. The message to his team needs to emphasize set piece defending is costing Arsenal their place among the league’s best.