16 Conclusions: Chelsea 0-1 Arsenal

Date published: Friday 14th May 2021 12:39 - Will Ford

Chelsea Arsenal

Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea ‘process’ is working but didn’t work at Stamford Bridge, on a night when the absence of Mikel Arteta’s worked in Arsenal’s favour…

 

1) This was the first time Arsenal have done the Premier League double over Chelsea since 2003/04, when Thierry Henry et al went on to claim their last league title. Their last win at Stamford Bridge was ten years ago, when Arteta patrolled the midfield and Robin van Persie scored a hat-trick in a 5-3 victory.

This was nothing like a performance of that vintage era, or that less-vintage era. This was the Arsenal irregulars at peak irregularity, picking up hard-earned points through pure determination rather than any great skill, wanton abandon or the elegance of old.

 

2) It was a weird game in that it meant a great deal to Chelsea and Tuchel, not much to Arsenal, but most of all to Arteta.

Amid reports that relationships with the Spaniard and his senior players are ‘being tested’ and a number of them are wanting out of the club, the Arteta cult members came to the fore; they really put a shift in for their manager.

They didn’t play from the back and pressed in short, infrequent bursts. They had just 32% of the ball, had five shots to Chelsea’s 19 and barely mustered a chance other than the goal they were gifted. It was a no-frills display, but one they and Arteta absolutely needed.

 

3) Jorginho has these moments. He’s had an excellent season, punctuated by howling mistakes.

He just didn’t look and despite Alan Smith on co-commentary attempting to split the condemnation between him and Kepa Arrizabalaga, it was entirely his fault. Chelsea’s second goalkeeper – recalled presumably in preparation for the FA Cup final – had no reason to be between the sticks with his team in possession and actually did well to palm Jorginho’s hefty pass away.

But with the delicious prospect of an indirect free-kick, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang kept an irritatingly cool head to set up Emile Smith Rowe and destroy any potential for 11 footballers on the goal line.

 

4) Bukayo Saka has featured for 3,525 minutes across 44 games for Arsenal this season. Only two younger players across all the leagues in Europe have played more football – Ryan Gravenberch (18) of Ajax and Ilya Zabarnyi (18) of Dynamo Kiev.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Ajax are storming to the Eredivisie title thanks in no small part to Gravenberch, for example. A player sometimes ‘cannot be left out’ because they are better than other very good players vying for that position. But in Arsenal’s case it’s just as much – if not more – an indictment of poor transfer decisions and the lack of quality in Saka’s absence, rather than due to the young man’s brilliance this season, brilliant though he has been.

It was never the plan for a 19-year-old to play this frequently. If £200,000-a-week Willian had performed anywhere near his Chelsea levels, Saka wouldn’t have been so overused and look as utterly knackered as he has at times in the second half of this season. He was excellent in the 3-1 win over West Brom but looked exhausted after about 20 minutes at Stamford Bridge and was taken off after an hour.

 

5)  “If they continue to play well, if we do not progress as quickly as these guys progress, then you have to be worried about their ambition and what they want to do, because they’re fantastic players.”

Ian Wright worries for the futures of Saka and Smith Rowe. And while the former did very little, the latter was arguably the best player on the pitch. His goal was fluffed as he struck the ball with one foot onto the other, but it was a typically effervescent display from another very good English attacking midfielder.

He’s got a lovely combined glide and rumble to his movements, with his running smooth but his shoulders and head bobbing as he goes – like a typical cheeky geezer with his gift football rather than ‘of the gab’.

He can and should be built around next season, but he – like Saka – needs time and breathing space to develop, and better, more experienced players to play with and learn from. He should not be doing the carrying.

 

6) Thomas Tuchel has been in charge of Chelsea for 26 games, has now lost three and conceded 12 goals. Arteta has lost eight in that time, but just five of his first 26.

In terms of pure managerial performance – considering the difference in squad quality – 26-game Tuchel and Arteta are comparable. Which could serve as a warning to Chelsea fans – but won’t and shouldn’t – and is definitely an indication of just how far Arteta’s stock has fallen. He was the protege’s protege, the next stage on the Total Football evolutionary scale.

But trust in ‘the process’ has waned to near zero, with the non-negotiable philosophy actually very much negotiable and early indicators of the method now absent in favour of pragmatism.

Goal-kicks were unceremoniously booted, as were free-kicks in their own half – a tactic utilised in the Premier League almost solely by Sean Dyche’s Burnley. This may have been a victory for Arteta and Arsenal, but not one for his Arsenal ‘process’.

Tuchel Chelsea

 

7) But it worked. They had every man behind the ball for large swathes of the second half and it wasn’t pretty; the noughties nostalgia merchants may even claim it wasn’t Arsenal. But again, it worked.

Pablo Mari was solid enough and Rob Holding and Gabriel are having quietly excellent seasons. Arsenal haven’t scored many – they need a further three in their last two games to beat their Premier League low of 52 – but they’ve also got the third best defensive record in the league, behind just Manchester City and Chelsea.

They’ve now won three consecutive away Premier League matches without conceding for the first time since May 2013 under Arsene Wenger.

 

8) Arteta should definitely play three centre-backs more often. Particularly against the big teams, as he did with frequent success last season. It’s a wonder he didn’t use the system when his one left-back, Kieran Tierney, was injured.

Chelsea did create chances, but against this Arsenal system they really had to work for them, the back five providing very little space or opportunity for Ben Chilwell and Reece James to find their customary angles for crosses as the backline shifted across with the ball as it was passed in front of them.

It was limiting and Aubameyang cut a frustrated figure throughout, but with the squad as it currently is, playing against arguably the in-form team in Europe, it was necessary.

 

9) What was Aubameyang in such a huff about as he came off the pitch late on?

Your team is winning a London derby, you’ve provided the assist for the only goal and the manager is replacing you for the last ten minutes to provide fresh legs as yours are clearly spent.

You’re the captain mate, act like it.

 

10) It didn’t take much for Chelsea to bounce when Tuchel arrived. Much of the squad were downtrodden but primed, others were playing but languishing and in desperate need of instruction, and Mason Mount was being Mason Mount.

But this has now gone far beyond an anti-Lampard rebound; beyond mere modification. This has been an incredible transformation and even more incredible than the transformation itself is that the transformation is complete.

Tuchel’s 5-2-3 was deemed a means to the Champions League qualification end – a short-term formation fix to be altered next season – but with Chelsea still on the verge of potentially the best season in their history, this could and should be the forever formation.

This Chelsea display will have done nothing to stem the calls for a big striker signing come the summer. And it may be a tad wobbly, but it still ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.

 

11) Tuchel tried a fix in the last half-hour – replacing Kai Havertz with Olivier Giroud – and Chelsea looked far less dangerous as a result, a bonkers last five minutes besides.

Giroud makes excellent near-post runs, he’s more of a threat in the air than Havertz and he was there for the one chance, which he smashed off the bar, but the change really highlighted his lack of mobility in comparison to the man 13 years his junior.

While Havertz is perpetual motion, making runs for others and picking up different positions all over the pitch, Giroud remained very much up top and in the middle – as is his wont – and the fluency of the team suffered dramatically.

Of course, a more mobile striker could be the answer, or Havertz could work on his finishing…

 

12) He is “cool in those situations”, as Alan Smith claimed as Havertz bore down on goal having caught Mari on the ball early on – too cool. As with all players of his languid ilk, he’s constantly toeing the line between classy and lackadaisacal: he oozes style when something comes off and lacks care when it doesn’t.

Attempting to hit the ball at pace over an onrushing goalkeeper just isn’t the percentage play. Roll it under him, dink it over him, pass it round him, go round him. His decision-making in all other aspects of his game is very good – as he illustrated on a number of occasions on Wednesday – but it’s poor when faced with the keeper and the back of the net. He needs to improve, but there’s no reason to doubt he will under Tuchel.

 

13) How often does Christian Pulisic just fall over? He’s not claiming a foul or diving, it’s as though his studs just don’t have chance to get a grip on the grass, such is his fleet of foot.

And there was plenty of his typical scurrying, but much of it went nowhere. And Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny deserve huge credit for stopping not just Pulisic, but also Mount and Havertz, who have caused the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester City huge problems in recent weeks with their direct running, interplay and work between the lines.

Neither of the two defensive midfielders were great on the ball, but in terms of blocking space – ensuring there was none between those lines, tracking runs and reading the movement of Chelsea’s tricky tens – they were excellent.

 

14) Arteta’s pre-match interview was weird.

“In football you lose more than you win,” he said, in response to a question about how he has managed to get his players up from the down of their Europa League exit. A curious statement from the manager of a club who haven’t lost more Premier League games than they’ve won since 1995/96.

The losses he speaks of are presumably more abstract than those absolute results and with this win taking the Gunners to 16 this season, they are now certain to avoid the ignominy of more defeats than victories in any case.

 

15) Arteta’s post-match interview was weirder.

“Nothing is broken. Inside nothing is broken,” Arteta said. “They [the media] will try to put things on me that I never said. You can see the spirit of the team from the first minute. You can see that. You can never doubt their efforts and how much they try.”

Here is the part of the press conference he took issue with the damn media twisting, verbatim.

Reporter: “One of the criteria you judge yourself on is getting the maximum out of your players. Do you feel that has happened this season, that the players have given their maximum?”

Arteta: “With the majority of them, yes.”

Reporter: “Not all of them though?”

Arteta: “No.”

Reporter: “How do you go about changing that?”

Arteta: “Finding a different way to do it, challenging them again, putting somebody next to them to try to push them again. Some of them can get to a certain level and you cannot push them any further. You want to evolve them but it’s not possible. When I said a majority, I did not say all of them. Some have a big contribution to make to those results.”

The Sky Sports headline was ‘Arsenal boss says some of his players have not reached full potential this season’.

That seems like a totally fair call given what he said and Arteta bringing it up unprompted at the first opportunity in his post-match comments was very strange indeed. He’s trying so hard not to be Jose Mourinho, the king of blame shirking, that he’s gone full Jurgen Klopp.

 

16) Tuchel claimed he was “angry” at all the changes he made and Chelsea did look a way short of the mark they’ve set themselves in recent weeks.

But they still controlled the game in a similar manner and created plenty of chances. There was the familiar issue of failing to convert those chances, but that was only a major problem due to the far lesser-spotted issue of a big old-fashioned cock-up at the back.

Tuchel’s process is working but he lost; Arteta’s isn’t, so he adapted and won.

 

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