Arsenal Deliver Worthy Effort, Still Fall Short Against Chelsea
A Different Sort of a Feeling
While Mikel Arteta’s debut on the touchline last week against West Ham did not yield the victory fans might have hoped for, the mood into a critical match with London rivals a Chelsea was somehow different. There was an audible electricity in the stands as the match kicked off that was unlike the disinterested torpor that had proliferated in Unai Emery’s final days, and even the slightly improved, if equally uneasy atmosphere during Freddie Ljungberg’s brief tenure as head coach.
Perhaps it is the quiet confidence with which Mikel Arteta carries himself; the dapper, continental charm that is distinctly familiar from the days when Arsene Wenger spoiled us all with his philosophical, and sometimes impish, charm at the podium each week. Or maybe it is the very real competence he has displayed in his brief but lauded second career as a coach. Whatever it is, Mikel Arteta has already begun to make believers out of sceptics in his early days as a head coach.
That feeling was clearly transmitted to the pitch, as the players set off at the opening whistle with purpose and urgency, quickly taking control of the match in the early stages, dominating the ball against Chelsea and Frank Lampard’s uneasy back three shape. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal in the 13’ was a deserved reward for the way the Gunners started the match.
A Captain Steps Up
Of all the many problems at Arsenal this season during the club’s historically slow start by modern standards, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang does not seem to be one of them on the face of it. He currently sits on 13 goals and is within sight of Jamie Vardy at the top of the a Golden Boot race. But Aubameyang has largely been far from the emotional catalyst and leader by example the club hoped he would become when he was given the captain’s armband after Granit Xhaka was relieved of his duties by Unai Emery.
His scoring has been as plentiful as ever this season, but his lack of consistent creation from the wing and an unwillingness to hold up play and challenge for headers when deployed as the centre forward have seemingly left the Arsenal attack devoid of counter punches if the opponent denies him the space to run onto the passes in behind the defence he so craves. These flaws are more forgivable when he is a positive influence in the dressing room, but lately, rumblings of discontent and talk of a transfer request behind the scenes has dulled some of the shine his talent and production give him.
In spite of the rumours however, Aubameyang has been much better since Arteta arrived, and on Sunday he had what was perhaps his best performance of the season. Not only did he treat fans to a rare (and emphatic) headed goal, but he made three tackles and interceptions, including two that involved him alertly tracking back to prevent sure scoring chances for Chelsea. He played mostly on the left wing, but contributed more in all phases of play than usual. Often times is was he dropping into the midfield line to form a compact defensive shape while Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Ozil pressured higher up the pitch.
It has only been three matches since Aubameyang learned Arteta would be his new head coach, but the signs that the Spaniard’s arrival has galvanised the Gabonese superstar are positive so far. One does not need long memory to remember a time when Aubameyang shot his way out of a club when it needed his production most, as he did when leaving Dortmund to come to Arsenal in 2018, but a committed Auba is a real asset to the club when present. Time will tell if that is the player we get for the rest of this season.
No Luck for the Deserving
With the aforementioned positive vibe as the match got underway, and Arsenal’s subsequent strong start and capture of the opening goal of the match, it really seemed as if the Gunners were destined for three points. However, it was simply not to be their day in the end as a farcical five-minute stretch undid the good work of the first 80 minutes of the match. But it was the events entirely out of the Gunners’ control that will leave fans with the most bitter taste in their mouths after this latest London Derby.
The first, was the hammer blow of Calum Chamber’s potentially serious knee injury, suffered just ten minutes after Aubameyang gave the team the lead. In the most sickening of deja vu moments, supporters had to look on as yet another young, rapidly ascending English centre back writhed in pain on the pitch, likely to face a lengthy spell on the sidelines as happened to Rob Holding last season.
Unlike his close mate within the team, Chambers was able to walk off under his own power and flex the knee as he did so, giving some encouragement that his was not the worst case that of ruptured ligaments, but the club will be hoping for the best-case scenario, as Chambers has grown tremendously in importance this season.
Sadly, Chambers’ injury was not the obstacle Arsenal had to face on Sunday, as referee Craig Pawson managed to influence the outcome of the match with a bewildering display of incompetence himself. Having taken an inconsistent approach to bookings all match, he sealed his fate as the day’s pantomime villain after Chelsea’s Jorginho, already on a yellow, committed a blatant mandatory bootable foul as he hauled Mattéo Guendouzi down from behind, with Pawson instead reaching for his pocket to book Lacazette, who had come tearing in to protest the obvious infraction.
Having allowed Chelsea to keep 11 men in a most dishonest way, Pawson then proceeded to ignore another foul in the buildup to the visitor’s equaliser, scored by (who else) Jorginho from a corner kick with six minutes left in regulation. It was somehow the most infuriating and least surprising thing that afternoon, and the resilience and focus Arsenal had kept for so long suddenly evaporated into thin air.
The Weight Of Defeat
While the entire Arsenal squad will feel they deserved better on Sunday, no two players will feel the pain of the loss more than Bernd Leno and Shkodran Mustafi. Two exceedingly popular targets for those who track unflattering stats, the German duo have had a hard time shaking error-prone labels after a few shaky runs of form over the last two seasons. And unfortunately, they once again find themselves under the microscope, one for each of the two goals conceded on the afternoon.
The first, Jorginho’s equalising goal, came from a corner kick on which Leno struggled to rise fully for to punch away, with Bukayo Saka and others being forced back into him slightly in the scrum in front of goal. Leno watched helplessly as the ball looped over his outstretched glove, falling directly to the Italian’s waiting caress at the far post, where he put it in the open goal with ease. Some felt that Leno could have been more decisive in coming for the ball, but the former Leverkusen stopper deserves the benefit of the doubt during a season in which he has bailed his team out time and again.
The second, and the one that was always going to draw the most ire from fans, was laid at Mustafi’s feet after Tammy Abraham backed both he and David Luiz into Leno’s lap with the threat of his pace, leading to an ugly deciding goal slipping through the goalkeeper’s legs. It was a typical moment in the German’s Arsenal career, where his fear of making a mistake inevitably lead to a costly moment at the back. Though it could be argued the breakdown occurred much earlier than his own attempted defence of the play, but it is inarguably a feature more than a bug when Mustafi finds himself in the middle of such moments. Unfortunate, particularly after putting in an admirable (and bruising) shift to that point, but unnecessary.
A Leader Missed
Of all the young talents currently looking to make their mark on the Arsenal first team, arguably none is further along in the process than Mattéo Guendouzi. His all-action style and tenacity when in possession makes his ceiling as a player an exciting prospect to consider. However, his obvious potential and exciting play have not yet brought tangible improvement to the team as a whole.
In fact, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira remain Arsenal’s most successful midfield pairing of the last two seasons, and looking at Mikel Arteta’s tactics on Sunday vs midweek against Bournemouth offer a clue as to why. Against the Cherries, Arsenal were finding plenty of joy in build up as Xhaka dropped in on the left side of the centrebacks to dictate tempo from deep, while the fullbacks, particularly Ainsley Maitland-Niles, pinched in-field slightly to create something of a 3–2-2-3 shape when on the ball. Not only did this give the Gunners a depth to their shape and plenty of passing triangles to keep possession, it allows Mesut Ozil to find acres of space in the half-spaces.
Against Chelsea on Sunday, with Xhaka absent due to an illness, Arsenal reverted to a more traditional buildup shape, with the fullbacks staying relatively wide and the midfielders working in tandem rather than staggered between two lines. After the initial burst of energy subsided, and Chelsea added Jorginho to the midfield with a first-half substitution, the Gunners seemed to lose the ability to sustain possession when they needed it most, forcing tiring legs to keep chasing Chelsea as the got stronger with time. This might have been avoiding with Xhaka’s more experienced head in the midfield instead of Guendouzi’s more erratic but less disciplined style.
Xhaka does not come with any less baggage than Aubameyang of late, with similar rumours or unrest and a transfer request compounded by his recent falling out with a fair percentage of supporters, but his value to the team remains. For his part, Arteta seems convinced of Xhaka’s importance to the team, and it remains to be seen what becomes of his Arsenal career in January. It must not be forgotten, however, that in spite of his inexperience and infuriating deficiencies as a young player, Mattéo Guendouzi will be a vital asset to this team going forward. But matches like Sunday’s serve as a reminder that he is not yet the finished article.