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Collapse at Arsenal encapsulates Chelsea’s lifeless, pointless celebrity product

Photo by Rodion Kutsaiev on Unsplash

Before that the headlines will rightly be about Arsenal, on a night when their own apparently doomed title push thrust a fist up through the turf and dragged itself back up on to its it feet. A 3-1 win means that Arsenal are now two points clear at the top of the league, albeit having played two matches more than a Manchester City team that seems to win games these days simply by turning up and pointing itself vaguely in the right direction. Arsenal were peppy and busy and full of clever angles for as long as it was necessary to be any of those things, which wasn’t very long at all.

For the home supporters and the manager this game wasn’t really about this season, not completely anyway. The games that remain are more about confirming that this team is real, that the energy and the structures will indeed be there next year, that something of substance has been created, not just a single-season apparition.

Mikel Arteta’s team duly tore into Chelsea. Martin Ødegaard was irresistible in the opening 20 minutes, tucked in between the lines and always in a state of rotation, body angled to the pass, a footballer who was born on the half‑turn.

But beneath this spectacle there was another object of deep fascination here. In the midst of life we are in death. Silence please, for one of the fullest expressions to date of Chelsea’s own complex and at times quite chilling sense of sporting entropy. Everyone knows Chelsea are bad. Defeat here made it six on the reel for Frank Lampard, the head coach with more Ls than Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. Chelsea have spent more than any other club in Europe, and are now level on points with a team whose manager took one look at his squad in early season and abruptly left.

But it isn’t just this. It is instead the way Chelsea are bad. What is this thing, parading across the stage in the weeds of Chelsea FC, eyes blazing with dead energy, a skinny hand clamped on your wrist, leaning in to tell its tale of stolen youth and wasted days, idle as a painted ship on a painted ocean?

Freud said that the basis of all horror stories is an uncertainty as to whether an entity is dead or alive. And fair play to the boy Sigmund, he pretty much called it. This Chelsea iteration is what football would have looked like in the invite-only Super League, not so much a team as a deathly and pointless celebrity product. Let’s have an all-star game. Let’s hoard all the money to buy all the players. Let’s flex our fangs and wring every last drop of revenue out of this thing right now. Let’s kill and move on.

Chelsea’s starting XI was at least interesting and disruptive and weird, which seem to be the qualities the ownership admires most. Here is a Kremlin-era stalwart, here a supermarket-sweep oddity, some casino-chip players, some buy‑one‑get‑one‑frees.

At kick‑off the air inside the Emirates Stadium had turned a lovely cool powder blue. And Arsenal were smooth and slick and full of that familiar precision fury early on. The opening goal came from a total collapse of resistance. Granit Xhaka had time to pea-roll a low bobbly cross through the Chelsea penalty area, close to some players in blue who seemed mesmerised by this rolling white orb. Ødegaard was left free to apply the full force of his left foot, sending it high into the net past Kepa Arrizabalaga’s clasping hand.

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In an excellent satirical twist the second goal came from the same space, the same cross, the same finish, this time Leandro Trossard passing for Ødegaard to score again. The third goal arrived on 34 minutes, Gabriel Jesus smashing it in after a scramble.

And through all this the story behind the story was the extraordinary spectacle of Chelsea FC, a footballing death in life. What have you done Todd Boehly (and associates)? How have you drained this thing so mercilessly? This is sport as greed-ridden incoherence, as a game of celebrity stocks and shares. It’s a bad plan enacted badly by people who are bad at enacting plans. It is, at its full extension, the death of all this: anti-sport, un-football.

Chelsea did play with a little more energy in the second half. Noni Madueke scored his first goal for the club. And so that funeral procession marches on. If Chelsea lose at the weekend they will find themselves below Bournemouth and possibly Wolves. There is an argument that there has never been a team this badly built, a team that so clearly points the way towards a loss of anything that looks like actual sport. For this much, English football should probably be grateful.

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