An astute and assured Arsenal side avoided defeat at Stamford Bridge for the first time since October 2011 in yesterday’s lunchtime kick-off.
While a 0-0 draw was a fair result that Arsenal fans would have taken before the match, they’d equally be right to feel disappointed they didn’t take all three, given the manner of the performance. A lot of Arsenal’s big away games have been characterised by an uneasy opening 15 minutes, with the course of the rest of the match largely dictated by whether they make it through this spell unscathed. Yesterday, they did.
The deliberate ploy of having Shkodran Mustafi get in hard and tight on Alvaro Morata put the former Real Madrid man off his game. Having the imperious Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny either side of him as a safety blanket meant that the German could afford to defend the Chelsea striker aggressively, as had been Arsenal’s deliberate ploy against Diego Costa at both the Emirates and Wembley last season.
Mustafi’s performance divided opinion. Some observers admired his swashbuckling approach and understood the reasoning behind it. Others were concerned by him getting too tight to Morata and getting spun.
Regardless of your own perception, it’s key to understand that he was doing this under instruction, and not of his own accord in the way that Thomas Vermaelen often did. It was controlled chaos, in amongst a sea of calm, provided by Koscielny and Monreal.
Koscielny and Monreal were excellent in defence with the initial positions they took up, knowing when to engage the man and when to drop off, and with some of their superb recovery runs to snuff out promising Chelsea attacks or slowing them down enough to buy their teammates enough time to get back into position.
On the ball, there was a marked improvement from the Liverpool and Cologne games in defence, with better passing angles created and the ball circulation being slicker. Nobody looked like a spare part. Had it not been for the performance of Arsenal’s midfield, one of those two would have deservedly earned the man of the match accolade.
Arsenal’s last victory at Stamford Bridge will rightly be remembered for Robin van Persie’s hat-trick and John Terry falling flat on his face in 2011. However, the often overlooked memory of that day was Aaron Ramsey’s virtuoso midfield display. Yesterday, he was even better. Ramsey, ably supported by Granit Xhaka, absolutely ran the show. He was intelligent with his usage of the ball and measured with his movement off it.
Without the ball, he instinctively knew when to press the ball and when to drop off and sit back. He was also more astute with his off-the-ball runs when Arsenal were in possession. Ramsey’s movement off the ball both when Arsenal had the ball and when they didn’t was facilitated by Alex Iwobi’s astute work tucking in and creating something of a midfield three, plugging any potential gaps. There was a cohesive togetherness to the Arsenal unit and a collective responsibility that had been missing for far too long.
Arsenal’s plan for yesterday was to try to get to half time with a clean sheet. Any goal would have been a nice bonus, but the priority was controlling space, retaining possession, and not doing anything silly. For this reason, selecting Iwobi over a clearly unfit Alexis Sanchez was completely the correct decision. Arsenal needed to create a platform from which their high risk high reward match-winner could make a contribution in his diminished state, and their performance in the first 66 minutes of the match gave them just that, largely thanks to the selfless work of Iwobi and Danny Welbeck ahead of the midfield.
Ahead of Iwobi and Welbeck was Alexandre Lacazette. The £52m signing started out well in the first half, linking play well and taking up some intelligent positions. This aspect of his game was significantly better than what his worst doubters feared when we were first linked with him.
He had a good chance to open the scoring from Bellerin’s cutback after a cute through-ball from Ramsey, but didn’t get the right purchase on his shot. However, he’d done well to get into that position in the first place, the defender took some of the sting out of his shot, and Courtois did well to get down low.
There were no such excuses for his subsequent miss, however. After Aaron Ramsey’s slaloming run saw him carve through the Chelsea defence and break into the box, he was unlucky to hit the post. The ball rebounded to Lacazette, but the man who has forged something of a reputation as a ‘fox in the box’ was unable to even get the ball on target when he had a fully open goal to aim at.
The injury to Welbeck was a body blow, both on a personal level for a player who has started the season in great form, but also for Arsenal’s counter-attacking prospects. Olivier Giroud is a man of many talents, but breakaway speed is not one of them. Having him and an unfit Alexis lead the charge in search of a breakaway goal in the final 10 minutes was always going to put Arsenal at a disadvantage.
You could argue that Giroud’s defensive prowess in the near post zone was the main reason why he got the nod to come on and help shut up shop at the back over Theo Walcott and his electric pace and excellent goal record against Chelsea.
Given the circumstances of how the season has started, Arsenal’s recent record at Stamford Bridge, and how cruel it would have been to concede a late winner after playing so well, you can understand why Wenger went for the safety-first, pragmatic option, which he has so often been criticised for eschewing.
Presuming Ramsey and Bellerin stay beyond summer 2018, the first hour at Stamford Bridge was a glimpse into the Ozil-less and Sanchez-less future that Arsenal are currently looking at for the 2018/19 season. The most striking thing was that it wasn’t as bleak as many had envisioned it.
The performance will have given many of the younger players more self-belief in their own ability, which may cause them to grow from strength to strength as the season goes on. Much like Thierry Henry in the summer of 2006, it was absolutely the right call not selling either of Arsenal’s superstars in the summer of 2017, as those being groomed to form the unit that replaces them simply weren’t ready to step up yet.
But with more displays like Sunday’s, perhaps they’ll develop the confidence and cohesiveness to be ready to do so next summer?