COMMENT: The Gunners gave a strong account of themselves despite defeat at Chelsea, while Mario Balotelli looks a long way from replacing Luis Suarez at Liverpool
By Wayne Veysey
How Arsene Wenger must despise his journeys home from Stamford Bridge.
Almost always defeated, frequently humbled and usually sent on his way from Jose Mourinho’s fortress with patronising and loaded words from the Portuguese ringing in his ears.
Arsenal followed their feisty manager’s lead by being up for the fight in their latest attempt to bridge the divide between north and west London. But, when push came to shove, touchline tetchiness and on-field tenacity was not enough. Arsenal proved to be middleweights against the heavyweights of Chelsea.
Mourinho’s side have scored eight goals without reply in this fixture since his return to SW6 last season. It is a damning statistic, as is the extension of Wenger’s winless streak versus his nemesis to 12 matches.
Yet the scars from Arsenal’s first league defeat of the season will heal far quicker than they did after the 6-0 humiliation in Wenger’s 1000th match in March.
Watching Eden Hazard weave between defenders as if they were training cones and Diego Costa lift an inch-perfect Cesc Fabregas pass over Wojciech Szczesny to finish off a classic sucker-punch will have felt as familiar as it was numbing for the Gooner faithful.
But the story of yet another Arsenal defeat to Chelsea was not merely that of a more powerful and resilient unit utilising a superior tactical plan, as has so often been the case.
Wenger’s side were organised and well drilled. They came out battle-ready. There was no amble down King’s Road with the ball. They were alert to the danger of Chelsea counterattacks and crunched into tackles with the same enthusiasm as Mourinho’s men.
Cold analysis will show that Arsenal lost because they made a few avoidable but crucial mistakes.
Alexis Sanchez unnecessarily lost the ball in the build-up to the first Chelsea goal in precisely the manner for which he had been dropped for the previous two league matches. Santi Cazorla should have been streetwise enough to foul Hazard before he entered the danger zone.
All is not lost for Wenger and his team.
They have had a testing start to the season, with assignments against three of last season’s top five in their first seven Premier League matches, as well as a Champions League trip to Dortmund.
Arsenal have showed only fleeting glimpses of fluency in those matches but have displayed an appetite for battle that was not always in evidence last season.
Wenger’s side will grind down the league’s middling and weaker teams with their dominant passing game. It should hand them enough points to offer a better challenge to the two big guns, Chelsea and Manchester City, than rivals Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and Everton.
The squad is stronger than last season and is better equipped to cope with the never-ending catalogue of injuries.
All four of the major summer signings look smart acquisitions, with Sanchez likely to develop into a bona fide star of the Premier League when he learns not to hold on to the ball for too long in dangerous areas. It is being drilled into him every day in training.
With the returning Theo Walcott to support Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, there is enough goals and invention to cover for last season’s top scorers Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are the club’s most solid centre-back pairing since Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure.
It will agonise Wenger over the international break that he has been second best once again to Mourinho.
But the good news for the manager is he only has to share a touchline with the Portuguese twice a season.
BALOTELLI WILL NEVER BE AN ELITE STRIKER
On his day, Mario Balotelli can be a fine striker. He possesses many of the tools required for a player of his type to thrive at the top level – strength, mobility, height, a sound technique and an ability to finish with his head and both feet.
But something is missing. It is usually Balotelli himself. The problem is he has few days when he is the unstoppable force that many had predicted when he began plundering goals at Inter in his teens.
It is early days in Balotelli’s Liverpool career but the portents are not good.
After a thigh injury to Daniel Sturridge handed him a lengthy run in the team, he has scored a single goal in eight matches, six of which he started.
But it is his ragged performances, not so much his puny statistics, that will have dampened the spirits of Liverpool fans ready to fall in love with the enigmatic Italian when he joined for a relatively inexpensive €20 million this summer.
The realisation will be dawning on his new fan club that Balotelli is not actually that good.
Were his performances as eye-catching as his hair, he would not be dropped for Rickie Lambert, whose touch has totally deserted him since pulling on the shirt he thought he would never wear.
Like most the other managers before him, Brendan Rodgers is using a mixture of the carrot and stick to coax match-winning displays out of Balotelli.
His fitness needs to improve, says the manager. So does his hold-up play. And his finishing. And his ability to function in a team that has been so diminished by the departure of Luis Suarez.
Comparing anyone to arguably Liverpool’s greatest-ever player is a futile exercise.
Aged 24, Balotelli is entering his peak years. But he is merely marking time. There is little compelling evidence to suggest he will ever be an elite striker.