* What a fitting end to a week of reminiscence and nostalgia. Almost 20 years to the day since Arsene Wenger was unveiled as Arsenal manager, Saturday’s victory felt like a testimonial for their long-serving and often long-suffering boss. The Emirates Stadium has been the home of divided opinions and intense inner conflict over the past decade, but it was united in jubilation at the weekend.
“Style and steel” were the two words Wenger used to describe the comfortable 3-0 victory over Chelsea; it is difficult to find a more accurate and concise summary. In the first half, Arsenal were at their effervescent best, slicing through an ambling Chelsea defence with ease. That Petr Cech lost possession more times than any other player (21) shows just how mindful and efficient the outfielders were on the ball. Alexis Sanchez was unmarkable; Alex Iwobi was unstoppable; Mesut Ozil was unparalleled; Theo Walcott continues an unlikely renaissance. The Gunners, to a man, were brilliant.
But Wenger might have been even more impressed with his side’s performance in the second half. Arsenal have dismantled teams with consummate ease before, but they often waiver when it comes to defending a lead. The style had been showcased; now for the steel. Every member of the defence rose to the challenge, stifling any hope of a Chelsea comeback by absorbing what little pressure the opposition posed, before using their dynamism and pace to launch dangerous counter-attack after dangerous counter-attack. This was Arsenal at their destructive best.
* And it was Chelsea at their implosive worst. Antonio Conte arrived to much fanfare in the summer, and a promising start merely intensified the early-season optimism. After convincing Premier League defeats to two of their most bitter rivals in consecutive weeks, that positive feeling has long since dissipated.
The most damning indictment of this loss is that Chelsea and, most disappointingly, Conte, had learned nothing from their loss against Liverpool the previous week. They played with a high defensive line against the Reds, but opted to drop back as opposed to pressing the opposition when out of possession. A struggling defence forced the midfield back which, in turn, isolated the striker. It was the exact same story here, and considering the similarities in Liverpool’s attack compared to Arsenal’s – for Sturridge, Coutinho, Mane and Lallana, read Sanchez, Ozil, Iwobi and Walcott – it was absolutely no surprise. Fool Conte once, shame on you. Fool him twice and, well, you know the rest.
* It was in the respective starting line-ups that Wenger scored the first psychological blow on a managerial adversary he had never faced before. The Frenchman had taken his place in the dugout as Arsenal boss against 11 different Chelsea managers; Conte was his latest foe.
The temptation for many would have been to restore Olivier Giroud to the side from the beginning, with the striker posing comfortably the biggest physical threat of any Arsenal forward. But Wenger, whose team selection deservedly came under fire against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League in particular, made a brave call, and made the right call. Sanchez reprised his role as the nominal striker in a fearsome and interchanging front four.
Whether he was influenced to do so after watching Liverpool wreak havoc on a weary Chelsea defence by using a similar tactic is unknown, but Conte played straight into Wenger’s hands. The Italian made one change to his starting line-up, allowing Cesc Fabregas to bask in a universally welcoming Emirates Stadium atmosphere upon his return to the club. That meant the same defence which failed to cope with Liverpool kept their place. That meant the same defence which failed to cope with Liverpool struggled to an even greater extent here.
* An insight into how the game would unfold was provided within 11 minutes. Arsenal burst out of the blocks, while Chelsea were pedestrian at best. Branislav Ivanovic sauntered over the halfway line in possession, but found no willing outlet in any of his teammates. He took the easy option, passing the ball back to Gary Cahill.
The Englishman had been put in a similar situation already this season. It was after the 2-2 draw with Swansea earlier this month that Cahill claimed a man on the moon could see he was fouled in the build-up to a goal for the Welsh side. A man in another galaxy could see that he and he alone was culpable this time around. Leroy Fer had benefited from his crippling indecision on that occasion, robbing him as he took far too long in attempting to pass the ball back to the keeper, before bundling the ball home. This time it was Alexis Sanchez who engaged in daylight robbery, pressuring a man clearly uncomfortable in possession, intercepting a woefully underhit backpass, and calmly lofting the ball over Thibaut Courtois.
Cahill has now made more errors leading to a goal than any other Premier League player this season. He could not point the finger of blame at anyone else this time; not even David Luiz.
* That was Arsenal’s first Premier League goal against Chelsea since January 2013. Naturally, a second followed minutes later. While Sanchez’s opener was borne from individual error, Walcott’s second was a quite wonderful team effort.
— Telegraph Football (@TeleFootball) September 24, 2016
When Francis Coquelin intercepted a headed clearance by N’Golo Kante in the 13th minute, few could have expected what would follow. It took Arsenal just 20 seconds to pierce the heart of the Chelsea defence from there. Seven different players were involved in the goal, from Coquelin, to Cazorla, to Mustafi, to Ozil, to Iwobi. And finally to Walcott who, having played one of the ten passes in the build-up, showcased a killer instinct all too often lacking in his game by seeking space in the box before applying a simple finish from Hector Bellerin’s cross. His fine season continues. He has scored five goals in each of the last three Premier League seasons; this was his third strike in just six games this campaign.
* Iwobi played a vital role in that goal, drifting into a central position to combine with Ozil before picking out Bellerin’s run with an inch-perfect pass. The Nigerian was wonderful throughout. When you do not score or assist any of the goals in a 3-0 win and are substituted on 69 minutes, yet you are still voted as man of the match, you know you have done well.
The most striking statistic in his performance was that he lost possession just eight times, the fewest of any Arsenal starter aside from Coquelin. And the Frenchman, who was dispossessed five times, was withdrawn after 32 minutes. Iwobi was a constant menace to the Chelsea defence, and workmanlike instead of wasteful on the ball. The youngest player on the pitch looked like one of the most accomplished; it is still not even a year since he made his first-team debut.
* Branislav Ivanovic was the man tasked with nullifying Iwobi’s threat, and it was a situation steeped in symbolism. The Arsenal winger is a glowing representation of all that is positive at Arsenal: the confident forward who will be a key member of the first team in years to come.
The Chelsea right-back, on the other hand, is the personification of everything that is wrong at his club: the ageing relic who must now step aside and allow the future to flourish. He was our early loser last week; hopefully owner Roman Abramovich has finally seen enough to sanction the demotion of his friend.
The Serbian registered the lowest passing accuracy (79.6%) of any Chelsea starter aside from Diego Costa, won possession just three times, and lost it on 14 occasions – more than any other defender. Cahill was abysmal, but Ivanovic was no better.
* Conte made no attempt to disguise his disgust at Chelsea’s defending. When he was appointed manager in the summer, the one thing the Italian guaranteed was that he would tighten the Blues’ backline. In his three seasons as Juventus manager, the Turin side conceded just 67 goals – an average of 0.58 per game. Under his guidance, Italy conceded the fewest goals of any side to progress past the group stage at Euro 2016.
But Cahill, David Luiz and Ivanovic are not Leonardo Bonucci, Leonardo Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini. It must be said that Chelsea reportedly did not manage to secure any of Conte’s primary transfer targets this summer. It is certainly unfathomable that the Italian set out to sign David Luiz and Marcos Alonso on deadline day. Even Kante was a supposed back-up option to Radja Nainggolan. Someone, be that Conte, Abramovich, Michael Emenalo or Eva Carneiro, must shoulder the blame for another year of poor player recruitment. This time last summer, Jose Mourinho was bemoaning the fact that the club could only manage to sign Michael Hector and Papy Djilobodji.
* It was not until Arsenal’s third goal that the chasm between their attack and Chelsea’s defence was exemplified. It also highlighted the difference in performances between Ozil and Kante. The former was excellent; the latter continues to struggle as he seeks to replicate his title-winning form of last season.
As yet another Chelsea attack met a stoic Arsenal defence, Ozil received the ball from Koscielny. Within an instant, the German did what few could last season: he made Kante look incredibly ordinary. He dropped a shoulder and burst forward, leaving the former Leicester midfielder in his wake, before combining with devastating efficiency with Sanchez to make it 3-0.
What was most striking about the goal was Kante’s reaction to being duped by Ozil. The energetic Frenchman jogged back, a far cry from the player who chased down any and every lost cause for Leicester. The 25-year-old made 4.7 tackles and 4.2 interceptions last season – the most of any player in the Premier League. He now ranks 14th for tackles (3.5 per game) and 60th for interceptions (1.8 per game).
Despite his vital importance to the team who won the Premier League title last season, Kante is fulfilling a different remit for Chelsea. Conte demands more positional discipline from his midfielders, meaning the freedom the 25-year-old was granted to cover every yard of the pitch has been removed. It reinforced the notion that Kante was not his manager’s first choice. But the question must be asked as to why Chelsea spent £30million on a player this summer, only to ask him to play completely differently.
* By the second half, Arsenal were happy to allow Chelsea to have the ball. They had already humiliated their bitter rivals by taking the initiative; now to do the same on the counter-attack. It was a perfect game-plan exacted by Wenger, but, inevitably, there were times Chelsea threatened going forward. One such occasion saw substitute Pedro burst through and bear down on goal. But Hector Bellerin, who had started and played 73 minutes by that point, displayed incredible pace and pinpoint precision to execute a flawless sliding tackle. The Arsenal faithful celebrated gleefully. In many ways, it was more decisive than any of the three goals they had scored.
* Much of the pre-game build-up revolved around two things: a former Chelsea manager threatening to break Wenger’s face, and the prospect of Diego Costa once more embarrassing an Arsenal defence. In the last two meetings between the two sides, the Spanish striker was cast as the cunning villain, playing a key role in getting Gabriel and Per Mertesacker sent off. He scored the only goal in their last game.
Wenger’s answer as to how his defenders would cope with the antagonist seemed hopeful. “By being completely cold-blooded and just focus on the game and not respond,” he said. “Just try to negate his qualities and his game.” Koscielny in particular had struggled to cope with the Chelsea forward previously, but the Frenchman was imperious. Costa was restricted to two touches in the Arsenal penalty area, and none in the second half. He did not have a single shot on target, he did not create a chance, and he won 55.6% of his duels, compared to Koscielny’s 75%. By the end of the game, a centre-half who had previously failed to deal with Costa’s antics allowed the striker to vacate his back pocket.
At one stage in particular, Koscielny showcased the “cold-bloodedness” that Wenger sought in his players. As he and Costa battled for the ball, the Chelsea striker tumbled to ground, having been tripped by his adversary. It was he who reacted, chasing down the Frenchman and complaining, as if he were a child who had just been told to go to bed early. Michael Oliver, who refereed the game excellently throughout, showed him a yellow card. The humiliation was complete.
* As wonderful as Koscielny was, praise must also be reserved for his central-defensive partner. Shkodran Mustafi continues to show why Mertesacker and Gabriel will fail to win back their places in the first team once they return from injury.
Koscielny made the most clearances (seven) and blocks (two) of any player on the pitch, but his German teammate was just as impressive. Mustafi led the game with six interceptions, made five clearances of his own, and no Arsenal player made more tackles (three). He even registered two shots. Had the Gunners signed him even a fraction earlier, their season would not have started in such regrettable circumstances. But he is here now, and he has made a huge difference.
* On 77 minutes, having witnessed three goals and an excellent defensive performance, Arsenal fans finally got what they had demanded throughout: Granit Xhaka had a shot. It may have soared over the crossbar, but it was celebrated nonetheless.
Despite scoring two goals in successive games, there was no surprise to see Xhaka start the game on the bench. Wenger’s preference for midfield pairs meant that Cazorla and Coquelin would reprise their roles. But the latter’s injury after just half an hour granted the summer signing a longer outing than he would have expected.
He displayed once more why he is already competing with Cazorla to be recognised as Arsenal’s finest midfielder. He may not have started, but he completed the third-most passes of any player for the home side (49), and at the highest passing accuracy (93.9%). It was the Switzerland star’s ability to transition from defence to attack with a single pass that made him Arsenal’s most dangerous outlet on the counter-attack. Coquelin’s injury is most certainly unfortunate, but one man’s loss could be Xhaka’s gain.
* Is there any one player more capable of epitomising the gulf in quality between one side and another than Ozil? The German was in his element, entertaining the home crowd with insouciant flicks and effortless no-look passes. His turn to deceive Kante deserved a booking, such was the embarrassment he had inflicted on his peer. There was a celebratory atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium, almost boastful, and the 27-year-old cast himself as the primary crowd-pleaser.
* If Conte and Chelsea are to learn anything from this game, it is that a two-man defence simply won’t work under the manager’s current demands. It is hardly flattering that Cahill can only perform to his best when partnered with a 35-year-old John Terry, and Luiz has hardly had the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.
By 55 minutes, Conte has surrendered the game, allowing it to serve as an experiment. Fabregas was substituted to the delight of the Arsenal fans, and Marcos Alonso came on for his Premier League debut. It facilitated a change to a three-man central defence, and Chelsea did look somewhat more resolute. More importantly, it gave them options going forward, which had been sorely lacking beforehand. Luiz also looked infinitely more comfortable in possession, with one pass to set Michy Batshuayi free particularly impressive.
Alonso may have played fewer than 40 minutes, but the summer signing made the most tackles of any Chelsea player, with four. The Spaniard has earned an opportunity to start, meaning Cesar Azpilicueta should switch over to the right-hand side of a five-man defence, and Ivanovic can eventually be phased out when Terry or Zouma return.
* Arsenal fans would be forgiven for thinking there were few negatives, if any, to take away from this game. Coquelin’s injury may prove to be one sour note, but a) his injury may not be too severe, and b) Arsenal have more than enough options to cover his absence in midfield.
Rio Ferdinand was quick to identify another flaw, of course, for Arsenal players committed a cardinal sin at the final whistle: They celebrated.
“Unless you’re winning, that gives everyone else ammunition,” he told BT Sport after the game, having just seen a player celebrate by posting a picture online of a dressing room revelling in a huge victory. “You don’t even have to have a team talk. I’d put that [the picture] up in the changing room next time I play Arsenal.
“I’d shut that down [if I were a manager],” was Ferdinand’s final missive. His words will surely be echoed by fellow former professionals, bemoaning the ‘social media’ culture at the club.
It completely misses the point. This was a massive victory for Arsenal, not only in the scoreline, but in the psychological hurdle they had just overcome. The Gunners’ last Premier League win in this fixture came in October 2011. Chelsea had avoided defeat – and more often inflicted it – against their bitter rivals in their last nine league meetings. Arsenal have also faced much criticism – some due, some undue – already this season, despite now sitting third in the table. The celebrations are not a sign of weakness, or a ‘small-time’ mentality; they bear evidence of a dressing room united in its desire to perform, to compete, and to win.