In essence, a game of two halves. Arsenal won the first, and Chelsea won the second. But ultimately, Mikel Arteta’s side were undone by two things. One he can do very little about – Bernd Leno’s individual error. The second – which led to Chelsea’s winner – was a lack of fitness, or at least that’s how it appeared to these eyes. As the Gunners tired, it seemed that they were having far more trouble dealing with Chelsea’s press, with a drop in movement and concentration. When the counter-attack that led to the winning goal came, Bukayo Saka couldn’t make up the ground to prevent Willian from getting in a cross, leaving Mustafi to deal with scorer Abraham, an unfortunate mismatch.
Arsenal tried to get an equalizer, but it was a case of the spirit being willing, but the flesh weak. They’d run out of steam. Arsenal started well, and were one up thanks to a set piece flicked on by Calum Chambers for Aubameyang to head in. Chambers was injured ten minutes later, and the long stoppage affected the home side’s momentum. Chelsea got more into the game, helped by a switch from five at the back to a four giving them an extra body in central midfield. There was also a lot of tactical fouling, although it felt like Craig Pawson was far more lenient on the visitors awarding them four yellow cards over the 90 minutes in comparison to the five for Arsenal.
Ultimately, Arsenal didn’t deserve to lose this game, and the reality is that they were facing one of the poorest Chelsea sides we have seen for many years. That simply magnifies the task ahead of Mikel Arteta. The crowd got behind the team, the players definitely performed with greater purpose when going forward. They were far less ponderous overall. And yet, old habits die hard. Arteta, like Emery before him, wants his players to play out from the back, but as the game wore on and they became tired, this became more perilous. Chelsea sensed blood and pressed their opponents, who ended up too deep too often. Possession was sacrificed and before the equalizer arrived, you sensed it was only a matter of time. It was simply unfortunate the way it came about – a horrowshow for the keeper, who overall has had a decent season. However, his ability to deal with high crosses has long been a weak point in his game, and something for the new goalkeeping coach to work on.
The fitness thing is less simple. The team are halfway through the season, there isn’t much respite between matches, and the football Arteta demands of his players is taking its toll because, unlike under Unai Emery, they are actually putting in the effort. What they need to do is put games to bed so that they can take the foot off the gas in the second half. They were caught out for Chelsea’s winner due to there being too many bodies upfield as they tried to re-establish a lead.
And of course there are quality issues. Injuries have ravaged the defence, which led to Mustafi playing the majority of this game. The non-selection of Granit Xhaka, reputedly down to illness heavily suggests that he will be moving on before the weekend assuming a price with Hertha Berlin has been agreed. That would allow the club to enter the transfer market to use the money received on a replacement.
Still, the coming weeks and months will see Arteta work to embed the style he wants his players to adopt. And it’s not a mystery. Possession, movement, good use of space, moving the ball forward in triangles for the most part, with pace. It involves a level of fitness the team don’t currently possess, and a mental focus that lasts for 90 minutes that they need to develop. Technically, some of the squad aren't currently up to it, but this can be improved with drills. As for defence, organisation is key as well as eliminating silly errors. Everyone knows this is no overnight fix. Patience will be required before we know if Arteta is going to have the desired effect. The remainder of this season, aside from improving the players and identifying who needs to go, is about getting into 7th place with the hope that the two domestic cups are won by teams in the top six. That would mean Europa League football next season, which financially, the club do need. And of course, there is the wildcard Champions League entry ticket that comes with winning the Europa League itself this May. Arteta has two months to prepare his team for the first knockout round, and having gone through the experience of making the semi-final in 2018 and the final last season, there should at least be some confidence in the players that they can have a decent run in the competition.
It was notable that Josh Kroenke was again in attendance in the directors’ box. He’s been at home matches more regularly in recent weeks. I’m not certain I actually saw any of the board of directors in the box. Some may be away on holiday, although the executive team were all there in force. Arteta had his two new assistants Albert Stuivenberg and Steve Round next to him. I couldn’t spot Freddie Ljungberg on the bench, although he did play a part in the pre-match warm up. The Swede seems to be some way down the pecking order and will have to decide whether he wants to stick around and learn or move on to establish his credentials elsewhere.
Assuming the players have today off, that leaves tomorrow for Arteta to have a training session with any intensity with Wednesday morning used for instruction on a screen and tactics board. There are going to be ups and downs on this journey if Pep Guardiola’s former number 2 is to turn around the fortunes of the club, and it already has the feeling of a bumpy start.
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