By Ewan Roberts
Not so long ago, the prospect of Chelsea and Arsenal locking horns would have had fans salivating; the two sides dominated the Premier League, trading blows - domestically and in Europe - and titles. Arsene Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ were stocked with flair and artistry, while Jose Mourinho’s Blue revolution turned the west London club into an efficient and brutal victory machine.
For a brief three-year period between 2003 and 2006, Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson had struggled to contend with the new-found financial clout of Chelsea, or the Thierry Henry-led north London juggernaut, while Manchester City, pre-Sheikh Mansour, were an insignificant speck on the football horizon, battling relegation after spells in the lower leagues.
But now, almost a decade after Roman Abramovich’s arrival, Manchester has re-established itself as the crème de la crème of English football. Sir Alex, as he has so often done, rebuilt his side, winning the title in four of the last six seasons - and is on course to do so again - while Roberto Mancini’s City are hot on the Red Devils’ heels, fighting to defend the trophy they lifted in dramatic fashion last May.
As such, Sunday’s London derby between Chelsea and Arsenal has become a rather less interesting sideshow. Neither side can win the Premier League, while any notions of this match deciding the best team in London have become obsolete since the rise to prominence of Tottenham. Spurs finished two places and five points ahead of Chelsea last season, and have a six-point cushion over the Gunners this year.
The Manchester duopoly has tightened its grip on the Premier League, leaving the once dominant London pair fighting to maintain their relevance and battling to cling onto a lucrative place in the Champions League. While Arsenal’s trophy-less decline has been steady, Chelsea’s fall from grace - the Lady Luck-aided Champions League swansong aside - has been more dramatic.
At this time of the year Chelsea would normally be fielding questions about their title aspirations, instead Rafa Benitez has been incessantly quizzed about his own future (or, as the interim pre-fix suggests, lack of) and the form and confidence of Fernando Torres. ‘Chelsea’ and ‘title’ have barely been whispered in the same breathe.
The Blues are already 13 points adrift of pace-setters Manchester United, and crashed out of the Champions League at the expense of Shakhtar Donestk and Juventus. Now Abramovich will watch his side take part in Europe’s second-tier competition for the first time since purchasing the club - with Chelsea having featured in the Champions League in nine successive seasons, escaping the group stages each time.
Chelsea’s hierarchy is a barely tangible mess, with the club’s Russian owner meddling with transfers and refusing patience in the pursuit of an attractive style of football. Carlo Ancelotti was sacked despite finishing second in the league and claiming a domestic double the year before, while his successor, Andre Villas-Boas, lasted just a few months. Even a long-waited Champions League crown couldn't prevent Roberto Di Matteo from being axed.
Villas-Boas was meant to overhaul Chelsea’s brand of play and revamp the Blues’ increasingly old and poisonous dressing room. But Abramovich did not back his young manager, pandering instead to Chelsea’s influential veterans and a €58m flop. The Russian’s insatiable and impatient thirst for his own Galactico-littered, Barcelona-style plaything achieved only uncertainty, while his habit of buying the players he wants, rather than the players Chelsea need, recurred once more.
For Arsenal, the opposite is true. Wenger appears increasingly reluctant to diverge from his pedestalled philosophy of developing young players and, despite the huge wealth of the club, the Gunners have largely operated at a net profit each year.
What little money that has been spent, has been invested poorly - which is perhaps the reason for Wenger’s trepidation in the transfer market. The likes of Lukas Podolski (€12m), Olivier Giroud (€12m), Andrey Arshavin (€16.5m) and Gervinho (€12m) have failed to ignite the Premier League despite their massive outlays.
The fact that the initial €19m fee spent on Santi Cazorla - more of an opportunistic purchase on Wenger’s part - represents Arsenal’s record buy is damning, especially when you consider that Manchester City spent over 50 per cent more on James Milner. The reliance, to the point of feverish worship, on Theo Walcott, which saw the club cave in to his astronomical wage demands, further highlights Arsenal’s lack of top talent.
Wenger’s willingness to sell his best players has also stunted the north London side. Robin van Persie joined Manchester United in search of long-awaited silverware, while Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy have all tasted success since leaving the Gunners. Arsenal’s bank balance may look rosy, but their position within the elite of English football is increasingly perilous.
Having fallen behind the Manchester clubs, and been caught up by Tottenham and Everton, Chelsea and Arsenal are scrapping simply to cling onto the hope that they can return to their once-dominant standing in English football.
But Chelsea have been here before under then-boss Mourinho, where the ‘Special One’ had to break the Arsenal-Manchester United stranglehold in order to truly announce his arrival. In that sense, Chelsea are back to square one, a shrewd managerial appointment away from challenging again, while Wenger will look to endure once more, waiting - hoping - for another golden generation to bloom.