Why Arsenal and Chelsea imploded in the Champions League

Arsenal's David Ospina looks dejected after scoring an own goal for Olympiacos. (Stefan Wermuth, Reuters)

Arsenal's David Ospina looks dejected after scoring an own goal for Olympiacos. (Stefan Wermuth, Reuters)

Arsenal

Failure to offer security
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and there is simply no way Arsène Wenger could have known David Ospina would pick this night to make the most grisly error of his Arsenal career or, indeed, of his professional career. The moment when the goalkeeper dropped Kostas Fortounis’s inswinging corner over his line to put Olympiakos 2-1 up at the Emirates Stadium will haunt him.

Wenger had one of those Wenger-stat moments when he reeled off Ospina’s numbers from his debut season at the club last time out, saying he had kept 14 clean sheets in 19 appearances – it was, in fact, 10 in 23 – but it served to illustrate a wider point: Wenger had the entirely reasonable impression that the Colombian had been solid; that he could trust him.

And yet Wenger’s selection of Ospina in preference to Petr Cech was baffling and, in a top-level match where the fine details are invariably key, utterly needless. Arsenal had to beat Olympiakos – Wenger had described the tie as must-win – and it made no sense to overlook Cech, his number one goalkeeper and the one marquee signing that the club made last summer to make the difference.
If Cech was not signed to play in must-win Champions League ties, what was he signed for?

The argument that Wenger held him back for Sunday’s visit of Manchester United did not bear scrutiny. Goalkeepers are hardly running 13km in games and even Wenger had said that United would not influence his selection. “Manchester United is on Sunday. That is five days [away], no problem,” he said on Monday.

It has been difficult to ignore the suspicion that Wenger promised Ospina playing time in the cups when he persuaded him to stay on as the number two, after the signing of Cech. He started him at Dinamo Zagreb in the opening Champions League tie and at Tottenham Hotspur in the Capital One Cup. Has Wenger put the personal needs of one player above those of the team in Europe? Given the backstory, Ospina entered the Olympiakos tie under huge pressure and he buckled, failing to instil confidence in his backline, even before his howler. 

Flimsy collective mentality
Even more than Ospina’s moment of madness, the deepest cut for Arsenal came with the concession of the third goal, which would prove to be Olympiakos’s winner. It came less than one minute after Alexis Sánchez had equalised for 2-2, and just as Arsenal had built up a head of steam and appeared to have turned things around. As such, it was deflating in the extreme.

Arsenal had been level at 1-1 for only five minutes before Ospina’s error, but this was something else and it highlighted the flaws in the team’s defensive concentration and what can seem like an inherent vulnerability when the stakes are at their highest.

Arsenal’s ability to be floored by the sucker-punch is rivalled only by their failure to learn lessons. Olympiakos became the third visiting team in less than a year to score three times in a Champions League tie at the Emirates Stadium (following Monaco and Anderlecht) and the sixth to win in the past three years.

There was the infuriating sense of déjà vu for the Arsenal support, with the tie following an extremely familiar pattern: Wenger’s attack-minded team carrying the fight on the front foot and conceding relatively few chances, but being hit hard when they did. Arsenal’s lack of ruthlessness killed them once again. 

Chelsea

Lack of leadership
Rio Ferdinand summed it up in his role as a pundit on BT Sport. “More than anything, I just think it lacked composure,” he said of a Chelsea supply that felt rudderless at times. “There was no real leadership out there. You look back on Mourinho sides, the Chelsea sides that were successful: you had the Drogbas, the Terrys, the Lampards who the other players could look to. They’d turn around and say: ‘Listen, I’ve been here before, just follow me. You’ll be all right, we’ll get through this. Weather the storm.’ I didn’t see that tonight. I didn’t see players that would stand up and be counted in that way.”

One that might have, John Terry, sat marooned on the visitors’ bench throughout while Branislav Ivanovic, a player whose form has capitulated so spectacularly, wore the armband in his stead yet again. That defiance was absent at the Dragão.

There was a moment in the chaos that reigned midway through the second period, with Porto’s lead established and Chelsea caught between chasing the game and grappling back some measure of control, when Gary Cahill stood in his own penalty area with arms out wide in disbelief at the bedlam all around. The England centre-half is now the senior player in this team’s central defence, but none in Chelsea’s number seems to know how to restore all that defensive solidity of the recent past. This side have conceded at least twice in seven of their 10 competitive matches this season.

Mixed manager messages
José Mourinho’s message changes with each passing day. Initially it was “business as usual”, nothing to see here, kindly move along. Then, when results stubbornly refused to improve, he openly criticised his players – albeit without naming them – in the hope that might coax out a reaction.

In Porto he went one step further and dropped Eden Hazard and Nemanja Matic from his starting line-up, while also leaving Loïc Rémy, Oscar and Radamel Falcao back in Cobham. Then, having suffered a fourth defeat in all competitions this term, he reverted to a “softly, softly” approach and praised his charges’ perceived defensive organisation.

In the end, he appeared to be a manager struggling to comprehend quite why his Premier League champions are struggling so badly. This is a rather alien situation for the Portuguese, who is so used to success, but he appears rather perplexed by his side’s campaign.

Maybe that attacking trio were rested with one eye on Saturday’s visit of Southampton. After all, Diego Costa completes his domestic suspension in that fixture, and it is too early to say whether defeat in Porto has properly jeopardised Chelsea’s passage out of Group G. Yet the selection just added to the sense that all is not well.

Porto are a good team and should not be underestimated, but Chelsea’s gambles are not paying off. This side has yet to revive. Mourinho will have to try something else before the weekend. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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