Post Match Review
Arsenal split the points with Chelsea but earn moral victory at the Bridge
With the January transfer window winding to a close, and the business end of the season rapidly approaching, it is more important than ever for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal to discover their best form if they are to challenge for top four. Heading to a Stamford Bridge on Tuesday to face a Chelsea side that was just embarrassed on the weekend by Newcastle and were looking for revenge, it seemed a tough prospect for the Gunners to collect three points.
This would prove true as Chelsea and Arsenal split the points in a back and forth 2-2 draw that saw the Gunners twice hand Chelsea the advantage. However, the Blues were never able to pull away despite spending more than an hour with a man advantage in the match. With the point, Arsenal remain in 10th place in the Premier League, nine points adrift of Chelsea in fourth.
Second Bite of the Cherry
Of the many things Unai Emery struggled to come to grips with during his Arsenal tenure, one of the most persistent of all was his seeming inability to learn lessons from previous encounters with teams in the Premier League. Too often when Arsenal would come to face opponents for a second time around, another crisis of form or confidence would lead Emery away from concepts that might have worked previously, or to otherwise find new solutions to ones that hadn’t.
Until Tuesday, Mikel Arteta had not seen a team twice since taking over as Arsenal Head a Coach. In the first encounter with Frank Lampard’s Blues, Arteta emphatically took the upper hand early as Arsenal took the fight to Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium. After Lampard introduced Jorginho to the midfield, however, the complexion of the match turned on its head and Chelsea came from behind to take the 2-1 win.
David Luiz’s sending off before a half-hour had even elapsed robbed fans a chance at seeing the tactical battle play out with two full-strength sides, but there were moments of encouragement in the early going. Indeed, Arteta acquitted himself well after Arsenal went down to 10 men, with the team impressively compacting their shape and minimising the damage on the fly for the rest of the first half.
The second half brought with it a few more chances for Chelsea as the sought to push their advantage, but Arteta’s men proved to be a stubborn roadblock. In totality, it was hard to glean much from Arteta’s tactical evolution between both matches with Chelsea, but it is clear that the players are benefitting from the more consistent tactical approach he brings, looking far more comfortable on the pitch even if the results haven’t reflected a massive improvement yet.
If Shkodran Mustafi thought he had got the worst out of the way during his jittery start to the match when he made an excellent block that resulted in…quite a lot of pain to a sensitive area, he was sorely mistaken. The German, fresh off the back of an interview dropping on the club’s website where he spoke of mistakes and the pressure that results from them, flubbed an easy pass back to Bernd Leno, which Chelsea wasted no time capitalising on.
Not only did Tammy Abraham get through for an easy scoring chance on the Arsenal goal, but David Luiz’s desperate attempt to thwart his effort resulted in the Brazilian being sent off by referee Stuart Attwell and Chelsea awarded a penalty. Jorginho slotted the try past Bernd Leno to give Chelsea the easy lead.
For Mustafi, it was yet another arrow in the quiver of those who wish to see the back of him for good from this Arsenal side. It was a typically unnecessary mistake that undermined an otherwise very solid performance. The World Cup winner made nine clearances on a busy night that included a further three successful aerial duels and three blocks. While it may be difficult for a player like him to find consistency of form with regular minutes so hard to come by, but the fact remains that age and experience have yet to eradicate these errors from his game. It is a shame, because inside of him remain all the attributes of a great player that Mikel Arteta and his staff must finally extract.
Leno and the Makeshift Defence Step Up
After David Luiz’s untimely departure from the match, Arsenal Head Coach Mikel Arteta was forced to improvise a bit with his shape, opting to shift a Granit Xhaka into central defence when out of possession, creating a sort of 4-4-1/4-3-2 shape. With young winger Bukayo Saka at left-back and Xhaka slotting in between he and Shkodran Mustafi with Hector Bellerin on the right, the Arsenal defence appeared in dire straights facing the prospect of Chelsea attacking with a man advantage for more than an hour.
The Blues certainly probed hard for a goal to extend their lead, causing problems in particular from their short corner routines that created good angles for the cross into the box, the makeshift defence held firm. Mustafi and Xhaka swept away a number of dangerous chances while Saka, who lead the team with five tackles, and Bellerin did as well as could be expected with Chelsea’s dangerous tandem of wingers Callum Hudson-Odoi and Willian.
The hard work appeared to be all for nought when Chelsea finally broke through in the dying minutes with a Cesar Azpilicueta goal that beat Leno along to ground into the bottom corner, but the Gunners persisted. Hector Bellerin’s strike just before injury time reclaimed a well-earned point for the Gunners. Though the match was anything but smooth for the Arsenal defence, they did just enough to help keep Arsenal in the game and earn the point.
For his part, Bernd Leno proved once again that he has been one of the most important goalkeepers to his side in the Premier League this season. Having faced more shots than any goalkeeper in the top 6, Leno has time and again saved Arsenal when they are desperately in need. Though he is beginning to face fewer shots as the team organisation drastically improves under Arteta, Leno could arguably stake the best claim in the side for player of the season at present.
A Superstar in the Making
In a league full to bursting with exceptional talents, athletically gifted players and future international stars, it’s not often that a young player comes along with such an eye-catching blend of all three that any who watch him are hard-pressed to not notice. Such is the case with Gabriel Martinelli, the 18-year-old Brazilian phenom who just bagged his tenth goal of the season for Arsenal. Not since Nicolas Anelka has an Arsenal teenager been so prolific, and with Martinelli, you get the sense he has barely scratched the surface.
Direct and eager, Martinelli runs with a purpose and power – head down, arms chugging- that brings to mind a certain Portuguese goal machine currently in Turin. But where Cristiano Ronaldo was a whirl of flash and stepovers when on the ball in his youth, Martinelli is direct. He always looks to run at goal, and when he loses the ball, his efforts double as he sets off to retrieve it.
Perhaps most promising of all, even above his blinding pace and surprising grit for such a talented young attacker, Martinelli simply knows how to find the goal. Whether popping up in the box to finish a header or bolting 50 yards with an entire team in pursuit, he has already made a habit out of finding the back of the net for Arsenal.
On Tuesday, he re-ignited Arsenal’s game in the second half just as the had begun to capitulate to Chelsea’s relentless pressure. Chelsea talisman N’golo Kante slipped at the halfway line trying to stop Arsenal from breaking out of their end and Martinelli burst through, clear on goal. Using his incredible pace, he kept his gap to the chasing pack and had the composure once he arrived in the Chelsea box to slot it past Kepa for the goal. In a season full of them so far, it was perhaps the most emphatic example yet of a player who is destined for the very top of the sport.
Hector Finds His Feet
Before he was cut down by a nasty knee injury a year ago, Hector Bellerin’s career was on the ascendency once again after an up and down couple of seasons. His absence for the rest of the season and for much of the start of this campaign was softened by the emergence of Ainsley Maitland-Niles as a viable deputy during his recovery, Arsenal missed their young right back and the dynamism he brings down the right.
Having struggled at times this season with physical play, appearing almost hesitant to trust fully in the body that had let him down in such a painful last season, it was really important for his confidence that he hit the ground running against Chelsea. He certainly did that.
The Spaniard was on the pace from the start, squeezing high up the right-hand side as Arsenal surged in the early moments. However, as the match settled and eventually Luiz’s red card set the Gunners back on their heels, his defensive stability became far more important. Spending much of his time marking Willian on the Chelsea left, Bellerin rose to the challenge and largely stymied the Chelsea attack from open play on his side.
Bellerin saved his best for the dying moments of the match, however, with Arsenal trailing 2-1. Latching onto the ball at the edge of the Chelsea box, he cut inside into his weaker left foot and skittered a curled effort towards the back post that beat Kepa Arrizabalaga to bring the Gunners level.
As he wheeled away in celebration, everyone from the travelling support to his teammates roared in approval, drowning out the home supporters entirely. Coming at such a vital time in the Arsenal season, the goal will be a massive boost to Bellerin’s confidence, and one can only hope that this is the beginning of him being a regular contributor to the team once again.