Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang drowned in narrative as Arsenal underlined their legitimacy as title contenders with a commanding win over Chelsea.
1) It is funny that while the same predictable names voice concerns about the lack of competitiveness in the Premier League, lamenting how Manchester City have spoiled the fun for everyone, Arsenal just keep quietly chugging along at the top.
Another test was passed in quite comfortably sidestepping Chelsea. The Gunners had almost three times as many shots and far more of the possession in a deserved victory which captured the essence of a team almost three years into its development controlling a game against one barely two months down their road.
This is an impressive, serious Arsenal side who cannot do much more to legitimise their status as contenders. Those few remaining critics are being confounded and converted by the week.
2) Chelsea ended the game lumping the ball up for Raheem Sterling to compete in the air – purely in a technical sense – with William Saliba, while #PotterOut threatened to trend on social media.
In a way, Arsenal were the ideal opponents to inflict this result and force such a lacklustre performance. The Gunners were at this same difficult, painful stage of their evolution not long ago and stand now as proof that those growing pains could be the precursor to something truly excellent.
But it remains true that Arsenal had to make a series of ruthless, brilliant decisions, combined with no little patience or fortune, to get where they are. There is no guarantee that Chelsea follow the same path and days like these make it remarkably tough to envisage the final picture.
3) Perhaps the main difference was in the two non-scoring strikers. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang extended his goalless streak to seven games, while Gabriel Jesus has not netted since October 1, nine games ago.
The former had his only shot blocked and Jesus missed the first half’s most presentable chance as both struggled to exert the desired influence.
But their comparative impact beyond goals is obvious and was laid worryingly bare. Aubameyang had eight touches before being substituted just after the hour, summarily failing to stretch or test the Arsenal defence in any meaningful way. Jesus had 62 touches, holding up the ball impeccably to relieve pressure, completing more dribbles than any player for either team, carving out a huge opportunity for Martin Odegaard in the second half and helping force the corner from which Gabriel Magalhaes scored the winner through his relentless pressing of the Chelsea defence.
Chelsea’s inner turmoil in trying to accommodate such a one-dimensional striker only added to the sense that we were watching a version of Arsenal from a few years ago against something far closer to the finished article. The Gunners have moved on to a forward perhaps even less prolific but entirely more proficient for what they want to do.
4) Aubameyang did leave a mark on this game, as Ben White’s toes will attest. It was an appalling tackle which was rightfully booked, but the main takeaway was in how Mikel Arteta characteristically strayed from his technical area to kindly ensure the officials realised the severity of the situation.
Tim Stillman of doomed social media site Twitter.com had it best when he pointed out it was ‘not the first time Arteta has been peeved at Auba arriving late’.
But the most satisfying aspect of it all was in how it further angered Richard Keys, the last bastion of the rules and regulations of our proud game.
5) A smaller point on Arteta and his conduct in and around the technical area: it is fascinating how no other manager seems to challenge him on it by either doing the same or by doing the grown-up thing and telling the fourth official.
Graham Potter, beta that he is, remained within his confines as the embodiment of his subdued, domineered team, while the Spanish alpha roamed Stamford Bridge freely. Little wonder when he last lost there as a player or manager in March 2014.
6) The biggest cheer in the first half came after Chelsea chucked a couple of harmless crosses into the Arsenal area, the clearances of which branched out into a few separate games of head tennis. The owner of the house keys that he is, Granit Xhaka was the sensible one as he cushioned the ball back into the grateful arms of Aaron Ramsdale despite the midfielder being stationed on the 18-yard line. The mild roar that followed from one corner of Stamford Bridge was heartening. Celebrating the safe delivery of the ball to the keeper after a period of defending under sustained pressure is heritage that could only have been improved upon if Xhaka had chested it instead.
7) Chelsea’s first vague sniff of goal came from a gargantuan Edouard Mendy kick, finding Sterling in space on the right. Kai Havertz offered an underlapping run and had Aubameyang in support through the middle; an early ball along the ground would have found the striker and given him a gilt-edged, narrative-laden chance. Yet Havertz hit a cross that was both too high and too fast and the opportunity went to waste.
That was the story of the German’s entire game: he found promising positions between the lines, infiltrating the Arsenal defence with his movement before being undone by either dreadful decision making, poor execution of the final ball or shot, or a combination of both.
Havertz’s front-post defending from the pivotal corner completed a stunningly detrimental performance and the struggle to identify his most effective role continues.
8) The opening period was as fast and hectic as it was almost entirely pointless, with a palpable sense of everything and nothing happening at the same time. But after half an hour a scintillating move broke out which underlined Arsenal’s progress.
Another Chelsea attack petered out into nothing and the visitors seamlessly transitioned into a glorious salvo of one-touch passing involving White, Gabriel, Odegaard, Xhaka, Saliba and Thomas Partey, culminating in Gabriel Martinelli’s tantalising cross which the unmarked Jesus could not quite properly connect with.
It would a crying shame if someone clipped it up and inserted quotes from pundits scoffing about Arteta’s nonsensical process and The Dangers Of Passing It Out From The Back as a backing track.
9) There were 17 fouls in the first half, with all but one awarded for tackles that fit the same rough template: a cynical sort of push from behind in which legs became tangled, the victim collapsed to the ground in an exaggerated fashion and the perpetrator jogged away from the scene of the perceived crime, having prevented a potential counter-attack.
Aubameyang’s striker’s slide tackle was the sole exception and an obvious booking, yet two yellow cards were handed out as Bukayo Saka joined him in Michael Oliver’s notepad.
It was good refereeing born of poor – and increasingly worrying – officiating. Saka justifiably felt he had been unfairly obstructed by Marc Cucurella as he sought to break down the right, but nothing was given. A matter of seconds later, the winger bundled his Chelsea counterpart over out of frustration.
Saka has been booked three times in the Premier League this season; only one player has been booked for fouling him (Bournemouth’s Jordan Zemura in August) . He has committed 17 fouls and been fouled 19 times, which seems an unfathomably close balance for a fast, skilful winger playing for a team which dominates most games.
The unavoidable sense is that he has been tarnished with the Wilfried Zaha reputational brush: that of someone constantly targeted by the opposition yet who is perceived to go down too easily, thus not getting decisions and creating a feeling of injustice which often boils over into an annoyance that leads to Saka himself lashing out and being disproportionately punished. It is at this point we have to lament that there is not a better term for it than blacklisting, but it really does feel like A Thing.
10) The Saka foul was missed on the live coverage and required a replay. Almost as soon as it became clear Cucurella would not be booked, the camera cut to Arteta on the sidelines, engaged in an animated and surely constructive chat with an out-of-shot Chelsea staffer. The only suggestion that something further had happened on the pitch was in the rising volume around Stamford Bridge.
Coaching contretemps are the lifeblood of the Premier League, where touchline handshakes are sacrosanct and feuds keep the news cycle spinning. But not even a hint of manager discord should really distract from the actual game. The controversy can wait a couple of more seconds, at least until the ball is actually out of play.
11) It felt as though Arsenal would be made to regret not capitalising on their dominance. Nothing in Chelsea’s gameplan had been particularly effective and indeed it was a task to figure out precisely what they were hoping to do at times. Potter would have to change something.
But the first substitution would not come until Armando Broja and Conor Gallagher were introduced immediately after Gabriel’s goal; the horse had bolted. Considering the sheer strength in depth of that Chelsea squad it was bizarre to see Potter wait until their obvious inadequacy and inferiority was finally reflected in the scoreline.
He could have altered that inevitability by bringing on Mateo Kovacic, particularly as the midfield pair of Jorginho and Ruben Loftus-Cheek failed miserably to progress the ball with admittedly precious little support from wide or the forward players.
They did what they could in the system and shape they were placed in but it was peculiar to see how few options they had when receiving the ball, while Arsenal’s midfielders had all the space and time needed to pick a pass when in possession.
12) Critiquing substitutions is the very worst outcome bias in all of football but credit to Arteta for sticking with an approach and team that was clearly working and managing the game. It would have been easy to panic or overthink things, tweaking the formula in search of the decisive goal but ultimately ruining the balance. He resisted any and all temptations and, for the first Premier League game this season, did not bring Eddie Nketiah on as a substitute. Not changing anything was the best decision Arteta could have made and is the biggest sign yet that he has the utmost faith in this team to figure situations out themselves.
13) The ingenious solution Arsenal came up with was to dumbfound Chelsea with a defendable corner which bounced just on the edge of the six-yard box and crept all the way through for Gabriel to poke into the roof of the net. No set-piece expert in the world would have dared dream that one up.
It was the headline moment to a performance from Gabriel and central defensive partner Saliba which provided the crux of this majestic story. The pair were effortless and imperious, repelling first Aubameyang and then Broja with immense ease. Partey deserves a mention as the fulcrum ahead of them, while White and Oleksandr Zinchenko were close to faultless either side.
Arsenal have kept successive clean sheets in the Premier League for the first time since December. They conceded more goals than Brighton, Wolves and Crystal Palace last season but now no defensive record in the top flight is better. That transformation is astonishing.
14) Chelsea had one shot after Gabriel’s goal – a tame Cucurella effort which Odegaard comfortably blocked. Arsenal had three attempts and should have scored from at least two, with Saka and Odegaard both missing big chances from inside the area.
Arsenal’s authority in seeing the game out was startling, from Rob Holding’s customary stoppage-time substitution to the sight of Saliba dribbling down the right wing and sticking crosses in. It was as mature and composed an end as possible.
15) A snapshot of the difference between these two sides was provided at full-back. While White and Zinchenko excelled, Cesar Azpilicueta and Cucurella were not specifically poor but simply awkward fits in this shape and offered approximately nothing in attack. Arsenal funnelled Chelsea out wide as often as they could and when the Spanish pair complete a combined 43 passes in 90 minutes each, it isn’t difficult to see why.
Gareth Southgate is not the only manager crying himself to sleep at night while clutching a picture of Reece James and Ben Chilwell, put it that way.
16) “You see the atmosphere, it’s fucking unbelievable,” Xhaka told BT Sport and an instantly remorseful Des Kelly after the game. His part in this stunning Arsenal metamorphosis, in which his reputation with the supporters has been not only rehabilitated but enhanced beyond what it ever was before, still requires a double take. And on a day in which seven yellow cards were handed out, it was astounding not to see the Swiss given one after he started a small fracas in the Chelsea corner, into which Trevoh Chalobah and Jorginho leaned to achieve Xhaka’s ultimate aim of wasting time.
As he put it so eloquently post-match: “After the season, nobody ask you how you win in November or December or in January, so we are trying to get a lot of points as possible and after let’s see where we end.”
The beauty about this young and brilliant Arsenal team is that it really could be anywhere.
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