I’m hoarse and unhappy. I can’t remember a result affecting me so badly in a long time – that double sucker-punch in the last 10 minutes really took its toll. Sat watching from the stands for my first game of the season, I really thought we’d hold on after some admirable defending but it wasn’t to be. That pain is compounded by the realisation that whatever slim, delusional hopes we had of somehow scraping a spot in the Top Four are now a pipe dream.
In retrospect, it wasn’t all bad. We fought them for 84 minutes and as much as Chelsea Rugby Football Club tried to unsettle us and win by hook or by crook, we resisted – in a different manner than we’ve grown accustomed to this season. I thought we maintained our shape for the majority of the game and had coherency to our play, with and without the ball. While this may have waned as the game went on, there was still a lot to like and if we can replicate the kind of performance we gave in the first half, we will start to pick up some points going forward.
To make up for my lack of mid-game note-making, I at least had the added benefit of a bird’s-eye view of the touchline and got some insight into Arteta’s vocal and animated match day operations.
We were unchanged other than Chambers returning from suspension to replace Sokratis, and it was he who was instrumental in opening the scoring, rising highest to flick the ball into danger. Few though his headed goals may be – and his first for Arsenal – Aubameyang has that uncanny, almost uncoachable ability of being in the right place at the right time.
It was hard to say what my expectations even were going into this, but I’ve still come away disappointed because I feel like we deserved at least a point from the game. On this occasion, I’d argue we lay victim to several turning points.
1. The injury to Chambers was untimely and unfortunate given his early involvement, at both ends. Having been on the ascendancy both before and after the goal, the break in play while Chambers received treatment allowed Chelsea to regain some composure and for Lampard to make a tactical change, which proved decisive. Momentum is everything and it really took the sting out of our strong, early start. This is even ignoring the fact that Chambers was replaced by Mustafi, who – if I were to be so bold – is not a like-for-like replacement.
I suppose, since we’re on the subject, I’ll also address the goal that ultimately cost us the game. It was horribly reminiscent of many goals we conceded under Unai Emery; multiple players backing off, not taking the initiative and being decisive, until the opposition have unsurprisingly made their way into our box. It was just all too easy.
To make matters worse, the player that carried the ball for half the pitch into our box was the eventual goalscorer, and yet I can’t for the life of me understand how Mustafi has managed to lose his man in such a short space of time. Despite the fact Tammy Abraham was bearing down on him seconds before, when he then receives the ball back from Willian, it seems to come as a complete surprise to Mustafi, as he does some sort of comedic double-take wondering how on Earth he’s just been duped. He then somehow allows Abraham to take two touches and get his shot away. He was flat-footed, he wasn’t tight and he was ball-watching – not the first time I’ve been similarly critical of him (and several others) for such basic failures this season.
It’s just a really difficult one to swallow because Luiz had played one of his best games in an Arsenal shirt up until that point (and was also responsible for not closing down in the build up), but it just leaves you wondering how we would have managed with Chambers on the pitch instead. Another cry for help in defensive depth which we so dearly lack.
2. Enter Jorginho: A talented player, though one inexplicably left from the starting lineup, Lampard saw the wood for the trees and made amends before it became untenable. This tactical change was another huge turning point and you don’t need to look much further than this to see the impact his early introduction had:
When combined with Mustafi’s proclivity to back off in comparison to Chambers (see below), you begin to see why we became increasingly overrun. Until this change, Chambers’ intensity in closing down and winning the ball back further up the field had taken some pressure off Torreira and Guendouzi. The introduction of Jorginho, coupled with the loss of Chambers, resulted in the Chelsea midfield three of Kovacic, Kanté and Jorginho dominating thereafter.
We can have some cause for complaint as Jorginho should have been given a second yellow card, but so too should Guendouzi in another afternoon of inconsistent officiating. It’s irrelevant because whether Jorginho was still on the pitch wouldn’t have mattered if Leno hadn’t missed the ball. While the circumstances were highly unusual – a rare blunder from the usually resolute Bernd Leno, conceding corners and free kicks is what you get when you give the opposition so much possession. Not like we can really chastise the German, without whom I genuinely think we would be facing a relegation battle.
As for my general feelings in the game, I’d always had a gnawing feeling in the back of my head that something had to change or we’d be punished, particularly as the second half developed. As good as our defending had been, it still felt like a matter of when, not if.
I also think Arteta’s hesitancy to make changes hurt us. We needed change and while depth wasn’t a luxury available to him, I still felt the changes came too late. Joe Willock’s narrow miss that would have extended our lead was unfortunate and Pépé’s late entrance coincided with Chelsea’s second – he could perhaps have made more effort to track back, instead opting to walk as Chelsea broke freely.
The first half was at least a good experience – Özil was a joy to watch, and reminiscent of his former self, back to skinning players, subtle feints, neat passing and drawing fouls, after so often being guilty of disappearing in big games. On this occasion, he was instrumental in much of what we did right in the first half. There was little he could do in alleviating the pressure as the second half developed and he was the one who made way to accommodate Willock after a standing ovation.
I also enjoyed watching our right wing in action. I was surprised by the inclusion of Reiss Nelson, though he was much improved from his performance against Bournemouth and justified the decision. Not afraid to run at the opposition, he linked up well with Özil and Ainsley once more and was also influential in Emerson’s removal, as he struggled to deal with Nelson’s energy.
Looking ahead to New Years Day, we have an equally difficult game and one which now carries added pressure, because Arteta will want to avoid starting a run of home defeats.
We’ll face the same selection problems, as Chambers’ injury appears serious, with Arteta revealing “the first signs are not positive”. It also adds further pressure on finding suitable replacements in the January transfer window. I’m at least encouraged by what I’m seeing but it’s a long road ahead. With the domestic campaign almost pointless at this point, Arteta will likely look to getting to grips with the Europa League for a back-door route to next season’s Champions League.