An unusual night at Stamford Bridge ended with a crucial victory for Arsenal and a fine performance from the man who replaced their captain.
It was a strange afternoon at Stamford Bridge, of empty seats, slightly unusual team selections and two flawed sides in different states of uncertainty. They put on a game that was entertaining for the neutrals, though it tore at the nerves of those with an emotional stake. And when it all settled down, Arsenal were able to reflect on rediscovering the art of scoring goals, as well as three extremely valuable points to draw level with Spurs in the race for fourth place. Meanwhile, Thomas Tuchel will have questions about a strangely lifeless performance.
A reminder of the horrible world of 2022 was visible on Stamford Bridge throughout the night. Everyone knows why, but it’s still rare to see such huge differences in the crowd for such an important game. It shouldn’t be long before the club’s winning bidder is confirmed and that may once again be a thing of the past.
Regarding the selection of the team, both coaches made peculiar decisions. Romelu Lukaku started for Chelsea, who left Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech on the bench. Arsenal captain sacked Alexander Lacazette in favor of Eddie Nketiah. It was a decision by Arteta that seemed to breathe fresh air into the attack on his side. Coupled with a brilliant performance from Emile Smith Rowe, he pointed out a potential path on how Arsenal can solve their ongoing goalscoring problems.
The very slight otherworldly feel of the night lingered for much of the first half. Within 20 minutes, both teams had taken advantage of each other’s defensive generosity. Andreas Christensen desperately missed a back pass to Edouard Mendy, allowing Nketiah to come in to give Arsenal the lead. Four minutes later Timo Werner cut in from the left and his attempt deflected past Aaron Ramsdale through Granit Xhaka’s ankle.
With both teams evidently in agreement that the defensive organization was for losers, the fun and games continued apace. After 26 minutes, Smith Rowe rolled the ball into the corner after Chelsea had defended some more. Cesar Azpilicueta soon equalized with a push near the post after Werner and Mason Mount took the ball away from Ben White for the latter to cross. Thirty minutes inside, it was 2-2. National Don’t Defend Day seems to come earlier each year. The pace slowed after this period of chaos and the teams were still level at half-time, but Arteta will have been by far the happier of the two managers.
Thiago Silva replaced Christensen at half-time, presumably to bring some calm and stability to the center of Chelsea’s defence. It lasted 11 minutes, before Nketiah managed to slip away and push the ball past Mendy despite three attempts by Chelsea to clear the ball. At the hour, Lukaku, who had spent most of the evening vaguely chasing shadows, withdrew in favor of Havertz. When Nketiah surprisingly retired in favor of Gabriel Martinelli ten minutes later, he seemed somewhat annoyed at not having the opportunity to complete a hat-trick. Smith Rowe followed five minutes later, replaced by Cedric.
Chelsea kept pressing, but with Arsenal putting nine players behind the ball every time their opponents came within 35 yards of the Ramsdale goal, all the possession in the world couldn’t be turned into much more than half chances. And as Chelsea pushed higher and higher up the pitch, they began to leave gaps at the back that made Arsenal look dangerous every time they broke through, though they similarly found few real chances on the ground. With nine minutes remaining they made an excellent one when Cedric found himself speeding down the right into the Arsenal penalty area, but seemed to change his mind at the last minute and ended up targeting no one in particular.
As the clock ticked down to 90 minutes, there was a final moment of the Twilight Zone defense from Azpilicueta, who inexplicably dragged Bukayo Saka to the ground for a clear penalty and then allowed himself to get involved in an argument that allowed the clock to run down. further away. They waved a couple of yellow cards and Saka sent Mendy the wrong way to put the fate of the three points out of reasonable doubt; it was his first penalty since last year’s Euro 2020 final.
There were even more empty seats on display when the final whistle blew. ‘There’s no one here, there’s no one here, like in the old days, there’s no one here,’ the itinerant supporters sang jubilantly. As he left the field of play, Azpilicueta was involved in an argument with a disgruntled crowd.
Chelsea, it had been suggested, had overcome the slump it experienced in December and January. but recent performances hint that their own place in the Champions League might not be entirely secure yet. They have now conceded 11 goals in their last three home games and with Arsenal and Spurs now level on points and just five behind them, the Blues need to bounce back against West Ham next. With six games of the season to play, one more Chelsea loss could turn the race for the final Champions League spot into a race for the final two spots.
Arsenal, of course, have had their false dawns before, but the effervescence of Nketiah and Smith Rowe, albeit against oddly flat opposition, offers a glimpse of a potential future. They’ve been goal-shy for much of the past few weeks, but with six games left in the season, it’s a good time to find an attacking formula that works. This is not over yet.