16 Conclusions: Arsenal 1-2 Chelsea

Date published: Sunday 29th December 2019 6:01

1) Lead for 70 minutes. Lose in four. Convince the watching public that lessons have been learned. Fail the final exam. Make giant strides forward. Follow them with huge leaps back. Proudly display your delightful, shiny new firearm. Proceed to shoot yourself incessantly in the foot with absolutely no warning.

It is going to take Arsenal more than nine days, two games and one potentially revolutionary managerial appointment to cure them of themselves. They end the decade precisely as they started it: as their own infuriating, unpredictably predictable worst enemy.

 

2) Let’s focus on the positives of Mikel Arteta’s first home game. Arsenal were disciplined, focused, unified for large swathes of this match. When they were not attacking with the verve and intent they displayed in the opening half an hour, they were defending with an unerring calm and control. They earned a lead and, for more than three-quarters of the match, deserved to protect it.

Arteta’s task is to remedy that final quarter of Arsenal’s game, those last imperfections that seem as though they will forever haunt them. This was a tantalising example of what he can do, undermined what Arsenal always do. The improvement he elicited should not be forgotten. The body of work he faces should not be overlooked.

 

3) And then there’s Frank Lampard. He made a mistake with his starting line-up, an error in his overall approach and benefited from an immense amount of fortune. In football management more than most other professions, there is a fine line between genius and insanity; he lost his balance and fell onto the right side of that divide.

What looked destined to be six defeats from eight Premier League games can now be pitched as two wins from three, both against bitter, intense rivals. It took Jose Mourinho until January of his first season to beat one of the previous campaign’s top six sides away from home. Lampard has beaten one of his many predecessors by a month and thrown in another such victory for good measure.

 

4) There was a stark difference in the win against Tottenham to this, of course. Chelsea burst out of the blocks a week ago, established superiority and an early lead and never looked like letting it slip. They suffered a false start against Arsenal but reminded everyone that this was a marathon, not a sprint by the end.

Which is to say that both wins were secured as a direct result of Lampard’s management, albeit in completely opposite ways. He set Chelsea up perfectly against Tottenham and the perfect gameplan needed no changes; his Arsenal system was a glaring mistake that he corrected in-game, thus removing one of the few question marks that remain against his name.

It was 20-year-old Mason Mount with the equalising assist, 22-year-old Tammy Abraham with the winner and 19-year-old Tariq Lamptey with the transformative Premier League debut. Lampard’s academy awards him again.

 

5) Lamptey deserves far more than a passing mention. It was a questionable decision to introduce him at 1-0 down in such a hostile atmosphere for his professional bow. The teenager is a pure Chelsea product, untainted by lower-league loans and such. But was this really the time for such a demonstrative show of faith in youth?

Within a few minutes of his substitution it was clear that did him quite the disservice. Lamptey was no deflection tactic used by Lampard to negate the effects of yet another defeat. He was instead an instrument to turn that defeat into a draw, and finally into a win. Arsenal, who had previously dealt with Fikayo Tomori, struggled to come to terms with such an attacking, direct full-back.

He played no part in either goal, but his introduction swung the pendulum. Chelsea had 13 shots in 90 minutes; nine of those came in the half an hour Lamptey and his incredible pace changed the questions.

 

6) He instilled in Chelsea a belief and an aggression they so sorely lacked in the first half. By the time Tomori had their first shot from open play in first-half stoppage-time, Arsenal had made them look passive and powerless.

Mesut Ozil was excellent, sprinting at an uncertain defence and picking passes at will. Reiss Nelson was an imminent danger, tormenting Tomori on the right-hand side. David Luiz was attempting bicycle kicks from corners. This did not look like a side suffering a crisis of confidence.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles was particularly impressive. His exchanges with Nelson and Ozil on the right were crisp, difficult for someone to keep up with while watching from the comfort of their own living room, never mind within a few yards of them on the pitch. Only Kante (7) made more tackles than his five, and only Jorginho (6) completed more interceptions than his three. Most impressive was in how he dealt so well with the added demand of stepping up from left-back into central midfield in possession.

His one of the few performances not even slightly blighted by the concession of those late goals. Unai Emery’s pet project is in safe hands.

 

7) So the opening goal obviously came from the other side, Aubameyang winning a corner on the left and, via a Calum Chambers flick-on, applying the finishing touch.

Chelsea’s set-piece vulnerability continues. The loss of the first header was no crime but two players were guilty of something proper football men would describe as far more sinister: switching off from a corner. Emerson was stood goal-side of Aubameyang as the delivery came in, allowing him to drift beyond him after Chambers’s touch. Mateo Kovacic, stationed at the front post and marking no-one, played the striker onside. Lampard will know that, despite the victory, this game was tinged with negative aspects. Foremost among them is the consistent issue of defending from set-pieces.

 

8) Aubameyang’s goal was just reward for a fine start. Ozil was delightfully stitching attacks together at one end, with Chambers masterfully marshalling the other. And it is no exaggeration to say the game may have turned on his 23rd-minute removal.

Before he limped off with a knee injury, the centre-half was excellent. He handled Abraham incredibly well, stepping out of defence when the striker dropped deep to ensure he had no time or space to hold the ball up for support. Toby Alderweireld struggled with that a week ago. Shkodran Mustafi certainly did for the winning goal.

Abraham barely had a touch facing Arsenal’s goal when Chambers was on the pitch; Mustafi afforded him almost the entire half to run into as he backed off with support alongside him. And Chambers’s distribution was also key. That Luiz (76.9%) and replacement Mustafi (72.5%) trailed so far behind his 92.6% passing accuracy tells a story of how the Gunners struggled to relieve building pressure late on.

 

9) Five first-half minutes neatly summed up Chelsea’s plight. Mount and Kante were booked in quick succession, the former for a foul on Maitland-Niles and the latter for preventing a Lucas Torreira-led counter. Kante then threatened an unlikely Chelsea attack by winning possession himself on the right-hand side, but fell off balance as he was delivering a high cross straight into the arms of Bernd Leno. There was no Chelsea teammate in the area.

It was disjointed and aimless, 11 players on the same team but not the same page. Arsenal, in those five minutes, had almost two-thirds of the ball and misplaced just two passes: a long Leno kick and a Maitland-Niles misjudgement their only mistakes.

The spell of incompetence from the visitors culminated in Antonio Rudiger’s booking – again for a foul on Torreira – and Jorginho replacing Emerson Palmieri. It is no exaggeration to describe them as awful before then.

 

10) That early substitution was brave because it necessitated both a change of formation and the decision to use two players in unfamiliar positions. Jorginho joined Kovacic and Kante in a more balanced and suitable three-man midfield, with Tomori shifting to right-back and Cesar Azpilicueta on the left.

Lampard could have waited until half-time, when messages and tactical plans can be delivered directly and not be lost in the translation of a boisterous home crowd. But he knew he had made a mistake and he sought to conduct extensive surgery instead of sticking a plaster over the gunshot wound.

It engendered an improvement. The 11 minutes from the substitution until half-time saw Chelsea have two shots to Arsenal’s 1, 71.8% possession and, most pertinently, 21 out of 21 accurate passes from Jorginho. The Blues finally had stable foundations. Lampard had stemmed the bleeding.

 

11) Yet this was no swing of momentum. Chelsea were by no means in a false ascendancy, but they were hardly dominant either.

Arsenal were happy to cede possession, particularly in their own half, because they trusted themselves to keep compact, in shape and difficult to break through. The two shots they allowed were from Chelsea’s makeshift full-backs, as first Azpilicueta missed from a corner then Tomori forced something resembling an effort into Leno’s hands in stoppage-time. Neither were close.

Chelsea were akin to a child facing an adult in a tug of war: constantly kept at arm’s length, building confidence, convincing themselves they had a chance, before being pulled straight back into a harsh reality.

It was a welcome case of the Gunners adapting to a new challenge. They have struggled so much to do that between games that managing it so seamlessly within one was genuinely impressive.

 

12) The problem was that Arsenal committed themselves too much to the idea of treating this as an in-game defensive drill. Their fourth shot generated their goal in the 13th minute. Their fifth shot followed in the 43rd. Then came their sixth shot in the 78th. There was precious little attacking intent between them scoring and Chelsea equalising, which only tempts fate.

Torreira was superb, especially with the No.10 playing out of position in defensive midfield. He hassled, harried, protected an ostensibly weak defence and showed up Kante on one of the Frenchman’s rare poor days. But Torreira had to be superb, with Matteo Guendouzi painfully poor. He offers glimpses of brilliance in attack but it constantly undermined by woeful positioning and a lack of awareness, summed up by being dispossessed by Kante in the 37th minute and, while still on a booking, pulling Abraham back off the ball seconds later. He cannot ask for a better coach at just 20, but he really does need time away from the first team to improve.

 

13) And yes, Jorginho was similarly responsible for a foul on Torreira while booked which should also have resulted in his dismissal. Let that not detract from Arsenal looking so comfortable for so long before collapsing at the slightest sense of injustice and pressure.

The point remains that Jorginho should not have been on the pitch to score when Leno failed to clear Mount’s free-kick. You can blame Craig Pawson, and you can blame Michael Oliver on VAR, but once again the technology’s implementation has to be called into question. If Pawson saw the Jorginho (and the Guendouzi) incident, he made a mistake in not giving a second booking. If he did not, it is on VAR to advise him. But it just seems as though Premier League officiating is caught in some sort of purgatory: Pawson relied on a safety net that is so rarely deployed because of excuses about ‘re-refereeing games’, ‘minimum interfernece’ and only correcting ‘clear and obvious’ errors. It is a vicious circle of passing the buck.

 

14) If one moment encapsulated this game before the equaliser and subsequent collapse, it came as late as the 78th minute. With Chelsea enjoying a period of concerted pressure in their search for an equaliser, Arsenal sensed an opportunity to counter-attack. The move broke down and the ball found its way to Kante on the edge of his own area. The lack of available outlets meant he delayed the pass long enough to Aubameyang to tackle him and set up Joe Willock to shoot narrowly wide.

It was jarring to watch one of the Premier League’s best defensive players dispossessed by a forward characterised as lazy, lethargic and uninterested. But there Aubameyang was, the captain leading from the front, with a goal to his name, pitching in at left-back in midfield and covering every blade of grass. He and the underwhelming Kante deserved to be on the opposite ends of this result.

 

15) But Chelsea, as fortunate as their first goal was, relied ruthlessness to score the second. Within 20 seconds of an Arsenal corner being cleared, Abraham was celebrating an unlikely strike. He advanced into Arsenal’s half, traded the ball with Willian then embarrassed Mustafi with a simple drop of the shoulder to create enough room to shoot.

Willian was not at his destructive Tottenham level, but he proved why Lampard loves him. Across these three matches in seven days he has missed six minutes. At the end of this one he was provided the winning assist – his last of seven key passes.

And Chelsea had finally earned points from a losing position for the first time since April. That generates the sort of belief no belated January spend can buy. Although Lampard definitely needs to buy a left-back capable of running, passing or tackling.

 

16) Arteta is left in an almost unique position of performances genuinely being more important than results at this point. There was enough evidence in the first half and for periods of the second that his message has already permeated parts of this squad Emery could never reach. Aubameyang is pressing the opposition defence, Ozil is breaking the lines by carrying the ball himself and Torreira is being asked to do what he does best.

Had Jorginho been sent off, Arsenal might have won. Had Leno not punched the air, Arsenal might have won. Had Chambers not been taken off injured, Arsenal might have won. For what feels like the first time in a long time, their manager cannot be blamed for defeat.

But Arteta has to be utterly merciless. Mustafi cannot be picked for the next game; the ‘defender’ is surely due in court over false advertising. His non-committal with Abraham’s goal was preposterous. And Lacazette should not escape censure for anonymity.

Arsenal are 12th with more than half the season played. Only the bottom two have fewer Premier League wins this season. There are 11 points and eight teams between them and a Champions League place. The focus for the next five months should only be on identifying players that suit his style and system and rooting out those who do not. This is a unique opportunity to reboot a broken club. That might mean more short-term pain for long-term benefit.

Matt Stead

 

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