On the 29th May 2021, Chelsea won their second UEFA Champions League (UCL) title. Going in as underdogs, the blues defeated the Premier League Champions Manchester City led by Pep Guardiola who had only lost one final up to that point in his illustrious career. The triumph was yet more bad news for Arsenal fans as their stronghold on being London’s biggest club took another battering and in some people’s eyes it was the final straw, Chelsea had officially become a bigger club than Arsenal.
For the majority of football fans, the status of London’s biggest football club has always been held by Arsenal. By 2004, Arsenal had secured their 13th league title, the London club with the second most was Tottenham Hotspur who had two and Chelsea only had one. Arsenal had always dominated London through their success, influence, and fanbase and by the end of the 2003/04 season, the gap between Arsenal and Chelsea’s success was huge.
Consequently, it was very hard for one to envisage a major resurgence at Chelsea. The west London club had endured significant periods of hardship, including a narrow escape from liquidation, almost losing Stamford Bridge, and relegation to the second tier of English football in 1988. This was a league that Arsenal had never played in and Chelsea’s sudden implosion reflected a fierce decline in its history. One thing was clear though. They were in desperate need of reinvigoration and stability. However, who knew Chelsea would be in the position that they’re at in 2021. Their overwhelming successes in recent years has been remarkable but ultimately the seed was sown in 2003 by a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich.
In June 2003, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea from Ken Bates in what was the biggest takeover in British football history. Although people like to label Chelsea as a “nothing” club before Abramovich’s takeover, that is far from the truth. The seven seasons prior to Abramovich arriving, the Blues never finished outside the top 6 and finished in the top 4 on three occasions. Furthermore, Chelsea had won the FA Cup twice (1997, 2000), League Cup (1998), UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup (1998) and UEFA Super Cup (1998). Although this was nowhere as impressive as Arsenal’s 2 Premier League titles (1998, 2002) and 3 FA Cups (1998, 2002, 2003) in the same period, it is fair to say that Chelsea had some relevance but still nowhere near a match for Arsenal.
However, since Abramovich’s takeover until now, Chelsea have been the most successful club in London by a wide margin. If you accumulated all the trophies won by the other London clubs and compared them to Chelsea since 2003, they would not even come close. Abramovich’s investment in the club has taken Chelsea to new heights and accomplished unbelievable triumphs their main London rivals could only imagine replicating.
One of Arsenal’s biggest arguments for still being London’s number one team is that they have more trophies (47) than Chelsea (30). However, when you remove the Community Shield, a trophy with very little significance, the trophy counts look very comparable as Arsenal’s tally is heavily taken down to 31 while Chelsea’s only reduces to 26.
However, an important fact to consider is that since 1950 until now, Chelsea have actually won more major accolades (23) than Arsenal (20). Now, one could argue that football did not begin in 1950 therefore titles won before that period should also be included but it should be assessed whether trophies won prior to a point in time still have any significance to how big a club is in the modern-day and we will explore this in the next paragraph.
When we look at First Division League titles, Arsenal are far ahead of Chelsea with 13, while the blues only have 6. However, it is important to view these titles in context. For example, Sunderland have the same amount of First Division titles as Chelsea but they won all of those titles before 1936. No one in 2021 could tell you that Sunderland are anywhere close to being as big as Chelsea due to their 6 League titles won 85 years ago, whereas Chelsea have won 5 League titles in the last 16 years.
In Arsenal’s case, 6 of their League titles were won before 1950, not to undermine this achievement but do these hold much significance given how long ago they were won and most fans of today would not be old enough to remember. Not to rewrite history but it is plausible to argue that trophies won in the last 20-30 years hold more weight in the present day than those won almost 70+ years ago.
Now, Arsenal does still have an impressive Division 1 League title record given that they have won 7 past 1950 which is still more than Chelsea, but since Arsenal last won a league title in 2004, Chelsea have won 5.
Arguably, this is one of Chelsea’s biggest arguments for being London’s number one club. On the European stage, Chelsea’s success considerably outweighs that of Arsenal. In Arsenal’s entire history they have only won 2 European trophies; the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1970 (a trophy not recognised by UEFA) and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994.
Chelsea, on the other hand, have won 2 UCL titles (considered the biggest trophy to win at European club level), 2 UEFA Europa League titles (UEFA’s second-biggest competition), 2 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cups and the UEFA Super Cup. Chelsea have stacked up their European honours in such a way that Arsenal cannot compete with them.
Additionally, Chelsea have been Arsenal’s nemesis on the two occasions they have met in a European competition. In Arsenal’s glorious 2004 season where they won the league unbeaten, Chelsea knocked out Arsenal’s invincibles in the UCL quarter-finals. Also, in the 2019 Europa League Final, Chelsea demolished Arsenal 4-1 showcasing their European pedigree over the Gunners.
When you closely scrutinise Arsenal and Chelsea’s performances in European competition, Arsenal have a poor record. Since 2000, Chelsea have been to 5 UCL semi-finals and 3 UCL finals (winning two). On the other hand, Arsenal have only been to one UCL semi-final and one UCL final, which is disappointing given that they qualified for the knockout stages for 14 seasons in a row from 2004-2016. Furthermore, Arsenal are about to go into their 5th consecutive season being out of Europe’s top competition and for the first time in 25 years, Arsenal will not be in any form of European competition due to their uninspiring low league finish in the 2020/21 season. For a club the size that Arsenal claims to be, they have one of the worst European resumes going.
Although Arsenal fans would argue that clubs like Celtic, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, and even Tottenham have more desirable European pedigree than them but are not bigger. But as the famous song goes, Chelsea are the only team in London to win the European Cup.
In domestic cup counts, Arsenal’s record is impressive which shows although they do not thrive on the European stage, they still rule London domestically. Arsenal have a domestic record of 14 FA Cups, Chelsea have only won 8. Also, in Arsenal’s last 2 FA Cup triumphs in 2017 and 2020, they beat Chelsea both times in the final. Although not considered a major trophy, Arsenal have won 16 Community Shields which is an impressive feat, whereas Chelsea have only won 4. However, Chelsea do have more League Cup winners’ medals at 5 compared to Arsenal who only have 2.
There is a clear divide, Arsenal have more success domestically, whereas Chelsea have more success on the European landscape.
Another reason why Chelsea are seen as bigger is because they act like a bigger club. The winning culture of the club stemming from Abramovich is key to what has elevated their growth into one of the Premier League giants because anything less than success is not tolerated at Chelsea. When expectations are not being met, Abramovich will not hesitate to fire and replace the coaches and this is evident in the fact that Chelsea have had 17 managerial changes since 2003.
The 2020/21 season is a perfect illustration of why Chelsea have become successful. Despite being Chelsea’s all-time record goalscorer, Lampard failed to meet expectations as Chelsea manager. As a result, he was relieved of his duties just halfway into the season even though he had exceeded expectations in the previous season. Abramovich replaced Lampard with Thomas Tuchel who then subsequently led Chelsea to winning their second Champions League in the same season. Meanwhile, the Arsenal hierarchy has backed rookie manager Mikel Arteta who finished 8th place in his first full season, while being knocked out of the Europa League in back-to-back seasons to Olympiacos and Villarreal in embarrassing fashion. Although he did win the FA Cup in his first season, there is absolutely no way that Abramovich accepts that level of mediocrity at Chelsea.
Although Abramovich has come under criticism over the years for his ruthless approach, however in his defence the strategy appears to be working based on their successes. Given that he has invested heavily in the club, it is fair to say that he is well within his right to stipulate particular expectations and have high ambitions. In the eyes of some, his demands may be considered as unreasonable. One thing for sure is that he is an owner who acts in the best interests of the club. Since 2010, Chelsea have spent almost £600m more than Arsenal on player acquisitions, thanks to the investment from Abramovich, which has been a key factor in their constant success. However, the stubbornness of Arsenal’s owner, Stan Kroenke, and his reluctance to invest in the club financially has led to a lack of ambition in the transfer market. Inevitably, this has contributed to the sudden decline of Arsenal allowing Chelsea to catch up. It is no surprise that there have been calls for new ownership from the fans, but that is a discussion for another time.
When it comes to fanbases, they are also very close. Historically, Arsenal have always had a bigger fanbase than Chelsea. Although Arsenal have been declining, the glory days under Arsene Wenger still live on and many supporters in different regions around the globe still have huge admiration for the club. But, given the rise in popularity of social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, these are also a great way for clubs to engage with supporters and build up a fanbase globally.
According to the latest figures as of the 19th July, Arsenal have more Twitter followers at 17.6m, Chelsea has 17.3m. However, on all other social media platforms, Chelsea have more. On Tik Tok, Chelsea has 3.5m, Arsenal has 1.1m. On YouTube, Chelsea has 2.9m subscribers, Arsenal has 2.3m. On Instagram, Chelsea blitz Arsenal with an impressive 27.9m followers, whereas Arsenal only have 19.6m. Even when you look at jersey sales, it really is tooth and nail in comparison. Although social media on its own doesn’t indicate who is a bigger club, it does show that Chelsea is attracting a bigger global audience than Arsenal and this may be down to their success compared to Arsenal’s lack of in recent years.
Just better or bigger?
There is no doubt that since Abramovich has been at the helm, Chelsea have been considerably better than Arsenal, they have won 5 League Titles, 5 FA Cups, 2 UCLs, 2 Europa Leagues, 3 League Cups. Whereas Arsenal in that same period have only won 5 FA Cups, including a period where they went 9 years without winning any major trophy. Also, in the last 18 seasons, Arsenal have only finished above Chelsea 3 times in the league! Surely if Arsenal were London’s club they wouldn’t almost always be finishing below their rivals.
Although, in the 5 major finals the clubs have contested against each other (2002 FA Cup Final, 2007 League Cup Final, 2017 FA Cup Final, 2019 Europa League Final, and 2020 FA Cup Final), Arsenal do edge Chelsea by winning the 3 FA Cup Finals. Also, in the Premier League era, Arsenal have won more games against Chelsea winning 22, whereas Chelsea only has 19 PL wins against Arsenal.
Although Arsenal’s superiority in the capital for such a long time should not be forgotten, the question is does Chelsea’s 20 years of constant modern-day success outweigh a generation of history?
In conclusion, this debate can go back and forth all day but the general consensus I gather is that Chelsea are at least on par with Arsenal in terms of who is the biggest club in London. The monumental gap built up by Arsenal’s impressive history looks to be all but gone. Chelsea’s success over the last 20 years coinciding with Arsenal’s decline has elevated them to London’s club. Given the differences in hierarchical decisions alongside the current trajectory of both clubs at the moment, it will only be a matter of time before it is universally accepted that Chelsea is now the biggest club in London. Although some Arsenal fans will cling to the fact that Chelsea’s success has not yet been sustained for long enough to claim that they are bigger than Arsenal.