An unusual evening at Stamford Bridge ended with a crucial win for Arsenal and a superb performance from the man who replaced their captain.
It was a strange evening at Stamford Bridge, of empty seats, slightly unusual team selections and two flawed sides in different states of uncertainty. They played out a match that was entertaining for the neutral, even if it frayed the nerves of those with an emotional involvement. And when the dust had settled on it all, Arsenal could reflect upon a rediscovery of the art of scoring goals, as well as three extremely valuable points to draw them level with Spurs in the race for fourth place. Thomas Tuchel, meanwhile, will have questions concerning an oddly lifeless performance.
A reminder of the horrific world of 2022 was visible at Stamford Bridge throughout the evening. Everybody knows the reason for it, but it remains strange to see big gaps in the crowd for a match of such significance. It shouldn’t be long before the winning bidder for the club is confirmed and that can become a thing of the past again.
Team selection-wise, both coaches made peculiar decisions. Romelu Lukaku started for Chelsea, who left Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech on the bench. Arsenal jettisoned captain Alexandre Lacazette in favour of Eddie Nketiah. It was a decision on Arteta’s part that seemed to breathe fresh air into his side’s attack. Alongside a sparkling performance from Emile Smith Rowe, it pointed a potential path to how Arsenal can resolve their ongoing goalscoring issues.
The evening’s feel of very mild other-worldliness extended throughout much of the first half. Within 20 minutes, both teams had taken advantage of the other’s defensive generosity. Andreas Christensen hopelessly under-hit a backpass to Edouard Mendy, allowing Nketiah in to give Arsenal the lead. Four minutes later, Timo Werner cut in from the left and his attempt deflected past Aaron Ramsdale via Granit Xhaka’s ankle.
With both teams having evidently agreed that defensive organisation was for losers, the fun and games continued apace. After 26 minutes, Smith Rowe rolled the ball into the corner after some more soft-bellied Chelsea defending. Cesar Azpilicueta soon equalised with a near-post prod after Werner and Mason Mount had hustled Ben White off the ball for the latter to cross. Thirty minutes in, it was 2-2. National No Defending Day seems to come around earlier each year. The pace slowed after this period of bedlam and the teams were still level by half-time, but Arteta will have been by far the happier of the two coaches.
Thiago Silva replaced Christensen at half-time, presumably to bring a little calm and stability to the centre of the Chelsea defence. It lasted for 11 minutes, before Nketiah managed to wriggle through and poke the ball past Mendy despite three Chelsea attempts to clear the ball. On the hour, Lukaku, who’d spent most of the evening vaguely chasing shadows, was withdrawn in favour of Havertz. When Nketiah was slightly surprisingly withdrawn in favour of Gabriel Martinelli ten minutes later, he seemed somewhat peeved not to get the chance to complete a hat-trick. Smith Rowe followed him five minutes later, replaced by Cedric.
Chelsea continued to press, but with Arsenal stationing nine players behind the ball every time their opponents got within 35 yards of Ramsdale’s goal, all the possession in the world couldn’t be converted into much more than half-chances. And as Chelsea pressed higher and higher up the pitch, they started to leave gaps at the back that made Arsenal look dangerous every time they broke – although they similarly found actual chances thin on the ground. With nine minutes left they had an excellent one when Cedric found himself advancing into the Arsenal penalty area at speed on the right, but he seemed to change his mind at the last minute and ended up crossing to no-one in particular.
As the clock ticked towards 90 minutes, there was one final moment of Twilight Zone defending from Azpilicueta, who inexplicably dragged Bukayo Saka to the ground for a clear penalty and then allowed himself to get involved in an argument which allowed the clock to be run down further. A couple of yellow cards were brandished and Saka sent Mendy the wrong way to put the destination of the three points beyond any reasonable doubt; it was his first penalty since last year’s Euro 2020 final.
There were even more empty seats on display by the time of the final whistle. ‘There’s nobody here, there’s nobody here, just like the old days, there’s nobody here,’ sang the jubilant travelling supporters. As he left the pitch, Azpilicueta got involved in an argument with an unhappy supporter.
Chelsea, it had been suggested, were over the dip they experienced in December and January. but recent performances hint that their own Champions League place might not be completely secure yet. They’ve now conceded 11 goals in their last three home matches and with Arsenal and Spurs now level on points and just five behind them, the Blues need to bounce back against West Ham next. With six games of the season left to play, one more Chelsea defeat could turn the race for the final Champions League place into a sprint for the last two spots.
Arsenal, of course, have had their false dawns before, but the effervescence of Nketiah and Smith Rowe, albeit against a strangely flat-looking opposition, offers a glimpse of a potential future. They’ve been goal-shy for much of the last few weeks, but with six games to play in the season, it’s a good time to strike on an attacking formula that works. This isn’t over yet.