Arsenal undone at the death by Chelsea – but improved performance shows some green shoots for Mikel Arteta

Five things we learned from Arsenal's sickeningly late loss to Chelsea

Luke Brown
Sunday 29 December 2019 17:30
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Mikel Arteta ready to be a 'ruthless' Arsenal manager

Welcome home, Mikel. 14 days after he last sat in a dugout at the Emirates Stadium — albeit the one without the heated chairs and padded cushions — Arteta returned to watch his new side crumble to an unexpected and undeserved 2-1 defeat by Chelsea. Arsenal were aggressive. Committed. Direct. And yet they were still undone at the very death. It was a fitting finale to another difficult year for this football club.

It was also a crying shame. A shame because, for two-thirds of this match, Arsenal had sprinted and pressed, hassled and harried, and provided a tentative but tantalising glimpse into the future of this bruised side under Arteta. With the exception of a couple of clumsy attempts to play out from the back, Arsenal went back to basics. And were it not for two exceptionally costly mistakes right at the very end of the evening, they would have won this match.

They only have themselves to blame. Bernd Leno has been one of Arsenal’s strongest performers this season — establishing himself as the best of the rest of the Premier League’s goalkeepers behind the imperious Alisson and Ederson — but was guilty of completely misreading the flight of Mason Mount’s high, in-swinging cross for Chelsea’s leveller. Leno darted off his line and flapped at thin air, leaving the first-half substitute Jorginho a simple tap-in at the back post. Arsenal's resistance had lasted 83 minutes.

That the Italian midfielder — who was boldly introduced by Frank Lampard midway through the first-half to replace the struggling Emerson Palmieri — escaped a second yellow card for cynically hauling back Mattéo Guendouzi moments earlier only added to Arsenal’s burning sense of injustice.

If Lampard’s decision to so decisively introduce Jorginho was evidence of a young manager looking increasingly comfortable in his role, Arteta’s choice to replace Reiss Nelson with Nicolas Pépé in the immediate aftermath of Chelsea’s equaliser perhaps indicated some tactical naivety. As Arsenal slightly adjusted their shape, Chelsea counter-attacked, with Tammy Abraham striking to secure a crucial victory.

On the touchline, Arteta could not help but rest his head in his hands. It was a desperately cruel blow with the three points in sight. And while the manner of Arsenal’s defeat evidenced so many familiar problems there were at least positives to take from the performance.

There has been so much doom and gloom around this club — from the downfall and demise of Emery, to the crowd turning on their own players, to those players then subsequently wanting to leave, to the quite frankly bizarre revolt against Arsenal Fan TV earlier this month — that it has been forgotten that some progress was made last season, however modest.

Ignore the result for a moment. Arteta made a start to repairing those problems here. And while much of the post-match dissection will focus on the nature of Chelsea’s comeback, and how Arteta has now won just one point from six, it should not be forgotten how hard both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Özi worked in this match, how well Arsenal played in that opening half, and how buoyant the Emirates sounded in stark contrast to recent weeks.

There is so much work for Arteta to do. And this result will take a while for both him and his players to shake off. But this performance has to be seen as a step in the right direction. On this evidence, as scant as it is, the results will come.

Lampard tip-toes around Luiz…

Frank Lampard was at pains not to irritate David Luiz in the build-up to this match, for fear of aggravating a player who has previous for coming back to haunt his former employers. “What I don’t want to do is look like it’s a personal question going into a game against a player I respect and played with,” Lampard diplomatically — and firmly — noted in his pre-match press conference.

On the evidence of this performance, Lampard was right not to risk riling the Brazilian. Luiz was clearly galvanised by this reunion with his former club: taking charge of the pre-match huddle, jumping into tackles and galloping forward at every opportunity. He was lucky to avoid getting into trouble, too, when he attempted to boot the ball into Willian at point-blank range to win a throw-in.

… and isn’t afraid to mix things up

It really cannot be overstated just how poor Chelsea were in the first thirty minutes of this match.

Lampard does, however, deserve plenty of credit for how quickly he reacted to the situation. Emerson was selected to start — mistakenly so, on this evidence — and was repeatedly exposed by Arsenal’s defenders. After just thirty minutes he was hauled off, with Lampard turning to Jorginho and changing his pre-match tactics.

The change worked, with Jorginho helping Chelsea to wrest back control of the match before his late equalising goal. It was a bold substitution from such a young manager. But it paid off spectacularly.

Xhaka sick of Arsenal

Short of falling to his knees and slobbering all over his Under Armour Magneticos after the draw with Bournemouth, Mikel Arteta has done everything within his power to persuade Granit Xhaka to remain at Arsenal for the rest of the season. “I told him how much I like him and what I expect from him,” Arteta said upon joining Arsenal, before revealing he had even once advised Pep Guardiola to sign the Swiss midfielder.

But Arteta’s battered eyelashes do not seem to have done the trick. On Friday, Xhaka’s agent, José Noguera, insisted his client wished to join Bundesliga also-rans Hertha Berlin. And today he missed out on a place in Arsenal’s matchday squad because of a mysterious pre-match “illness”.

Do not be surprised if he does not play for the club again.

Chambers injury a worry

Calum Chambers, still just 24, has been one of the few bright spots of Arsenal’s season. He has not been a regular first-team option since his debut season at the club after joining from Southampton in 2014, but had begun to make the right centre back spot his own in recent weeks and was named man of the match in the draw with Bournemouth.

But he landed awkwardly after tousling with Abraham in the first-half of this match, replaced by Shkodran Mustafi and clearly in some distress. It didn’t look good. Football can be an endlessly cruel sport.

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