André Villas-Boas threw a protective shield around John Terry, only for his captain's renowned resilience to desert him
Innocent until proven guilty of a racial slur against Anton Ferdinand, John Terry could safely be condemned for his part in a dreadful display by Chelsea's defenders as the English game's elite laid on another circus.
After Manchester United 8 Arsenal 2 and Manchester United 1 Manchester City 6, Chelsea conceded five at home for the first time in the Premier League. The tactic of being nicer and nicer about Terry as the week wore on brought no reward for André Villas-Boas, the Chelsea manager, who shielded him from public suspicion, but could not protect him from Robin van Persie, who destroyed the hosts with two memorable late goals.
"Racist, racist," Arsenal fans chanted at Terry after half an hour, raising the stakes from intermittent booing. "There's only one England captain," the Chelsea crowd responded. Stamford Bridge has served for many years as the private theatre in which Terry plays out his troubles. The saga with Wayne Bridge's ex that caused him to lose the England captaincy was a Mills and Boon plot compared to the storms of the past week, in which Terry admitted using the phrase "fucking black cunt", but claims he did so only to deny using it in the first place against Ferdinand.
As I typed those vile words here, a black member of Chelsea's staff arrived at the work station, thus adding to the uncomfortable and unreal sense that pervaded Stamford Bridge all day. There was no clear way to address the fall-out from Loftus Road last Sunday, when Chelsea lost to Queens Park Rangers, but it could be felt everywhere, from the presence of so many black players on the field of play to Villas-Boas's clipped response to questions on the issue: "For me, it was never a situation. It's an FA investigation so let them investigate."
Terry came through the press room looking weary and dispirited. He awaits the outcome of police and Football Association investigations into his conduct last weekend, which was broadcast endlessly on the internet. As it turned out, Villas-Boas was wrong to think he could erect a cordon around his captain by telling journalists they should be "proud" to see him wear the England armband and ought to cut him some extra slack on the basis of his status in the national side.
Chelsea's defensive meltdown had many causes, but Terry's absent-mindedness was certainly one. When one second-half Chelsea move broke down, both centre-backs were stranded up the pitch and had to sprint back to deal with an Arsenal counter-attack. This was before Van Persie's great flourish closed the deal for Arsène Wenger's men. It would never have happened under José Mourinho, or several other of the nine Chelsea managers Wenger has faced in his 15 years in London.
It was Arsenal who started out with the dubious back-four. Johan Djourou (right) and Andre Santos (left) scuffled either side of Per Mertesacker, the German centre-back who seems determined to impose his own pace on the Premier League.
Chelsea guarded their safe with a familiar combination: José Bosingwa, Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole, who, Terry claimed, had obscured a vital piece of evidence when wandering across the picture at Loftus Road just before Terry uttered the alleged insult at Ferdinand. The whole JT legend dictates that he is endlessly resilient and will face down any moral challenge. Well, even he can see the disastrous potential of that TV clip from Loftus Road.
He scored, he slipped, he lost heavily, In chronological order, Terry saw another old-gang member, Frank Lampard, put Chelsea in front, then Van Persie equalise. Next he met a Chelsea corner to restore his team's lead a minute before half-time and wheeled away to be enveloped by his team-mates, black and white.
Was this to be an afternoon of cliches about his fortitude under pressure? No. André Santos equalised for Arsenal, Theo Walcott made it 3-2, Juan Mata equalised again, then came the moment photographers will have fired back to their desks. As Florent Malouda played a simple back-pass, Terry's studs slipped through the turf and Van Persie swooped, rounding Petr Cech to finish before crashing in Arsenal's fifth in added time.
"I would argue with anyone that our defensive organisation was a problem before this game. We committed mistakes today we will try to resolve," Villas-Boas said. Yet this was the first time since 2003 that Chelsea had failed to keep a clean sheet in nine consecutive league games. The cost of a more free-flowing style is vulnerability at the back, where Mikel John Obi continues to baffle and frustrate in the holding role.
"It's our way of playing, we are proud of the way we play," Villas-Boas said. But in one week Chelsea have been plunged into an alleged racism scandal, been fined £20,000 for crowding a referee, had three players sent off and lost a battle over the future of Stamford Bridge to Chelsea Pitch Owners. After league defeats to QPR and Arsenal come trips to Genk and Blackburn before the visit of Liverpool.
This is suddenly a team at odds with itself, defensively suspect and unsure of its new direction. Villas-Boas spent all week saying Terry was an asset, to Chelsea, England and society. On the pitch, in this thrilling, accident-laden game, the case for the defence was not well made.