If you were still unsure whether to take this season seriously or not, here was a result to make your mind up. Or rather, as crisis club Arsenal convincingly dispatched title challengers Chelsea, here was a moment to realise tis not the season to be jolly for grand statements on who is doing what with any great conviction.
Because Arsenal are indeed troubled, even as they produced their best performance of the season to triumph 3-1 off the back of a seven-game winless run that has featured five defeats. And Chelsea possess one of the strongest squad, man-to-man, in the division, yet were unable to do anything worthwhile ontl the hosts until the final five minutes of this encounter.
Tammy Abraham nabbed the consolation before Mason Mount was felled in the area and Jorginho missed the opportunity to make it 3-2 and ramp up the pressure in the five minutes of added time. By then, Mikel Arteta’s side had showcased all the fight he had requested in the week to take a deserved 3-0 lead. Alexandre Lacazette’s penalty and Granit Xhaka’s free-kick were moments to savour in the first-half, before Bukayo Saka’s cross-cum-shot not long after half-time. Perhaps most notably, though, was the presence of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, just under £120 million of talent, on the bench for the start of the second half. The former has now gone 10 matches without a goal, while the latter only made an appearance with 16 minutes to go.
Chelsea’s plan looked to rest solely on waiting for Arsenal to Arsenal themselves. That’s generally been enough for the eight other sides that have bested the hosts, who started the match three points above the relegation zone after Fulham’s draw with Southampton in a 3pm kick-off. Just as talk had turned to relegation, a fifth win of the season ensures such fears do not need to be considered so gravely.
What looked a brave XI on paper from Arteta was partly out of necessity than design. Gabriel Magalhaes was ruled out of this match - and the next two over the coming week - after close contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19, meaning Pablo Mari made his second Premier League start. Unrelated to the defender’s absence were illnesses of David Luiz and Willian, Arsenal tweeting both were “unwell but both have recently tested negative”.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was fit enough to return to the bench after recovering from a calf injury. Nicolas Pepe and Eddie Nketiah were also available. But amid doubts of fitness and form, it was Emile Smith Rowe who was handed a first league start.
It’s a familiar sporting trope that the best players in an under-performing team are the ones not playing. Not only does Smith Rowe fall into that category with no previous minutes this season, but he is one of a crop of youngsters that supporters want to see given opportunities to clear up the mess of their senior counterparts.
As much as these calls were imploring a management team to put faith in the talent coming through, it was also about remedying a lack of ingenuity through energy. And, for all its simplicity, Arsenal were noticeable more dynamic.
The trio of 20-year-old Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli (both 19) buzzed around in the way that kids do at this time of year. Full of hope, excitement and with no hint of the disappointment of recent months colouring any of their judgement.
Within a minute, Saka had combined with Hector Bellerin for a deep cross that Martinelli directed wide of the far post. From then on, the spikes of energy in the middle of the pitch and in transition though Chelsea had more of the ball, they also had more to worry about.
The opener was an indirect result of this. A corner forced out on the attacking left was flicked beyond the far post but was recycled to Xhaka, whose first notable act with his left foot found Kieran Tierney rushing beyond Reece James. Having beaten him on the inside, James’ desperation to atone for the misstep brought the Scottish full-back to the ground. Up stepped Lacazette to send Edouard Mendy the wrong way.
With that came a certain vindication. Not just that this patched together XI were good enough to go toe-to-toe with Chelsea, but that going 1-0 up meant there was reason to push for more rather than sit back. So they continued on, hassling anyone in blue as the visitors tried to build from the back, while maintaining a degree of solidity in their own defence.
A minute before half-time, Saka’s dart infield was interrupted illegally by Ngolo Kante. Xhaka stepped up and arced a left-footed effort over the wall and beyond the reach of Mendy from 25 yards.
So came the Chelsea changes: Werner off for Callum Hudson Odoi, Mateo Kovacic off for Jorginho. But there was nothing of the sort for Arsenal. And on 56 minutes, that youthful trio would all be involved in some way for Arsenal’s third.
Smith Rowe drove down the right before playing infield to Saka. With Chelsea resetting their defence, Saka looked to find Martinelli in the box. The cross never reached the Brazilian, though, instead clipping the far post and nestling into the top corner. Had it not been on Saka’s weaker right foot, we’d be more inclined to say it was deliberate. Nevertheless, a third Premier League goal of his career in his 40th appearance ensured a more manageable second-half.
There were opportunities for a fourth before Tammy Abraham stooped to head in Hudson Odoi’s cross on 85 minutes. Mendy saved from Lacazette after the striker intercepted his pass to Zouma and try to curl one beyond him. The resulting corner saw Mohammed Elneny strike the bar and then Rob Holding force a save at the near post.
And yet, the bedlam of the final moments served as a reminder that Arsenal can still Arsenal. Thiago Silva was given space to head wide at the fare post in the 90th minute, just before Mari tripped Mount clumsily for the penalty. Bernd Leno watched Jorginho’s skip, hop and step, and went to his left at the last moment to keep it at 3-1.
Perhaps, in another universe not so different to this one, the Italian scores and Chelsea salvage something at the death. That they didn't, and Arsenal held their nerve to the end, might be the most heartening aspect of these much-needed three points. Even in this universe where things have gone so awry for Arteta, there remains some hope.
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