Even though Arsenal beat Chelsea at Wembley in the FA Cup final in May and got the better of them on penalties in the Community Shield last month, there was a lot of trepidation going into the game at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Arsenal had lost at the ground in each of the last five seasons and went into it off the back of the humbling defeat at Anfield in the previous away game.
On that day, and too often at Stamford Bridge, Arsene Wenger’s team has been too open, been punished on the counter-attack and has struggled to get back into the game after going behind. To be successful on Sunday, as in the FA Cup final, it felt like Arsenal had to score the opening goal. They didn’t manage it, but kept the Blues out to take a creditable 0-0 draw.
Petr Cech had to make a good save when Pedro was in one-on-one in the first half, but otherwise Arsenal kept Chelsea at arm’s length for most of the match. The focus in defence was much better that it was when Liverpool were able to run riot and the midfield had a much better structure to it. Were it not for hitting the post, a rebound going over the bar and Skhodran Mustafi being just offside in the second half when he headed in, Arsenal could have sneaked the win as they were able to apply some pressure on the hosts. Chelsea got very tetchy and nervous about the threat of the Gunners, and showed that by taking off the attacking Pedro at half-time for Bakayoko to try and sure up the midfield.
That did give the hosts more of control on the game, but when they did attack, Arsenal’s back three of Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal were switched on and didn’t give Alvaro Morata an easy ride. Koscielny in particular was excellent after looking completely out-of-sorts at Anfield.
The back three were also helped by a more structured midfield with Aaron Ramsey not bombing on to go beyond the striker at every available opportunity. The balance between the Welshman and Granit Xhaka was much better, with the Swiss international not left exposed as often. Ramsey was still able to make a few breaks forward, but took more responsibility to be a proper central midfield player, rather than a free-roaming attacker.
When he did get forward, he created Arsenal’s best chance in the first half with a weaving run that almost ended in him stumbling over, but he kept his balance and poked the ball against the post. Alex Lacazette couldn’t react quick enough for the rebound and put the ball over the bar. The Frenchman’s other best opening came from excellent link-up play between Bellerin and Iwobi down the right. Bellerin’s surges down the right were a feature of the first-half, and after a goal against Cologne on Thursday, there’s signs of the Spaniard getting back to his best form.
As the game went on and Arsenal were pushed back a bit more, they didn’t create as much in the second half. Alexis Sanchez came off the bench but couldn’t make the difference. It was a surprise to see the Chilean on the bench – starting a big game without Alexis and Mesut Ozil is something Arsenal will have to get used to next season – but he has had a truncated pre-season is still finding his way to full fitness. It was clear in the first half against Cologne that he needed the minutes on Thursday to get some form and fitness. With his stunning goal in the second half of that game, it seemed like he was ready to be picked, but Arsene Wenger is being cautious about throwing him back into the side. In his place, Alex Iwobi had a positive game before fading in the second half.
David Luiz was sent off for Chelsea late in the game, but there wasn’t enough time for Arsenal to muster a winning goal. It made it three red cards in three games against the Gunners for Chelsea following Victor Moses in the cup final and Pedro in the Community Shield. Antonio Conte can whine about it and claim a conspiracy, but all three have been justified red cards. Luiz’s challenge on Sunday was reckless, had the studs showing and went into the shins of the Kolasinac. If the big Bosnian wasn’t such a tank, it could have been a serious injury. My advice to Antonio Conte would be to get his players to stop challenging with the studs showing. It happened with Pedro at Wembley and Gary Cahill on the opening day of the season before Luiz on Sunday, but at least the referees are finally punishing them for these dangerous challenges.
While not a win, the result is something to build on. The clean sheet was the most welcome thing after the harrowing away defeats and is a confirmation that the inferiority complex Arsenal have had against Chelsea has subsided. There was a more cynical edge to the Gunners with some excellent fouls during the game to stop Chelsea attacks early in the moments where Arsenal seemed short at the back. The challenge will be to repeat the effort, organisation and commitment in the next big game. The work has to continue if that sort of performance is to turn into a win, but if I was offered a draw prior to the trip to Chelsea, I would have happily taken it.