Granted, it was another draw for Mikel Arteta, but the significance of this game could be far greater for the future, because up against the odds in a major way, his players reacted and somehow avoided what looked to be an inevitable defeat at Stamford Bridge.
For once, it felt like Arsenal were greater than the sum of their parts, with a post-Luiz red card back four of (first game back) Bellerin, the hapless Mustafi, midfielder Granit Xhaka and teenage winger Bukayo Saka. For 25 minutes we even had Mesut Ozil trying to play holding midfielder next to Torreira, before the head coach finally saw sense and pulled the invisible number 10. In fairness, even with Ozil on the pitch the ten men showed resilience and spirit, a real surprise after some of the collapses we have seen with eleven players. It was testament to the intensity Arteta demands from his men.
The head coach will have learned a lot about his players last night. Pretty much any Arsenal fan could have told him the Shkodran Mustafi will do enough stupid things in a game to outweigh any defensive benefits he might bring. He gave the ball directly to Chelsea players twice last night before the underhit backpass that cost a goal from the penalty spot and David Luiz’s red card. When Arteta came in he offered everyone a clean slate. But he has surely seen enough from Mustafi in the two matches against Chelsea to inform him that the number 20 simply isn’t worth the risk. You simply cannot play out from the back if you can’t pass the ball in a reliable manner. It’s Russian roulette.
As for Ozil, he tried hard. His pass accuracy was apparently 100%, but I’d argue that’s because he hardly touched the ball and when he did, just played safe short passes. He failed to impact the game. Arteta has given him opportunities to do so, yet his contributions have been fleeting. Technically good, but simply not delivering. A real quandary given how much of the club’s wage budget he swallows up. I feel that the Premier League has got more intense since Ozil arrived in 2013, and he’s failed to adapt. I don’t think he’s worth his place in the starting eleven, even if he does run around and try to close space more than he used to, because his contribution on the ball seems so negligible. The best you could say about him is that he is a link man that keeps the ball moving, retains possession, but is that enough? That’s a decision for the head coach. It seemed noticeable that when Guendouzi replaced Ozil, the ten men seemed to step up a gear.
The attempts on goal count was 19 to 2 in favour of Chelsea. That tells you all you need to know about the game, and in truth, a number of the home side’s chances came when Arsenal had eleven men on the pitch. Once down to ten though, it was backs to the wall. Critical was the quality of the finishing with the two goals. Martinelli may have been fortunate to see Kante lose his footing at the key moment, a little reminiscent of John Terry’s slip the last time Arsenal won at the Bridge back in 2011. But the young Brazilian kept his head and finished coolly to level the scores.
Not only that, but the character of the team was demonstrated by their having to come back a second time after Azpilicueta’s 84th minute goal. It looked cruel after all the efforts expended, but with nothing to lose, Arsenal kept going and a full back scoring a key goal at the Bridge brought back more memories – of Nigel Winterburn in 1997 and Silvinho in 2000. Bellerin used his supposedly weaker left foot, but it was a pearl of a shot, bending into the corner.
Sure, it’s just a point, but in the uphill task of redefining Arsenal’s identity, last night may come to be seen as a key moment for Arteta’s team. A draw that definitely felt like a win, and a platform. The players will be able to look at each other and know they are prepared to battle for each other. It was a real team effort, against the odds, that defied logic and indeed the kind of limp uncommitted performances we have seen so often over the last five years. There certainly felt like an element of ‘We’ve got our Arsenal back’ – not so much the free-wheeling expansive play that brought about that chant away at Fulham last season, but the spirit of the Gunners as we remember from the George Graham days, and Wenger’s best teams.
I celebrated the goals last night with an intensity I have rarely felt for many seasons, partly because it was backs to the wall and against the odds. I felt connected with the team, got the idea that it actually mattered to the players. In a sense, perhaps they needed the jolt to their complacency that the handicap of being a player down provided. They had to battle or get humiliated. And battle they did – especially the youngsters. It was so encouraging that they didn’t give up, and a huge part of that mentality must surely be down to the manager.
We’ve seen incremental progress in aspects of the play under Arteta, but after seeing the balls that achieved last night’s comeback, we know that the spirit is there. With that, it makes winning football matches easier. More of this please.
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