Adam Walton, writing on Arsenal’s turn of fortune against Chelsea this weekend.
Arsenal beat Chelsea 3-1 on Boxing Day, disregarding all pre-match predictions to undoubtedly achieve the result of the weekend. Adding to the elation of winning in the league for the first time since November, was that the team in red won with a youthful line-up that looked as if it belonged in a first round Carabao Cup tie against Dagenham & Redbridge FC.
Before Arsenal fans get washed away in waves of online euphoria, the win wasn’t as grand as the scoreline suggests. The North London club beat a Chelsea team which, despite having bought all the footballing talent in Europe, are poorly managed. The goals came from a sketchy penalty, a rare Granit Xhaka freekick, and a terrible cross from Bukayo Saka which sailed into the top left corner. Chelsea’s style of play also suits Arsenal; the Gunners have struggled to score, not defend, in recent months. The opposition having the ball, leaving Arsenal space in the attacking third, was a welcome sight for Mikel Arteta’s players. A sterner test awaits from a Sam Allardyce-managed West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns in a week’s time.
Despite an air of fortune to the victory, Arsenal were the better side and gave the under-fire Arteta positives on which a potential run of wins can be built. The Spaniard left experienced players on the bench in favour of a youthful attacking trio of Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Smile Smith Rowe behind Alexandre Lacazette. The exuberance of youth quickly came to the fore. Instead of spending a game watching Willian dropping into the right-back psotition to put in meaningless crosses, the young trident played risky passes and took up the ball in crowded spaces, not fearful of making mistakes.
Arteta also switched to a 4-2-3-1, allowing the young Gunners to rotate positions, preventing the Chelsea defence from settling. Smith Rowe in particular brought an unknown dynamic, this being only his second Premier League start. With relative free reign, the young Englishman drifted to create overloads in wide areas, as a certain German playmaker was once famed for doing. This organised chaos saw a major departure from the choreographed attacking plays that Arsenal had relied upon at the back-end of last season, and which have been so ineffective in the current campaign.
The change in formation, along with willing young legs, also saw Arsenal press the opposition. Whilst not the unrelenting pressing of Southampton or Liverpool, the Gunners closed off easy passes into Chelsea’s midfield, forcing them play the ball long and onto the forehead of the impressive Pablo Mari. Lacazette was particularly impressive in his workrate, and once again showed he is the only player in the Arsenal squad who can hold the ball up and bring others into play.
The returning Martinelli was also magnificent, and his pace saw Reece James pinned for most of the game, not wanting to expose the Chelsea centre-backs to the Brazilian. Arsenal’s left-side again proved to be their most dangerous offensive outlet, with Kieran Tierney joining Martinelli regularly in the offensive third, given space by Chelsea’s wide-forwards deciding against any defensive responsibilities.
Perhaps the most impressive conclusion that can be drawn from Arsenal’s triumph comes from their third goal. Most of the discussion centre on whether Saka meant to score. This, hwoever, ignores the beauty of the goal, the culmination of a move which started with Bernd Leno rolling the ball 10 yards to Mo Elneny the Arsenal penalty area.
Despite the wretched run of results and dire performance of recent months, the Gunners appear to be sticking to Arteta’s principles. The confidence of fans might be waning, but the Spaniard evidently still has the confidence of the dressing room. Whether he is the right man for the job, remains to be seen. Yet at least, with youth and effort, there seems to be a way forward for this Arsenal team.