New beginnings or fortuitous blip?

WARNING: Tone in the following might not be nearly as positive as I’m actually feeling, I just wish many of the things we saw yesterday had come sooner in the season

No one but those closest to Arteta would have known just how precarious his job was prior to yesterday’s win but at the very least, there needed to be something different to write home about. One win in the ten previous games was an untenable run of form, regardless of the internal support he may or may not have actually had. It might have come later in the day than most would have liked, but the manner in which they did it makes it all the more sweet.

I’ll be the first to admit I was completely blind-sided by the starting place handed to Emile Smith-Rowe, which presumably had the same effect on Frank Lampard. One of my biggest criticisms this season has been our seemingly unwavering predictability, with both our team selections and the way we play. I was a bit disheartened to later hear that Luiz and (more notably) Willian’s absence were due to “having some symptoms” rather than a sudden rush of clarity, but if this match wasn’t evidence enough, then Arteta is beyond saving. Trust the kids. Not only because they actually have a future, but simply because they are playing better. As much as a student of Josep might want it to be, football doesn’t always need to be complicated.

He’s played LESS minutes in the Europa League than Willian – never mind the Premier League – and already has more goal involvements than him, while Martinelli had more shots on target against Chelsea than Willian has scraped together all season. This discussion wouldn’t be on the cards had we just won our last ten games with Willian playing every instrumental minute, and yes, he’s not the only piece in the puzzle, but he sticks out like a gargantuan Chernobyl thumb.

The pair, along with Bukayo Saka, played like there was a fire under them and better yet, they raised the levels of those around them. There was no 12th man doing that, that was pure endeavour. For most of the season, that seemed to lie almost entirely on Saka’s shoulders and now suddenly he’s got some friends out there to play with.

With Gabriel also sidelined after a separate COVID-related complication, Pablo Mari was another surprise inclusion that was deemed preferable to one Shkodran Mustafi, with Bellerin also brought back into the side. Their jobs were made considerably easier despite the match readiness by the mobility and functionality of those ahead.

In the case of Smith-Rowe, it wasn’t so much what he even did with the ball, but his availability when it mattered. It’s been abundantly clear for some time that we’ve been crying out for a naturalised player in his position because they don’t just find openings, they make space and exploit it. Too many times to count this season, we’ve been forced into the horseshoe because there’s been no central options and no time on the ball in the opposition half. What Smith-Rowe did so well was to make himself available in positions where Chelsea didn’t want him to be, between Kanté and the back line. Better yet, on the occasions he does actually receive the ball, he has the ability to actually turn and exploit the space he’s made for himself rather than playing return to sender and killing momentum. It also has the added benefit of drawing attention away from the likes of Saka, who in recent weeks and months, has been routinely targeted and bombarded as he was our only real threat until now.

The energy without possession was also instrumental, with the front four all more than pulling their weight. Arteta has been clear in stating this intention, but has so far struggled to routinely put it into practice. The high turnovers cropped up time and again, with Smith-Rowe mistiming his shot in the first half and Lacazette almost cashing in on Mendy’s mistake in the second; two of many such instances that even forced Lampard to make two half-time changes.

Where it matters, and what’s escaped us of late, is goals so the pick and mix bag we got yesterday came as a surprise. While the crucial dead-lock breaker was one of the softer penalties you’ll see this season, it was far from undeserved in the grand scheme of things and came to be because Tierney got the better of arguably the best right back in the Premier League this season after a good pass from Xhaka. Despite not taking a Premier League penalty since 2018, Lacazette sent Mendy the wrong way and I felt like it was just deserts for his approach in recent weeks because he’s at least been playing like he cares.

What came next was something else entirely, and it goes hand in hand with my theory that this season is at the mercy of a screenwriter. I even said this as a joke:

You have to give credit when someone rolls up and does that, especially against Chelsea. His free kick conversion rate is also nothing to sniff at, and with any luck, that strike and his overall performance will have bumped up the transfer fee we should absolutely be looking for at the earliest available opportunity.

The third was even more “something else entirely” and while only Saka will know for sure whether he meant it, the look-up beforehand has me convinced. It’s not like we weren’t good for a third, with Elneny almost shattering the crossbar and Martinelli also coming close on several occasions.

There was always going to be a time when Chelsea would grow into the game and after Martinelli and Smith-Rowe both made way to Chelsea’s collective relief, there were openings. For the most part, they were dealt with well, as Leno only needed to fend off 3 shots on target (which I believe includes the penalty).

Abraham’s goal really stemmed from an Arsenal corner, in which Chelsea broke at speed with Hudson-Odoi after a long ball. Joe Willock being half a yard off the pace in stopping the eventual cross was a result of him still being tired after bombing back to stop the initial attack and it was our inability to reform our lines quick enough that allowed Pulisic to dribble his way through for the second opening. At 3-1, I still wasn’t particularly worried so naturally there had to be another spanner in the works because watching Arsenal is destined to never be easy these days.

Mari’s lunge was late and he was perhaps even lucky to not see another red (thank you Michael Oliver), and up stepped stupid almost-Arsenal player Jorginho and his stupid triple jump penalty. Not content with already missing two this season, he cockily stepped up again and it looked like Leno had done his homework. Rooted to the spot long after Jorginho’s stupid feet had touched back down to Earth again, he dived well to his left and it was only then that I could just about relax.

I found Arteta’s post match comments interesting, and a bit worrying if I’m honest. He’s clearly still adamant that our recent form wasn’t deserved, saying “we’ve been really unlucky and frustrated with the results, not so much the performances in the last 6-8 weeks”, which I think is all too easy and indicative of a reluctance to own his mistakes. He prefaced this by saying “the result is the main thing today”, which may be the case for him as manager but for the rest of us, even if the win had escaped us, people would still have been right to be buoyed by a performance like that. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.

It’s imperative at this point to build upon those foundations rather than return to something that was fundamentally broken. I’m still not convinced that a certain Brazilian won’t creep back into the starting lineup once he’s in the clear but I’d love nothing more than to be proved wrong, because beating Chelsea (and winning a Premier League game) was really, really nice.

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