* Gary Neville expected Arsenal to be “bulldozed” by Chelsea. Graeme Souness thought the the Gunners would “struggle big time” against the Premier League champions. Thierry Henry, when asked what positives his former club could take into their game at Stamford Bridge, simply replied: “That it hasn’t kicked off yet.”
Arsenal, as ever, illustrated their innate ability to prove everyone wrong on Sunday. Even with the chips stacked against them, Arsene Wenger went all in and somehow ended with an even share of the pot.
It remains to be seen whether this is yet another false dawn, one more chance for Wenger to praise the “mental strength” of his players after overcoming adversity, one more step up the ladder before the inevitable crash back down. But after being written off almost unanimously before the game, a 0-0 draw away at Chelsea can only be viewed as a positive.
* Antonio Conte and his side would have hoped for more heading into the game against a seemingly troubled opponent, but they were the ones left licking their wounds by half-time. An improved second-half performance restored a degree of confidence, but this could have been so much worse.
Whether it was complacency, multiple bad days at offices or a combination of the two, there was cause for slight concern for Conte. The result was fine – avoiding defeat against a fellow top six side can never be a negative – but the individual performances of a select few were lacking. A more confident opponent would have punished the torrent of mistakes, and Conte will know that.
* If this was something of a vision into Arsenal’s future years, then the negativity surrounding the Gunners so far this season has been misplaced. It felt as though we were offered an insight into how they might line up next season, with neither Alexis Sanchez nor Mesut Ozil in the starting line-up.
Since Sanchez joined in summer 2014, this was only the third Premier League game in which both he and Ozil have been absent from the start. The first was an insipid goalless draw with Stoke in January 2016; the other was the 3-1 defeat to Liverpool in March.
The third time was not quite the charm, and the sample size is admittedly tiny, but Arsenal’s resilience and fleeting moments of creativity offer a semblance of hope that there is such a thing as a future without their two best players, as unpalatable as it sounds.
* Chelsea laid the first few gloves, with Pedro forcing the first save of the game from Petr Cech, and Alvaro Morata heading inches wide, albeit from an offside position.
Having weathered the light rainfall – for this was not the sort of storm that greeted the Gunners at Anfield in August – Arsenal set about building a platform for their response. Hector Bellerin was in charge of construction; both of their first meaningful attacks came down the right-hand side.
The Spaniard first crossed for Danny Welbeck to head just wide, and then turned provider once more as Alexandre Lacazette tested Thibaut Courtois from close range. Sead Kolasinac then stung the keeper’s palms as the left-hand side sought to get in on the action.
The Gunners had played two games since the Liverpool mauling, but Bournemouth and Koln were more forgiving opponents. This felt like the first date after a failed marriage, and Arsenal understandably took a few minutes to settle and feel at ease. They looked considerably more comfortable after the nervous opening exchanges.
* Arsenal’s high press helped create those chances, but the direct consequence was that their defensive line was higher than usual. And far more susceptible to the sort of passes that Cesc Fabregas excels in.
So it proved just after 20 minutes, when the Spaniard played Pedro in behind. It was more a case of hitting the giant target on Arsenal’s back than threading the ball through the eye of a needle, but it was perfectly weighted nonetheless.
It perhaps even gave Pedro too much time to think and doubt himself. The forward seemed to stall as he raced towards Cech, being forced wide by Laurent Koscielny before the keeper saved well. No sooner had Arsenal found themselves on the front foot than Chelsea backed them back into a corner. A reminder, were it needed, that the masters of the counter-attack pose a constant threat.
* Wenger spoke of “expecting” and “anticipating” a response to the Liverpool thrashing on Friday. It was difficult not to listen to the Frenchman and scoff, envisaging the Premier League champions putting their London rivals to the sword in similar fashion.
The world had witnessed Arsenal’s embarrassment before the international break, and the only “expectation” when they faced another of the Premier League’s elite so soon after was that they would be taunted and punished even further.
It was the exact opposite. Cahill, Victor Moses, David Luiz – even the typically reliable Cesar Azpilicueta was forced into making needless mistakes as the Gunners pressed relentlessly, led from the front by Welbeck and Alex Iwobi. The playground was egging on Chelsea to land a punch on Arsenal, but the Gunners stood up to the bullies and fought back. The hosts’ surprise was tangible.
* Yet Arsenal still could not make their dominance and Chelsea’s hesitance count. The half ended with six of their players having shots, with only Morata and Pedro managing attempts on goal for the beleaguered hosts.
They really should have headed into half-time with a priceless lead. Ramsey somehow bundled his way into the penalty area before hitting the post, and Lacazette badly miscued the follow-up. One half-expected a slew of dressing-room selfies from the Arsenal players at half-time, celebrating a fine first-half performance, but their positive display was not rewarded with a goal. As cliched as it is, it felt as though half-time came at the worst moment, halting Arsenal’s momentum and providing Chelsea with a chance to properly regroup.
* Before the game, the pundits in the Sky Sports studio delivered the last rites to Arsenal’s midfield pairing of Ramsey and Granit Xhaka.
“I’m amazed. I really am amazed,” said Neville, who was not alone in his assessment. “At Anfield, those two were nothing short of shocking in that central midfield, had no idea how to play central midfield, how to defend, not running back, not protecting that back three and they’re back again today.”
Yet it was the discipline of Ramsey and Xhaka, and Welbeck and Iwobi further forward, that set the tone for Arsenal in the first half. That Conte replaced Pedro with Tiemoue Bakayoko at half-time, changing Chelsea’s shape and ensuring a man advantage in central midfield, spoke volumes.
Ramsey and Xhaka: 6 tackles, 4 interceptions, 2 fouls
Kante and Fabregas: 3 tackles, 2 interceptions, 0 fouls
Bullies getting bullied.
— Football365 (@F365) September 17, 2017
* In a game almost bereft of true technical quality until the late introductions of Sanchez and Eden Hazard, Ramsey was the standout performer. No one player carried out their objectives in a more accomplished manner.
“He is a Frank Lampard type. He is about getting in the box and he has a huge capacity to run,” said Wenger in April, but he placed the dog on a tighter leash at Stamford Bridge. Ramsey was still permitted to make his marauding late runs into the opposition penalty area, but he did not shirk his defensive duties.
He completed four of Arsenal’s total six dribbles and came closest to scoring, hitting the post in the first half. But his three tackles, three interceptions and all-round accomplished and disciplined display illustrated that he can excel in a midfield two. Now just to stamp out those inconsistencies.
* Alongside the Welshman was Xhaka, who was not anonymous, but quietly efficient. On the occasions when Ramsey did roam forward, his partner stepped in and stepped up, handling Chelsea’s midfield with ease until Bakayoko came on.
Azpilicueta (103) was the only player to have more touches than Xhaka (91) as the Swiss shielded the back three excellently. No player made more tackles as he and Kolasinac added a much-needed steel that has been lacking in similar games in recent years.
Considering the woefully short displays that summed up his debut season in English football, Xhaka can take pleasure in the fact his performance might well go by without wider mention. It is better to fly under the radar than crash into it two-footed after misplacing a pass.
* As if to demonstrate the fractured, error-strewn and irregular nature of Chelsea’s build-up play, only two players registered a passing accuracy higher than Kante’s 84.6%. Andreas Christensen completed his only pass after coming on in second-half stoppage-time, but Bakayoko’s perfect record came over 45 minutes.
Conte often waits until around the hour mark to make his first substitution, but he made an exception at Stamford Bridge. Bakayoko was introduced to provide a more sure hand in midfield, and he barely put a foot wrong.
As well as his 100% passing accuracy, the summer signing completed three dribbles, and helped Chelsea settle into something approaching a rhythm. Before he came on, Ramsey and Xhaka could not have enjoyed a more comfortable Sunday afternoon if they had sat down over a roast dinner, watched Songs of Praise and nodded off in front of the fire.
* Chelsea were not the only ones guilty of more lazy passes than a university student in their first year. The only starter to complete more than 90% of theirs was Iwobi.
The Nigerian had to fight an uphill battle even before kick-off, having essentially replaced Sanchez in the starting line-up. As one of two players floating behind Lacazette along with Welbeck, he was neat and encouraging, creating more chances (3) than any other player on the pitch aside from Fabregas (4).
After a solid showing in central midfield against Koln and a strong display further forward at Stamford Bridge, Iwobi is proving himself to be quite the useful squad member. Wenger got his biggest call absolutely spot on.
* In bringing on Hazard with 20 minutes to go, four minutes after Wenger blinked first by introducing Sanchez, Conte hoped to inject some quality into the game. The Belgian looked bright on his first Premier League appearance of the season, but even this task was beyond him.
It is hardly groundbreaking to suggest that Chelsea looked more of a threat with their best attacking player on the pitch, yet the difference between Hazard’s cameo and Pedro and Willian’s performances was night and day. Hazard’s is the sort of brilliance that a team and a manager can build around, but Chelsea’s other two attacking midfielders are cogs in the machine.
Hazard had more touches (25) than Pedro (19) and completed as many dribbles as Willian (2) despite playing just a fraction of the game. Chelsea’s attack was flat throughout, but he offers them a new dimension.
* It will certainly be interesting to watch Hazard form a relationship with Morata. The Spaniard toiled alone up front, Pedro and Willian offering about as much support as disinterested step-parents. There were moments, but they were fleeting.
It was in these games, particularly against Arsenal, in which Diego Costa would flourish, and that is Morata’s challenge. He linked up play as well as he could, but the excellent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal were able to thwart his goal threat – he was the only one posing one after all.
“In my opinion, Morata played a very good game, I am happy with his performance,” Conte said after the game. “We are focused on the striker. If a number 9 scores, he plays a good game, if he didn’t a bad game.” And he is right: that he did not score should not detract from a positive display.
* On Thursday, I wrote that Arsenal’s three-man central defensive system was an experiment that should now be abandoned. It had carried them through a difficult moment at the end of last season, crowned with the FA Cup. But it felt as though the formation did more harm than good, with the non-existent first-half showing against Koln in midweek the final straw.
Wenger persisted with the system against Chelsea, the team who inspired the change earlier this year, and to the Frenchman’s credit it worked. Arsenal were horribly disjointed against Koln, their centre-halves seeing more of the ball than anywhere else, but the central midfield were much better equipped to cope with the different demands on Sunday.
By no means is a three-man defence the way forward; it is a wonderful Plan B when used effectively. As Wenger suggested, Arsenal should know the merits of using either system when necessary.
* “I hope to finish the game with 11 players,” said Conte on Friday. “Then during the game I think the best will win.”
It felt rather fitting then that neither side truly deserved the victory, as neither could prove themselves to be the best. Arsenal enjoyed a much better first half before Chelsea recovered in the second. In boxing terms, this was a round apiece.
But Conte’s message lost all meaning as the game meandered towards its conclusion. Luiz, who was imperious for 86 minutes, was sent off in the 87th. The Brazilian launched into a full-blooded challenge on Kolasinac, and Michael Oliver could only show a straight red card.
It was a tackle so out of place in a game characterised more by niggly fouls to break up play than outright moments of terrible tackling. Conte and a select few Chelsea fans still managed to take umbrage at the decision, but considering Luiz is now the fifth separate player to be sent off in the Blues’ last eight games, perhaps the finger of blame should either be retracted or pointed elsewhere.