1) Just when you think they’re out, they pull themselves back in.
After taking just four of the last 12 points on offer, Arsenal had to win this game to save their campaign from becoming nothing more than the dreaded Year of Transition. A second defeat of the season to Chelsea would have seen them go anywhere between seven and nine points off the top four, depending on how Tottenham get on in their game in hand on Sunday.
Instead, they remain ahead of Manchester United on goal difference and just three points behind their beaten, fourth-placed opponents . They are still very much in this.
2) We thought it was supposed to be Arsenal who struggle in the first half of games?
Chelsea instantly got off to a truly stinky start, twice giving the ball away needlessly around the edge of their own box inside the first minute, with David Luiz and Jorginho the guilty parties.
Chelsea must have thought this was a 5.45pm kick-off
— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) January 19, 2019
That sloppiness continued into the 13th minute, when Laurent Koscielny was allowed a free header from a crossed free kick that was luckily straight at Kepa Arrizabalaga. A minute later, they were behind.
For all their problems, such an atrociously poor start was uncharacteristic from Chelsea, whose game plan typically involves starting off by playing conservatively and building up into their stride. Leicester and Chelsea are the only Premier League sides not to have scored in the first 15 minutes of a Premier League away game this season; such lack of adventure is entirely pointless if you can’t also keep it tight at the back, and Chelsea utterly failed in that task here.
3) That said, the way Alexandre Lacazette took his goal was utterly lovely. His first touch from Hector Bellerin’s cross off a short corner turned him around towards the byline, the second took him past Pedro, the third pushed the ball just out of reach of Marcos Alonso’s foot, and the fourth found the top corner before Kepa had time to process what was happening. The efficiency of motion was incredible.
Of the eight Premier League goals Lacazette has now scored this season, this was the third he has scored against top five opposition, having also scored the equaliser in the 1-1 draw with Liverpool and put the Gunners ahead in their 4-2 win over Spurs.
It is just over a year since we observed (OK, I observed) that Lacazette is almost the opposite of a flat-track bully. It seems that has not changed, and that I am a genius.
4) Chelsea didn’t manage to force a shot on target, but they nevertheless went close twice in the first half. The first one came just four minutes after Arsenal had gone ahead, and you wonder how differently things might have gone if Pedro’s lob off Luiz’s long ball had not dropped just the wrong side of the post.
For all his tendency towards errors that are less brainfarts and more brainshittinghimselfs, Luiz doesn’t half have a lovely accurate long pass in him: a similar pass to Pedro is what produced Chelsea’s opener in their 2-0 win over Manchester City last month, and no Premier League defender has made more passes into the final third this season than Luiz’s 225.
Does Luiz only pass long to Pedro because he likes him or because no other Chelsea player runs for him? #ARSCFC
— alyson rudd (@allyrudd_times) January 19, 2019
5) One of the constant themes when these two met in the reverse fixture back in August was the Chelsea defence’s bizarre refusal to look over their shoulders to see who might be lurking in the box.
It seems they haven’t learned a thing in the intervening five months, because the same error led to Arsenal going 2-0 up through Koscielny, who was superb throughout. Only Cesar Azpilicueta seemed even vaguely aware of the Frenchman’s presence in the box, and that led both to Luiz playing him well onside and to him being allowed to get up with a free…well, shoulder, in the end, though it was meant to be a header.
It was just the latest example of Chelsea’s fatal tendency to be overly-casual, which remains the largest problem facing Maurizio Sarri.
6) Another is whether he thinks the N’Golo Kante experiment is worth sticking with or not. There is merit in pushing a talented player slightly outside his comfort zone as a means of driving long-term improvement, and Kante is certainly capable of the physical demands of the box-to-box role he has taken on this season.
However, he is still not the man who you want the ball to break to in the box. Twice in the space of three minutes midway through the first half, a half-promising looking move broke down the moment it came to Kante in the 18-yard box, with the Frenchman looking almost surprised to see the ball come his way.
Perhaps he will develop a more killer instinct over time, and it is worth remembering that he did score a well-taken goal against Manchester City; but on the whole, as it stands, Kante is still not entirely the player Sarri needs for that role. Fans’ patience can surely only last so long, especially given that the manager has several other players in reserve who might be more suitable for those attacking duties.
7) It was just one familiar part of an increasingly repetitive story for Sarri’s Chelsea: holding onto the ball for long stretches and passing, passing, passing to absolutely nowhere.
Their best opportunity came as Marcos Alonso’s header hit the post from a corner; there was nothing else to speak of from open play besides the aforementioned Pedro lob.
It has become so familiar because Chelsea have become much too predictable: if you’d guessed six weeks ago which side Sarri would have picked and the way they would play, you would have done so with 100% accuracy, unless you were intentionally messing about, which would be just typical of you. Oooh, aren’t you just a card.
8) After Chelsea’s 2-0 win over City last month, we wrote (OK, I wrote): “A statement victory like this might help wake them up to the realisation that if they put the effort in, they are capable of beating anybody. We wouldn’t be too surprised if this marked the end of their mini dodgy spell and saw them return to their excellent autumn form.”
Nope. That hasn’t happened, and I am an unconscionable idiot. Chelsea simply aren’t impressive enough often enough, and even that win – their best result of the season – was built on a foundation of defensive solidity and neutralising the opposition, rather than doing their own thing so well that the opposition couldn’t deal with them.
Getting in a new manager is at least meant to make the opposition have to relearn you; Sarri has already been pegged after just half a season, and their impressive unbeaten start to the season seems very, very long ago. Will Gonzalo Higuain prove to be the shot in the arm they need?
Sarri says today’s performance reminds him of #CFC‘s poor showing against Spurs in November (as it did to me). And he’s just dropped a big line about his players’ lack of mentality: “The fact of the matter is, that this group of players is extremely difficult to motivate.”
— Vaishali Bhardwaj (@VaiBhardwaj) January 19, 2019
9) For all that criticism of Chelsea, it would be criminal not to make sure we hammer home just how good Arsenal were in this game, especially off the ball.
Their performance was best exemplified by a moment just before the break, immediately after Alonso’s header had rebounded off the post. Antonio Rudiger won a free kick just outside the box, but Arsenal headed clear Eden Hazard’s poor delivery before hassling and harrying Chelsea to the point that they ended up passing the ball all the way back to Kepa. It is tempting to think that might have been the moment Chelsea realised there was no way they were getting anything out of this game.
10) That hassling was a phenomenal team effort, and that is the theme that emerged throughout the game. Is there another side in the Premier League that is capable of both thriving as a unit and collapsing as a unit to such extremes as Arsenal?
Here, they were at the magnificent end of their spectrum, with every single man playing a part in keeping Hazard quiet in a dreadful game for the Belgian; everyone doing their part in attack; and everyone doing their part with both the press and in their own penalty box. They and Unai Emery have certainly deserved plenty of stick at certain points this season, but they got it spot on with their tactics and their execution here.
11) One of Arsenal’s biggest positives from this game is an unquestionable downer in the longer term, with the departing Aaron Ramsey playing as most advanced player in a midfield diamond and doing the kind of job on Jorginho that I believe the children call ‘an absolute pocketing’.
Arsenal got plenty right in terms of succession planning as they paved the way for Arsene Wenger’s departure last season, but Emery must be absolutely cursing that the club left him with three seasons of Mesut Ozil – a player who looks more and more ostracised with every passing game – but only one of Ramsey, who will join Juventus in the summer after failing to agree a new contract.
12) Unfortunately, a horrible-looking injury to the just-returned Hector Bellerin cast a pall over the evening for Arsenal.
A gruesome clash of heads or a conspicuous leg break aside, there is no injury you would less rather see than a player going down unchallenged and screaming in agony after a knee gives way. Hopefully it is not as bad as it looks for Bellerin.
13) Those negatives aside, the challenge facing Arsenal now is to turn this into something resembling consistency, and there is no better test for them than hosting Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United in the FA Cup on Friday in a game that should tell us something about each side’s respective level.
The last game ended 2-2 at Old Trafford, but that was back when Jose Mourinho was still in charge. This result only makes the pick of the fourth round even more delicious. Reluctant as we are to jinx it (because every last thing I say or do is important and therefore jinxes are definitely real), it’s all perfectly set up to be one of the games of the season.
14) After that, they have Cardiff at home, the small matter of an away trip to Manchester City, another away trip to Huddersfield, and then another another away trip to Belarus to take on BATE Borisov in the Europa League.
If only there were a former Arsenal midfielder who could provide us with an appropriate simile to describe this mixiest of mixed bags of a fixture list.
There would be no shame in a defeat at the Etihad, but after being so comprehensively dismantled by Liverpool in a 5-1 defeat at the end of December, Emery will see it that game as a second and final chance for his defence to make the case that he does not need to perform a complete overhaul in the summer. The good news for them is they just passed the first with flying colours.
15) With Tottenham only holding a one-goal lead from the first leg of their EFL Cup tie, Sarri might see the prospect of buying time with a cup final as too good to pass up; but the games that follow – against Sheffield Wednesday in the cup, then Bournemouth and Huddersfield in the league – represent an opportunity to try something new and deliver some much-needed arse-kicking ahead of the chance to make it two wins out of two over Manchester City this season.
Getting Higuain into the side and Hazard back into form as he returns to the wing will clearly be his priority, but Sarri also needs to have a good, hard look at teacher’s pet Jorginho and weigh up whether he might be better off switching Kante back to the base of the defence and giving Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley the chance to fight it out for the more advanced midfield role. If not now, then when for the 22- and 25-year-olds?
16) The indifferent form of both Arsenal and Chelsea over the past month or so has let Manchester United sneak up on them, despite the Red Devils having looked well and truly out of the running for a place in the top four just a few weeks ago. I wonder what could possibly have changed?
Depending on how the Harry Kaneless Tottenham respond to their own loss to United, that means that we now either have a four-way fight for two Champions League places, or a three-way fight for one such place.
The domination of the big six may be bad for English football, but if they’re going to be there, then we can at least be glad that there is plenty of competition between them. With City and Liverpool also fighting it out for the title, not a single one of them can afford to rest on their laurels.
Steven Chicken is on Twitter