Chelsea’s human soup of a team displays club DNA: all filler, no killer

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Chelsea;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Chelsea</a> appeared to be indulging in a kind of protest activity as they capitulated against Arsenal.</span><span>Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images</span>

Wait. Is this a twist? Is this a sting, a surge, a volte-face? Or is it just how it feels to play Chelsea, opponents so poor they seemed at times to be indulging in a kind of protest activity, non-sport, football as an act of extended standing around waiting for it to be over.

It is a measure of Manchester City’s dominance that the last week has brought a peculiar feeling that Arsenal’s season is already over, despite still being top of the table. Here Arsenal went three points clear of Liverpool and four clear of City (who have two games in hand) with a performance that felt, if nothing else, like a kind of liberation.

Related: Havertz and White run riot for Arsenal to crush Chelsea in boost to title hopes

This always seemed likely to be the week of make or break for the title race. But this was also just a fascinating game of football in its own right. Kai Havertz had a wonderful game, restored to his ambling false 9 role, one of the great positives of Arsenal’s season. Martin Ødegaard was sublime, such an odd mix of roughhouse pressing and wonderful surgical passing, like being hounded to death by a poet.

Ødegaard has led this Arsenal team, who still feel like they have been the best in the league this year, have scored the most goals, won most convincingly. Will it mean anything, in the end, to score five against a Chelsea team that collapsed like a cardboard box in the rain? Manchester City haven’t seemed happy. It feels like a struggle suddenly. Pep Guardiola has been whining, weirdly, about tiredness. They will at least be forced to win this thing now.

And of course, it helped that Chelsea were quite this bad. How unusual to win a game 5-0 in the final knockings of a title race and yet somehow it is the opposition who feel like the story here. This is how bad Chelsea were. Even the teamsheet had the feeling of end-times, leftovers, football in the post-apocalypse.

Mudryk-Madueke-Jackson-Gallagher. This is a strange human soup, disparate parts, human talent as amortised numbers. We are the stuffed men. We are the hollow men. We are the Chelsea midfield. Imagine not beating this Chelsea team 5-0.

In a way it was refreshing. There is so much heavy systems football around. How liberating to see a team with no plan whatsoever. At one point Enzo Fernández carried the ball forward 30 yards, then just seemed to run out of bandwidth, stopping then starting again, visibly confused. Conor Gallagher’s only real job early on was to sprint in and stand in front of every Arsenal free‑kick. Well, it’s a living.

Talent has been hoarded here. But why? This is the question Chelsea seem to ask with every sideways pass, every shrugging restart. There is a serious drop off in quality in this Chelsea team without Cole Palmer and Malo Gusto. One odd thing about the 18-month mega-splurge was the narrow range of talent. Chelsea bought a lot of deeply room-temperature footballers. All filler no killer. This is our DNA now: the yeah-maybe player.

The Emirates had been chilly and a little low key at kick-off, still bruised perhaps from the last 10 days. The opening goal came early on, a product of Thomas Partey, playing behind Declan Rice, producing a nice quick simple pass to Rice who fed it on to Leandro Trossard. The shot just went through Djordje Petrovic, the ball somehow passing through his feet as he tumbled backwards like a poorly constructed Jenga tower.

Arsenal dozed and muddled along for a bit. Half-time came and went. And in the space of 10 minutes Arsenal killed the game. First Ødegaard did something beautiful, producing a reverse pass from a standing start, fizzed in a flat straight line, looking the other way, right into Havertz’s feet in front of goal.

Petrovic blocked, but from the corner it was 2-0, Ben White whacking a loose ball into the net as Chelsea’s players experimented with the precise limits of how close you can stand to a game of football without having any affect at all on its outcome.

Ødegaard did it again moments later, a through pass from inside his own half curved into the path of Havertz, who skated away, head up, knees high, like some flannel-shorted cinder‑track middle distance merchant, before smashing the ball high into the net.

With 65 minutes gone it was Havertz again, Chelsea’s defenders feigning football-style activity as he had time to stop and jink and clip a shot inside the near post. Arsenal’s 24th shot at goal made it 5-0. It wasn’t really a shot, more a kind of scuffed volleyed cross from Ben White, having fun, trying a thing.

This may or may not have been a turning point. Probably it is all a little late now. But it felt, at the very least, like a statement of life for this team; and a promise to fight to the end.