Perhaps this underwhelming league season is building to some kind of climax, after all. There is certainly a new life to the Champions League chase, although partly because Chelsea passed up an opportunity, and the killer instinct to finish the job. Arsenal will meanwhile wonder where this performance was six days ago for Europe’s secondary competition, even if their celebration showed they took great encouragement out of this 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge
Maybe it will be missed opportunities that end up deciding much of the season, though. It was oddly fitting that the decisive moment in this 1-0 Arsenal win was from a calamitous error rather than any kind of constructive play, as Jorginho’s miscued back pass eventually saw Emile Smith Rowe score the only goal of the game. Both Kai Havertz and Olivier Giroud meanwhile squandered chances they should really have scored.
It all means that Chelsea-Leicester in the league almost represents as much of a play-off as Saturday’s FA Cup final, as any loser runs a real risk of dropping out of the top four. Thursday’s meeting between Manchester United and Liverpool is now that much bigger, because the former champions know that if they win all of their own remaining games they will knock one of those FA Cup finalists out.
Whatever about all that, the key to this game was that Chelsea didn’t really look like Champions League finalists here. Maybe that’s some way inevitable after a feat like that.
There was just such a laxness to their play. It is something we haven’t seen for a while, but exposed a few issues that have actually been there for some time.
Arsenal’s goal was of the kind they are usually criticised for giving away, but actually represents one lingering risks in Tuchel’s system, that Chelsea are strangely susceptible to for a team with such a secure defensive record. It is the slight fissure in an otherwise formidable structure.
They play so high, and are so willing to play the ball, that there is always that propensity for a one-off lapse.
It came here in the 17th minute, as Jorginho tried to play a pass back to the goalkeeper.
You might be able to put some of it down to the fact Tuchel usually has Chelsea so rigorously drilled, but here was a different goalkeeper in a different position to usual. Kepa Arrizabalaga was a few yards further to the right than Edouard Mendy might have been, meaning Jorginho’s ball seemed to be heading for the most calamitously glorious of own goals. The Spaniard scrambled across to just about keep it out in desperate manner, only for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to flick it back for Smith Rowe.
That set a pattern for the game, that seemed to conform to the patterns of the season.
Arsenal have only twice lost games in which they initially went ahead. Tuchel’s Chelsea have only once won a game in which they initially went behind, and that was the last, against Manchester City.
For all the quirky symmetry to the statistic, it does illustrate a few things about two evolving teams, that were evident in this match.
The confidence derived from an early goal clearly does Arsenal the world of good. The fact the pressure is currently off no doubt helps, of course, but Arteta’s side were both composed and commanding. There were good breaks from a strong structure. We saw none of the anxiety, either in defence or attack, that has afflicted many of their more chaotic games this season.
Chelsea were meanwhile that bit more prosaic, as has occasionally been the case since Tuchel took over.
Some of that may just be a natural and entirely understandable drop-off after the emotional exertions of the last few weeks, especially reaching the Champions League final.
Some of it may also be down to the fact that this is very far from the finished product. That can be easy to forget, such has been the extent of Tuchel’s impact. While Chelsea do have one of the strongest squads in Europe, the manager is still trying to build a tactical idea around the team. That does take the time, even if he has so far had them ahead of schedule.
There was nothing especially quick about Chelsea here, though. They were lacking in sharpness, from first minute to last, from first chance to last.
Kai Havertz lifted the ball over the bar when put clean through in the opening minutes, Olivier Giroud somehow hit that bar when just yards from goal in the closing minutes, before it was hit again.
There was finally a bit of urgency for Chelsea by then. It was too late, and too lax.
They now need to find that bit of energy for the last push, that suddenly has so much on it.
A season that could have involved a soaring finish may now involve a real grind. That’s what this Champions League chase now really represents.
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