The new season has brought with it fresh optimism for Arsene Wenger.
His Arsenal side produced a
dynamic and disciplined performance at Wembley to earn their manager a first victory over Jose Mourinho in 14 attempts as well as, of course, edging out the reigning Premier League champions.
Arsenal were slicker and sharper all over the pitch than their London rivals, who only arrived back from
a pre-season tour of the USA on Wednesday and went through their first training session at Cobham
on the following day.
Yet despite a lack of peak Premier League quality, Sunday’s events yielded plenty to ponder for both
While much of the reaction to the team news announcements at Wembley centred around the
“discomfort” in Diego Costa’s hamstring, Wenger also sprung a surprise up front. Theo Walcott,
buoyed by the recent signing of a new contract that reportedly puts him on par with Arsenal’s highest
earners, was given the nod in a central role over Olivier Giroud, scorer of 14 Premier League goals
This is the kind of opportunity for which Walcott has been dying and, after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
brilliantly fired the Gunners into the lead in the 24th minute, it seemed like a stage set up for him to
shine. Chelsea were forced to move away from their deep defensive line and press for an equaliser,
necessarily leaving space for Wenger’s jet-heeled attacking unit to punish them on the transition.
But while others forced Thibaut Courtois to show exactly why he has usurped Petr Cech at Stamford
Bridge, Walcott’s only effort of note was a glancing header with which the Belgian dealt relatively comfortably. More menace than he produced in 66 minutes will be required if Giroud – who achieved
little more against a tiring and stretched Chelsea defence late on – is to be consigned to the substitute’s bench permanently.
Hovering over both men is the spectre of Karim Benzema. Recent reports in Spain suggest that a
renewed Gunners push for the Real Madrid striker Wenger has always admired, though he was
dismissive of the story in his post-match press conference, replying: “Honestly, no. I don’t know
who brings that up.”
As Chelsea marched inexorably towards the Premier League title in April, Mourinho insisted that
surgery was not an option to cure Diego Costa’s fragile hamstrings.
“We don’t believe in operations,” he told reporters.
“I always believe it is the last decision for every injury. We try to be conservative, to train, recover
and work – we don’t believe we will go the surgery direction.”
Mourinho may well be regretting such bullishness now. Costa begins his second season in England in much the same way as he began his first: with a huge question mark hanging over his fitness and durability.
“I don’t know,” the Chelsea boss replied when asked whether his star striker would be fit to face
Swansea City on Saturday.
“You think I’m lying but I’m not lying. When I told you two days ago [in the pre-match press conference] that he was ready to play, he was ready to play. Two days ago he trained normally.
Yesterday he trained normally and, at the end of the session, he told us he was not feeling [the hamstring].
“Falcao will play against Fiorentina [on Wednesday] from the start, Remy again too, so if we don’t have
Diego I’m happy with the strikers we have.”
More than a few Chelsea fans are less content with the situation. Remy provided an excellent – and vital – squad option last season but has a troubled muscular history of his own and was too easily
pushed into wide areas by Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny on Sunday.
Falcao’s second-half cameo was full of running and enthusiasm but he failed to test Cech and has now
gone 18 matches for club and country without a goal – almost certainly the worst scoring run of his life. It is too early to tell whether his confidence can be rebuilt but, with every game that Costa sits out, the pressure on him will grow.
In many ways this was Petr Cech’s day. Applauded by the Chelsea fans and roared on like a favourite son by the thousands in red, he began the afternoon assailled by affection on all sides and ended it holding silverware.
Events might have taken a different course had Ramires not headed over Cech’s crossbar when it
seemed easier to score in the first half, or if Eden Hazard had not blazed a shot over when well
placed in the second.
Wenger had his own interesting theory to explain Chelsea’s profligacy. “He did well and maybe he had an influence on the Chelsea players as well, because they may feel that to score against him
they have to score the perfect goal, particularly when Hazard had his chance,” the Frenchman mused.
If true, Cech is already making the biggest contribution that many expected him to bring to Arsenal: his aura. World-class goalkeepers exude calm and make opponents panic. The 33-year-old’s presence fits the bill perfectly and that, allied to his exceptional quality – highlighted when he brilliantly
palmed an Oscar free kick wide in the second half – should ensure that the Gunners are a different
beast defensively this season.
Even more crucial to this transformation is a shift in
Wenger’s own mindset, prompted by the long overdue realisation that brains cannot be sacrificed
in pursuit of beauty. Arsenal doggedly defended the lead that Oxlade-Chamberlain’s moment of magic had given them and even Mourinho could only afterwards credit the Gunners’ resilience – even if he tempered his praise by snidely suggesting that they had “left their philosophy in the dressing room”.
“We abandoned nothing,” Wenger insisted afterwards, though he freely admitted that his side’s
burning desire to win the game at times inhibited their attacking instincts. This was more than a
Community Shield for Arsenal and hopes must now be high in the red half of north London that the
Chelsea inferiority complex has been banished for good.
We have been waiting three years for Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain to enjoy his breakout season. For one
reason or another, it never quite happened and almost all of those reasons took the form of injuries.
Months were missed and momentum was slowed; a knee problem kept him out of last summer’s World Cup in Brazil only weeks after scoring a brilliant goal to secure England a friendly draw with Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men in Rio de Janeiro.
Durability became such a concern that outspoken Dutch fitness coach Raymond Verheijen was moved
to suggest that Oxlade Chamberlain might have become “structurally injured” at Arsenal.
It would be tempting the most dangerous kind of fate to claim that those troubles are behind him but,
on Sunday, Oxlade-Chamberlain looked fitter, more confident and more explosive than ever. Cesar
Azpilicueta made the mistake of showing the Englishman onto his ‘weaker’ left foot in the 24th
minute, only to find out that he doesn’t have one.
His moment of magic won Arsenal the game but Oxlade-Chamberlain was the most dangerous player on the pitch throughout, terrorising
Azpilicueta at every opportunity and fearlessly charging at Chelsea defenders whenever he found
himself leading a rapid Gunners transition.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has never started more than 25 matches in a season for Arsenal but, at 21, time
remains on his side. If his body will allow, his potential is frightening.
The Community Shield rarely provides a spectacle worthy of the best Premier League battles.
Sunday’s excitement was more borne out of intensity than dazzling quality or composure but Arsenal’s slight edge in all three areas saw them through.
Yet there was still enough on show to convince that, while the gap between London’s finest might have narrowed, neither are yet rounded enough to look forward to games against Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich with unwavering confidence.
Wenger was quick to scotch talk of a club-record bid for Benzema as he basked in his victory but the
esteem in which he holds his fellow Frenchman is no secret. Equally obvious is that, for all of the faith
placed in Walcott and Giroud, Arsenal still lack an elite goalscorer to match Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa or even Wayne Rooney at his best. If Benzema is available, there can be no hesitation from Arsenal – their Premier League title hopes may depend on it.
From Chelsea’s point of view, it was remarkable to see Kurt Zouma – on for the tormented Azpilicueta –
winding up to deliver an in-swinging cross from the left flank as Chelsea pushed for a late equaliser.
Mourinho afterwards insisted that he has no clue whether a replacement for the departed Filipe Luis will arrive before Swansea come to Stamford Bridge but, the sooner the Blues can get Baba Rahman, Alex Telles or another genuine left-footed full-back over the line, the better.
On a more general note, Mourinho’s dire need for greater depth heading into this summer has not been addressed. Chelsea’s first Premier League title since 2010 was founded on a pool of, at most, 14 players flogged to within an inch of their lives.
Injuries may not be so kind this season and, without more players whom the manager trusts, the
Champions League will remain tantalisingly out of reach.