Arsenal, Chelsea gulf borne from Boxing Day watershed

Will Ford
Lacazette Thiago Silva

Arsenal beat Chelsea 3-1 on Boxing Day last season. It was the end of Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta’s saving grace. It all could have been so different.


“Lazy”, lacking the “basics”, “not good enough”, “you get what you deserve”. It was the Emile Smith Rowe game, and Lampard was embarrassed by Chelsea’s display. It was a turning point. Lampard was sacked three weeks later, after defeats to Manchester City and Leicester, a draw with Aston Villa and an unconvincing win over Fulham, but the replacement manager longlist became shorter that day at the Emirates; it was the beginning – or middle – of the end of their romantic managerial ideal.

It was the game that breathed life into Arsenal’s. They had picked up two points from the previous eight games, scoring just three goals, and sat fifteenth in the table – Arteta was under huge pressure. Smith Rowe started having not played a single Premier League minute beforehand and combined with Bukayo Saka to tear Chelsea apart. It was the start of a seven-game unbeaten run which propelled them to within striking distance of the European spots, and crucially, given the apathy building among the fanbase at that time, a game in which another ‘one of their own’ came to the party.

Lampard’s days were numbered anyway. But brutal though Chelsea are when it comes to hiring and firing managers, they needed cause when it came to the prince of Stamford Bridge and this game felt like it was it – there’s nothing like a crippling defeat to a London rival to see fans hop from the fence. But had he won that game and beaten Villa two days later, Thomas Tuchel’s arrival may not have come to pass – it would have been at the very least postponed – and the chance of Champions League glory would have been increasingly improbable.

Arsenal meanwhile, turned hope into something more than that. They lost just five of their remaining 23 games and would have finished third had the Premier League started on Boxing Day. That run meant very little come the end of the season, as they missed out on European football for the first time in 25 years, but Arteta’s ‘project’ was worth sticking with. The boos reverberating around the Emirates on Sunday suggest many Arsenal fans now see it differently.

Arteta described Arsenal’s current predicament as “unprecedented” in his post-match interview. And in terms of players missing he may be right, but their team was arguably better than the one that defeated Chelsea so comfortably in that previous watershed meeting: Albert Sambi Lokonga for Mohamed Elneny; Nicolas Pepe for Alexandre Lacazette; Cedric Soares for Hector Bellerin. It’s certainly not notably worse.

Romelu Lukaku Chelsea

Romelu Lukaku’s impact was undeniable, but he alone is not enough to account for such a disparity in performance levels. Chelsea were rotten; now brilliant. Arsenal were exciting; now totally inferior. The big difference is not the big man up top, but the obsessive man on the touchline.

Lampard’s Chelsea reign undoubtedly worked in Tuchel’s favour. The squad the German inherited were performing at levels way below what they are evidently capable of before he arrived. Give Arteta the Chelsea squad and he may very well do far more with it than Lampard did.

But this isn’t Arteta vs Lampard and the extenuating circumstances the Arsenal boss is keen to labour over are extraneous when you simply pit his influence on his side against that of Tuchel on Chelsea. One team has improved in all aspects of the game, while the other has stood still at best. Chelsea gave up on their whimsical club legend dalliance as a result of that Boxing Day defeat and are now many handsome people’s Premier League favourites with the Champions League trophy secured.

And while no manager in world football could have replaced Arteta and put Arsenal where Chelsea are in that time, there’s surely little doubt there are a few options that would now see them in a far stronger position.

There are those odd occasions, though they may not dare to admit it, in which some football fans hope their team lose to force action. There may have been hushed conversations over Gunners’ Christmas dinners in 2020 to that effect, which quickly dispersed amidst the joy of victory the next day. If only they had lost – they could have been saved from further upset, because those same discussions will be held ahead of West Brom on Wednesday and Manchester City on Saturday. Another turning point could soon be upon us.