Chelsea’s collapse at Arsenal was humiliating, inevitable, and their lowest point yet

Arsenal recorded their biggest-ever victory over Chelsea and Mauricio Pochettino’s side  (Getty Images)
Arsenal recorded their biggest-ever victory over Chelsea and Mauricio Pochettino’s side (Getty Images)

“This is Chelsea Football Club, not Cole Palmer Football Club,” Mauricio Pochettino declared on the eve of his side’s visit to Arsenal. A little more than 24 hours later, the sight of Chelsea without their top scorer and player of the year was enough to empty the away end long before full-time of this humiliating, dispiriting, London derby thrashing at the Emirates. “I don’t want your shirt, I just want you to fight for ours,” a young boy pleaded in the away end. Chelsea failed, spectacularly, in their heaviest ever defeat to Arsenal.

As Pochettino said, the prospect of facing the Premier League leaders without Palmer was a good challenge for the rest of the Chelsea squad, a chance to show that they were more than a one-man team, to prove there was leadership in the ranks beyond the 22-year-old forward. Evidently, it was a challenge Chelsea were utterly incapable of rising to. Without Palmer, Chelsea returned to their lowly status as mid-table fodder. Yet perhaps even that is kind.

For Chelsea, it is difficult to pinpoint the most humbling image from this 5-0 defeat. If the sight of Kai Havertz scoring twice against his former club was not bad enough, flourishing as a false nine for the Gunners in a way he never managed at Stamford Bridge, perhaps it was the reminder that he was surplus to requirements while Mykhailo Mudryk, at £88m, was not. Arsenal were beaten to the signing of the Ukrainian but instead signed Leandro Trossard, who fired the opener.

A young Chelsea fan sends a message from the away end (Getty Images)
A young Chelsea fan sends a message from the away end (Getty Images)

Maybe the worst part was how inevitable it was. Chelsea folded inside five minutes, cut apart as a knife might slice through a soft cheese, or with the ease of Declan Rice surging away from Moises Caicedo and Trossard firing through the legs of Djordje Petrovic. After that, Chelsea went through spells where they could not perform even the most basic functions of a football team. Against a sharp Arsenal side, they conceded shot after shot, pummelled back onto the edge of their own box like a limp sponge. Yet they just about remained in the game for long enough to suggest they were in it.

That feeling evaporated after half-time. If Arsenal were disarmed by how feebly Chelsea fell apart in the opening minutes, or were suddenly nervous due to the title race, Mikel Arteta’s side would have trudged off at half-time frustrated that their dominance had not turned into goals. Rice did what a £100m midfielder is expected to do, giving Enzo Fernandez and Caicedo a look at what an authoritative midfield presence looks like. Rice emerged from the break to take charge. He raised Arsenal’s intensity in the crucial moments that allowed Arsenal to run away with it. Fernandez had waved the white flag long before his substitution.

Havertz scored twice as Arsenal hammered Chelsea (Getty Images)
Havertz scored twice as Arsenal hammered Chelsea (Getty Images)

Pochettino may bemoan that he was without his first-choice full-backs and centre-backs as well as Palmer: indeed, it is unlikely that the defence comprised of the academy graduate Alfie Gilchrist, Axel Disasi, Benoit Badiashile and Marc Cucurella will ever start a Premier League game together again. Pochettino will not blame Gilchrist and his only criticism would be a touch of over-exuberance, but Disasi was a disaster and Badiashile has now conceded 21 goals in his last seven starts. Cucurella, signed roughly at the price Chelsea sold Havertz to Arsenal, was hapless.

Cucurella couldn’t get near an Arsenal player all night, and the only occasion the Spaniard did he was booked for petulantly throwing his arms in the air and appealing wildly for a throw-in. Mudryk, a transfer target Arsenal are now glad they missed, was a fittingly anonymous presence as he ambled to close down the short corner that led to Arsenal’s second. Fernandez and Caicedo ducked challenges, blitzed by Arsenal’s press, desire and organisation. Conor Gallagher, the captain of this sinking ship, failed to assure anyone that this Chelsea dressing room has a leader, other than through the goals and individual brilliance of Palmer.

Where would Chelsea be without Cole Palmer? That, of course, was the question going into this after Pochettino revealed he was a pre-match doubt due to illness. The answer was largely what you would expect, only this time Palmer was not there to distract or even rescue a broken team with no functioning departments. Palmer has elevated Chelsea from mid-table. Without him, they still have a defence that concedes too many goals, a £200m midfield pair that doesn’t fit.

Chelsea still managed to have brighter moments, some flashes of danger from set-pieces or counterattacks while Arsenal second-guessed themselves. Nicolas Jackson’s runs down the left wing briefly troubled William Saliba and were admirable after a difficult week for the 22-year-old, while Noni Madueke found similar spaces behind Takehiro Tomiyasu.

Yet it was not hard to see what Chelsea were missing. If the FA Cup semi-final was not enough proof, then an attempt to connect with Gallagher’s cross, only to head the ball onto his hand, was the latest example that finishing is not a strength of Jackson’s, or anyone at Chelsea apart from Palmer. Havertz, though, has never found it easier. That may hurt Chelsea most of all.