16 Conclusions: Chelsea 3-2 Arsenal

Date published: Sunday 19th August 2018 7:49

1. We told you. We bloody TOLD you.

This was always set up to be a barmy game, and so it proved. Both Chelsea and Arsenal showed us their best and their worst sides for prolonged periods of the what will surely remain one of the most chaotic matches of the season.

If we may give ourselves a little whack in the patella with our little rubber hammer, the knee-jerk response to seeing this fixture fall so early in the campaign was that it would give us an early indication of which of these two sides is ready to battle back into the top four.

When asked to predict this season’s top four, none of our seven talented, witty and ever-so-pretty writers selected both Arsenal and Chelsea to break into the Champions League places. Nor did any of the BBC’s panel of 24 ex-pros. We may well all turn out to be wrong – that’s what predictions are for, after all – but it should at least give some indication of how little room there is at the top.

The only question was which of the two sides would be rabbit and which one the dog. On the evidence of this game, Arsenal are the Sam to Chelsea’s Max.

 

2. With two teams in flux under their new managers, mistakes and positional errors were always likely to be the deciding factor, but few would have expected all five goals – plus two sky-bound Arsenal sitters – to come from such elementary mistakes.

Pedro’s early opener set the tone for a game that will have plunged both new managers into dismay at various points. Jorginho’s beautiful pass released Marcos Alonso to do what he does best down the left-hand side, and Pedro was left with a simple finish thanks to his compatriot’s square ball.

Despite that early warning, Arsenal remained incredibly high and so, so narrow for the rest of the game’s 81 minutes. Alonso was given so much valuable west London real estate that he could have rented out fully-furnished serviced offices behind Arsenal’s back four and still had room to play football.

 

3. It would do Antonio Conte something of a disservice to give more weight to his second season than his title-winning first, but towards the end of last season it was plain to see that a lot of players had lost their spark under the departed Chelsea manager.

After the widespread and much-deserved plaudits Napoli have received over the past few years, there was no better candidate to restore a smile to Chelsea faces than Maurizio Sarri. It sounds ridiculously simple but footballers love having the ball and being given license to enjoy themselves. In the first 30 minutes, especially, Chelsea looked like they were having a whale of a time.

As excellent substitute Eden Hazard said after the game:

“He’s the kind of manager who wants the ball, wants to control the ball, so I can’t say a wrong thing about that. I just want to play and have the ball at my feet. We are good players and we can do something magic, so yeah, it’s good to have this kind of manager.”

 

4. Those smiles only got wider and wider after the 20th minute, though as Hot Chocolate’s less-popular follow-up single put it, it started with a grimace.

Alonso pretty reasonably took the man of the match award for his attacking exploits, but he showed his characteristic tendency to switch off as Arsenal carved out their first significant chance. Hector Bellerin got behind the Chelsea high line and around Alonso before squaring for the unmarked Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who blazed the ball over the bar.

Chelsea’s whole defence and midfield will face a bit of an interrogation, but on this occasion it was David Luiz at fault. With Antonio Rudiger picking up Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s wonderful dummy run, Luiz should have been more aware of Aubameyang’s run, but failed to check over his shoulder to check for loose red shirts. It was to become something of a trend.

 

5. Oh, and speaking of shoddy defending and the dangers of a high line…just 55 seconds after that missed sitter, Chelsea doubled their lead through Alvaro Morata.

Cesar Azpilicueta – back at right-back for this season without missing a beat – was the provider with another juicy through ball that was all too easy for Morata to run onto and tuck away past Petr Cech.

Playing so high up the pitch against a talented attack is a risky manoeuvre at the best of times, but if you’re going to do it you have to at least close down players before they can release those kinds of passes. You can’t get away with going at 50% intensity, even if it is ‘only’ the right-back on the ball.

 

6. Another Arsenal miss came on 32 minutes, though at least this time Mkhitaryan had the excuse of a bobbling ball as he turned his shot into row Z (which when you think about it is only 26 rows back at most, and that’s assuming they don’t skip rows I and O as is the norm).

Luiz, however, had no excuse: once again it was he who failed to look over his shoulder to see who was lurking. His peripheral vision probably isn’t great without his beautiful hair tied back, but as far as I’m aware there’s nothing wrong with his neck.

 

7. The Armenian made up for that miss five minutes later with the lovely finish of a loose ball. Glen Hoddle fawned over Ross Barkley throughout the game, but he was caught jogging back in pursuit of Mkhitaryan, allowing him the space to pick his spot unchallenged.

With Mesut Ozil dropping into a deeper, wider role, Mkhitaryan has been the biggest beneficiary of Unai Emery’s approach, showing glimpses of the kind of form that earned him so many admirers during his time at Borussia Dortmund. His swap deal for Alexis Sanchez is looking more and more shrewd as time goes by.

 

8. Chelsea fans may be a little bit concerned at how easily Kepa was beaten by Mkhitaryan’s effort. As well-hit as it was, the shot came from the edge of the box and Chelsea’s new keeper was in a great position to save it.

His mistake was a common one: he took a little tiny micro-leap to set his feet when the ball was already in mid-flight, costing him the crucial fraction of a second that would otherwise have allowed him to make an easy save, rather than merely pawing it ineffectually into the net.

 

9. We’re not even at half time yet, but it’s broken record time as we get to Arsenal’s equaliser. Alex Iwobi was left totally unmarked in the box as Mkhitaryan crossed from the right, stealing in in front of N’Golo Kante who – yes – was caught watching the ball and failed to check over his shoulder for the danger.

In fact, every Chelsea defender except Azpilicueta did exactly the same thing, but if the right-back gave Kante a shout – and if not, why not? – then he clearly didn’t hear it. A good finish fromi Iwobi, though…he enjoyed possibly his best outing in an Arsenal shirt to date.

 

 

10. Despite that lapse, it was lovely to see Kante given more license to go forward, at one point early on even bursting onto a ball over the top and going one-on-one with Petr Cech.

Kante is much more than just a hard-working body off the ball, and the success of Sarriball depends on him more than anyone. He is so brilliant in a box-to-box role, with two Premier League titles and a World Cup to prove it, but wasn’t able to perform it properly last year without a holding player in the midfield.

Now, with Jorginho in the side, a little bit of that defensive burden has been lifted from Kante, and he, much like Hazard, seems to be relishing it.

 

11. Two more Arsenal chances followed as Chelsea completely fell apart, but neither Aubameyang or Iwobi could put away their respective opportunities. This isn’t how football works because, you know, chaos theory and all that, but if you want to put it in simplistic terms, they could have been 5-2 at the break. Away from home. At Stamford Bridge. Where they’ve not won since 2011.

Arsenal and Emery badly need to cast off Arsene Wenger’s familiar grandfatherly fustiness, and while they didn’t quite manage to take a lead into the break, they had still completed a comeback from two goals down. They had every reason to go in and out of the dressing room absolutely buzzing and ready to continue the fight.

 

12. Instead, they came out and stood off and seemed content with their 2-2, as if they were coasting to a perfectly acceptable B in AS-level General Studies that doesn’t really count towards their UCAS points anyway.

In the middle five minutes of the second half, Chelsea had 88% possession. Arsenal didn’t take a single shot on goal between Iwobi’s miss in first half injury time and the 76th minute – 30 minutes without an attempt having had 12 in the first half. They would manage just two more before the game was out.

Even away to a side that loves the ball, and even with the defence needing to tighten things up, that’s not good enough for a side with Arsenal’s supposed ambitions.

 

13. Perhaps they felt a little cowed by the introduction of Hazard on the hour. Hazard was typically excellent off the bench, and was easily the best player on the pitch during his 30 minute appearance, creating yet more space for Morata, fellow substitute Olivier Giroud, and especially Alonso, who had by this point moved two burgeoning tech companies into his fully-furnished serviced office and was considering installing a koi pond.

He’s a strange one, Hazard, because despite being fancied by Real Madrid, almost unstoppable on his day, and clearly giving his opponents the absolute wiggins, he never quite seems to be talked about the way his profile suggests he should. Perhaps consistency is the issue; others point to a lack of end product.

Either way, what a great player to be able to bring off the bench in a game like this. It’s that depth that may prove the difference between Arsenal and Chelsea this season. It certainly did here.

 

14. Hazard was instrumental in the winner, an Alonso goal that typified Arsenal’s tepid second-half showing and the difference in class between the two teams.

Substitute Alexandre Lacazette needlessly gave the ball away under the gentlest of pressure from Luiz just inside his own half, playing a backward pass that Chelsea picked up less than 30 yards from goal.

Hazard, Jorginho and Alonso combined down the left-hand side and the result was a third and final simple Chelsea goal.

 

15. Perhaps it’s a classic example of the result colouring the action, but it’s hard not to finally conclude that Chelsea are simply a class above Arsenal right now, getting the job done despite both sides being utterly terrible in defence.

The fixture list has been unkind to Emery in his first two games, but the inevitably positive of that is that Arsenal now have three very winnable games against West Ham, Cardiff and Newcastle. Their next game against another fellow top six side isn’t until Liverpool visit in November, and Emery will see the games in between as the perfect opportunity to make winning into a habit.

 

16. For Chelsea, those defensive issues remain. It is no longer enough to be blistering in attack and find your way into the top four despite a shonky defence; Spurs, Manchester City, Manchester United, and even Liverpool are now all better organised sides.

But you wouldn’t blame supporters for saying that’s nit-picking. Two league wins is two league wins, and with a new manager playing a very different style, that is about the realistic limit of your expectations. Scoring six goals through five different scorers is very nice, too.

Sort out those lingering issues, and Chelsea could well become the most enjoyable and devastating side in a top six packed with exciting teams.

Steven Chicken

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