Out of so much chaos, some order. Arsenal claimed a first win in four, to recharge their challenge for the top four, at one of the unlikeliest of venues. And that, largely, from the least likely of heroes. Eddie Nketiah hadn’t scored a league goal in 367 days before this trip to Chelsea, and his team hadn’t scored in three games against mid-table teams.
It took seven minutes for that to change, the striker eventually hitting his second to send Mikel Arteta’s team on the way to a raucous 4-2 victory just when it seemed their season was tail-spinning.
It was admittedly difficult to escape the feeling that a relatively secure Chelsea weren’t at their most focused, not that Thomas Tuchel will see it that way. He was often furious on the line, as his team were so fractious on the pitch.
That won’t matter to Arsenal, but the result will. It will matter quite a great deal. It was, quite possibly, season-changing. That genuinely can’t be overstated, given the looming sense that this fixture would make it four defeats in a row, and an unexpected chance at a Champions League place was frittering away.
Arsenal instead displayed impressive opportunism, as best symbolised by Nketiah. He ensured his side took advantage of Chelsea’s laxness, which was signalled – and often caused – by Andreas Christensen.
The Dane was so sloppy that Tuchel spent much of the first half complaining to staff about him, before eventually hauling him off for Thiago Silva. Many will doubtless point to the risk of using a player whose future is elsewhere, before you get to his mind. This may well have been Christensen’s last game for the club and, if so, it was crowned by a dreadful back pass that gifted Arsenal the lead.
You could say it took something bad for both Nketiah and Arsenal to finally score, but the striker also took the finish superbly. With Edouard Mendy coming out, Nketiah just rolled it past him.
If the circumstances of such a game meant Arsenal had a resurgent vibrancy in attack, they had a remaining porousness in defence.
Both of their first two goals were met with responses within five minutes. The initial equaliser was the quickest coming, although it wasn’t just the speed of Chelsea’s response that caught Arsenal out. It was also the wicked deflection off Granit Xhaka, as Timo Werner’s shot spun off the midfielder’s foot. Ruben Loftus-Cheek had done well to win the ball in the first place, but that was reflective of the game. It was like both teams were only willing to play in transition, creating this sugar rush of a match.
Consider what happened for the next major moment, on 27 minutes, as Arsenal scored from a brilliant surge that began in their own box. Xhaka used his feet to deliberate with deft effect, winning the ball back and then starting the move with a nutmeg. It was swept up to Saka, who was really enjoying taking on Marcos Alonso at every opportunity. The wing-back wasn’t quite so happy with it, and was brought one way then the other before Saka played it inside. Odegaard laid it off and, arriving ominously late as ever, Emile Smith Rowe almost continued the passing move by just rolling the ball into the corner.
The game was still too chaotic for Arsenal to actually hold it, or the ball, though. It was Mason Mount that won it in a dangerous position around their box, but there was nothing fortuitous about what happened after that. The midfielder played the most beautiful curved ball for Cesar Azpilicueta to arrive at the front post and guide the ball like an arch finisher.
Looking to at least restore some order to his team, Tuchel decided to bring on Thiago Silva for Christensen. Little changed. The play remained as loose as ever. Nketiah, emboldened, was sharp enough to take advantage. On 57 minutes, he poked home again. It was superb forward play, and finally set the game further back.
It settled into more of a pattern, but partly because Arsenal were now more secure. They withstood an extended period of Chelsea pressure, if not without some nerves, before enjoying another release.
Saka again got free on the break. Azpilicueta this time took the bizarre decision of almost shoving him. Saka himself stepped up for a penalty that was identically struck to the Euro 2020 final but had the opposite outcome. He scored, and also reversed the course of Arsenal’s run-in.
They are still behind Tottenham Hotspur on goal difference, in fifth, but the outlook already looks so different. There is no more gloom around their season. There is a new optimism.
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