Arteta was pretty frank when he suggested this next week will provide plenty of defining moments. Whether Arsenal seize the opportunities or not will be an entirely different story. Afterall, Arsenal fans have spent nearly a month saying, “this is moment they need to prove themselves”, “this is match they need to get things going”. They weren’t wrong, those were all moments that could have provided a much needed spark and were decidedly better matches to do so if Arsenal were interested in staying in the hunt, but saying matches are defining moments and rising to the occasion are two very different things.
Against Everton, Southampton, Burnley, no one rose to the occasion. Against Chelsea, a full squad rose up and it was a squad filled with youth players and the untested. No Aubameyang, Luiz, or Willian. No Partey or Gabriel. At last Arteta took the approach of giving the hungry and finally fit likes of Emile Smith Rowe, Pablo Mari, Rob Holding, Martinelli, and Saka the opportunity to drive the side forward.
Normally when the lineup is announced an hour before kickoff there is exactly 60 minutes of ranting and assessment and predictions laid out for the world. For myself, this selection came with plenty of mixed emotions. On one hand it was so intriguing. It included more youth players, and removed many of the stale performers. On the other hand, it was young. It had holes. It made you wonder if the likes of Smith Rowe, Martinelli, and Saka were supported enough by those around them. There was no Aubameyang or Gabriel to pitch in at either end and the midfield pivot of Xhaka and Elneny linking it all seemed suspect.
Within the opening minutes of the match, the hunger, drive, energy, and workrate that everyone hoped this group would bring was on display. It didn’t guarantee a result or a win, but the press was evident, the rampant hassling of Chelsea’s backline and midfield was nonstop, and the youngsters looked comfortable in their role.
There were two early worries —lack of pace from the center back pairing that led to some early danger and a yellow card for Mari who was too slow and overcommitted, forcing him to bring down Kovacic; and a slight unawareness from the midfield paring when Pulisic came from the backline to settle right in between Xhaka and Elneny to receive the ball and run at the backline. That resulted in Arsenal giving away a dangerous foul and Chelsea putting a shot off the post. If Arsenal were going to get beat, it always felt like it was going to come from a major mistake in those departments. But it never came.
Instead, Arsenal were sound in their defense, tough with their pressure, they relieved their own pressure through Smith Rowe and Saka, and the rampant play of Martinelli was causing all sorts of problems. They would get their reward in the 31st minute off a lovely piece of play from Bellerin, Xhaka, and Kieran Tierney.
A quick recycle from Bellerin to Xhaka and then then a wonderful switch of the field in a snap from Granit put the defense on the backfoot allowing Kieran Tierney to drive at Reece James and get on the wrong side of him to win a penalty in the box. Lacazette dispatched it with ease to make it 1-0, but Xhaka wasn’t done.
Right at the end of the first half, in the 44th minute, Granit Xhaka would hit a stunner of a free kick to make it 2-0. This goal can’t be talked about without mentioning that it was created, much like the first, through an Arsenal player driving at Chelsea’s backline. This time it was Saka who was a menace all day and Kante brought him down.
With spirits high for a change, but everyone fearing the worse given our form, it was fantastic to see Arsenal come out once against to start the second half with energy and vigor. This time, they would get a reward that would mean the world to pair with it. In the 56th minute, Emile Smith Rowe has the ball on the right touchline and plays the simplest of balls into Saka’s path. From there, Saka makes it look beyond easy to take a touch into the box from the far right corner and chip a little dink over Mendy into the far side netting. Did he mean? Was it a cross? Who cares! It was tear inducingly lovely to watch and it meant Arsenal were up 3-0.
Despite the scoreline, you couldn’t help but feel the end of the match was filled with nervy moments. Chelsea were knocking on the door, but hadn’t registered a shot on target through 81 minutes. That would change when Tammy Abraham put in goal in the 85th minute and a fatigue induced, clumsy tackle from Mari would put Jorginho at the spot in the 89th minute. With head in hands and 5 minutes of extra time coming, Arsenal feared a 3-2 scoreline.
Step up Bernd Leno! A huge save to keep Jorginho out and put a real gash in Chelsea’s hopes for late dramatics.Arsenal won 3-1 and despite only moving up to 14th place, it was a massive win.
It hardly means that Arsenal are back. It doesn’t guarantee that the side goes on a tear and makes a run toward the top of the table. It even proves the fact that Arsenal are one of those streaky sides that can show up one day and go missing for the next few months. But it’s 3 points that push them away from relegation, give them confidence heading into a stretch of games they should be getting points from, and it buys them a little bit of breathing room. The pressure has been immense, but if they can produce another results against Brighton on Tuesday, on the back of this one, everyone will breathe a whole lot easier.
As usual, here are a few takeaways from the match and it feels so good to write positive ones.
4-2-3-1 is the ticket once more
I don’t think many people will find it all that hard to believe that this team found success once more in 4-2-3-1. It’s a formation that allows them to link the midfield to the attacking front, it means that the main striker doesn’t have to pull double duty and drop into the midfield. The fullbacks were fully engaged and Smith Rowe was linking up play in between the lines and getting himself into all the right areas. He was certainly a lovely revelation, despite many clamoring for his involvement for quite some time now. Finally, whether it’s because Saka was playing, an issue with Willian and Pepe, or a new tactical switch from Mikel, Arsenal’s right wing wasn’t stranded out wide and left alone.
Sake was central, he was tucking in, Smith Rowe was moving inside and out, Bellerin was overlapping on the right side. It was a healthy dose of everything and it produced lovely attacking play for once. If Arteta is going to continue to look to play in a 4-2-3-1 with Martinelli on the left, Saka could be the right winger the side needs. He has been great all year and, frankly, Pepe and Willian have not been.
Hopefully versus Brighton we see a return to this shape with similar personnel, rather than reverting to a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3.
Out with the old
“The future belongs to our youth”? Anyone? A Nelson Mandela quote that truly applies to Arsenal. Goodbye Willian, goodbye Luiz, goodbye anyone that isn’t willing to work the way Martinelli, Smith Rowe, and Bukayo Saka worked.
This match set the tone for a new winning recipe and hopefully proved to Arteta that he has put his faith in the wrong batch leading up to today. No disrespect to those that led us to the FA Cup win, but every coach and team needs to know when it’s time to move on. Whether it was forced through Luiz and Willian’s illness, Auba injury, and Gabriel’s positive Covid test, or it was a choice from Mikel to try something new in the face of adversity — this proved he needs to be dedicating the rest of the season to getting younger players more minutes.
Obviously when Auba and Gabriel return they should be worked back in to the side, preferably in a way that doesn’t cost Saka and Martinelli minutes in Auba’s case, but there is just no need for involving players like Willian or Mustafi or probably even Luiz. Striking the balance between youth and experience has worked, but it’s still a work in progress. Arteta needs to keep that progress moving forward.
Let’s talk about Xhaka for a minute. Settle in because this might upset some people. He was fantastic against Chelsea. He was something that our midfield pivot has been missing for most the year, especially in the last three games…He should still be moved on in the summer.
We have seen performances like this from Xhaka before. This resurgence in the face of adversity. It’s great, it’s fun, it doesn’t really last. It’s not as though Arsenal’s midfield has struggled all year, Xhaka hasn’t played and suddenly he gets minutes and we are a different team. He has been involved in 11 Premier League matches and has been very, only okay.
We absolutely need to applaud him for his performance today. We certainly need to consider him for the remainder of the year, and we can analyze a bit about why he was more successful yesterday, but come summer he really should be on the list of people being sold.
The one aspect of his game that really pleased me from a tactical level was the fact that he was played as a true midfielder. This year, Arteta has often opted to have midfielders drop into the backline to allow the fullbacks more freedom and I HATE IT. It leaves a clear void, it often leaves one midfielder isolated, and it takes one of Arsenal’s better technical players out of the attack.
Yesterday, Xhaka was in and around the box, covering ground, and playing more like you see him play when he is in the Swiss national team and it worked great. He was wonderful, he is certainly a major factor in Arsenal’s win, and I hope he can put in many more performances like that during the remainder of the season.
Arsenal need to get healthy
This may seem like an obvious statement, and it is, but Arsenal need to get healthy and stay healthy. A large part of the reason Smith Rowe hasn’t seen minutes is because of his health. How good is Partey? Many people are wondering because he hasn’t been healthy since arriving. Aubameyang is going through injuries. Martinelli had a long injury and now has gone down in two straight matches and needed attention. Add Gabriel’s Covid situation to the list for good measure.
Desite Arsenal’s extremely bloated side, it’s hard to feel like they have a lot of quality in their depth. They certainly have some spots with extra margin, but when it comes to deploying a winning recipe, Arteta seems to be limited in his options.
You may have noticed Smith Rowe come off in the 64th minute, why? Because he has played very few minutes, Arsenal have a match on Tuesday, and he is a major health risk. At some point Arsenal will let him go, but keeping everyone healthy and getting back others will go a long way toward assessing where The Gunners are at.
Plenty of other points worth mentioning and the individual performances of people like Martinelli, Saka, Holding, Bellerin, Tierney, but it’s performances from that many people that lead to team wins. Arsenal looked great and it has been a long time since we have been able to say that. The press was great, the workrate phenomenal, the finishing efficient. There is a long way to go and no guarantees we see a complete performance like this, but in a season where every point is seemingly vital, it was a massive three.
Brighton on Tuesday to kick off a run of games Arsenal will need to take as close to max points as possible from. Brighton had their number last year, so we can expect it to be a bit more difficult than we may want. Enjoy the win!