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More agonising pain for Arsenal as Chelsea claim smash and grab victory at the Emirates

By Alfie Cairns Culshaw

Mikel Arteta’s home tenure at Arsenal began with a desperately disappointing result, with Chelsea’s two late goals leaving the hugely impressive first half almost irrelevant. This was a performance full of encouragement, with the new head coach implementing several tactical tweaks which saw a greatly improved Arsenal side that should have come away with all 3 points.

Performance aside, the result represents another gutting loss of points and thus another opportunity blown to improve our horrific league position. It’s almost impossible not to begin to look over our shoulder at the relegation zone, which stands just 6 points behind us. We must start picking up points.

Arteta named a largely unchanged eleven, but the omission of Granit Xhaka was a notable difference, with the Swiss international left out through an ‘illness’- another indication of his imminent departure to Hertha Berlin? Arsenal missed Xhaka and his composure on the ball in the middle of the park, with Matteo Guendouzi failing to replicate the element of control our former captain brings to the side.

Our first half performance was nothing short of exceptional. The stark contrast between this first 45 display and our first 45 display just two weeks prior, to Arteta’s former side Manchester City, was incredible, and speaks volumes of the immediate impact Arteta has been able to make in merely a handful of training sessions. That was a chaotic mess; it was a team that had been thrown out with no tactical game plan, no confidence, no unity and no leadership. Yesterday, we saw a team that knew what they were doing, who looked like they believed in what their coach was asking them to do and were determined to carry out these instructions and fight for the badge.

We played with intensity and energy. We were consistently looking to press Chelsea in their own half and were adventurous in our passing. Lucas Torreira provided the foundation for our offensive players to thrive, winning the ball back relentlessly and retaining possession effectively. Mesut Ozil provided the guile and finesse in attacking areas that we have desperately missed in recent months, delivering a mesmeric first 45 minutes. Reiss Nelson provided the team a ball carrier, something we have missed since Alex Iwobi’s departure, driving the team up the pitch with his athleticism, good ball control and dribbling abilities. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang epitomised our persistent work rate, constantly tracking back and aiding out of position and inexperienced full-back Bukayo Saka.

It was the Gabonese international who opened the scoring, excellently adjusting his body position and demonstrating his poaching instincts to head home from Calum Chambers flick following an Ozil corner. A deserved lead, and the way in which the players and fans celebrated in unison was a beautiful moment in which the toxic months prior cascaded under the carpet- the Emirates stadium together and boiling.

Chambers then went off in what looked like a serious knee injury- a huge blow to the individual who had begun to find his feet in this Arsenal side, and indeed a huge blow to the team, losing arguably our best defender this season at such a crucial time.

The way in which we retained possession in the first half was extremely impressive, and, as I eluded to in my Bournemouth review, sought to reduce our defensive frailties, as it limited Chelsea to merely 0.14 xG in this period.

I think it’s fair to suggest the hectic Christmas schedule and our first half intensity took its toll in the second 45, as we looked slightly jaded and struggled to maintain the control we had asserted in the first period. Whilst we still managed to limit Chelsea to few chances of real quality, they did control possession and territory. We threatened on the counter on a few occasions, most notably when Joe Willock slashed wide when he perhaps should have found Lacazette in a better position, but we were mostly wasteful with these opportunities.

We were looking pretty good value for all 3 points and pretty comfortable in our lead until a rush of blood to Leno’s head saw him miss a Mason Mount delivery when he really should have punched clear, leaving Jorginho with a tap in. Not only was Jorginho’s man-handling of Torreria in the box before he equalised questionable, but the Italian should undoubtedly have been shown a second yellow not long before the goal for cynically hauling down Guendouzi. More poor officiating in the world’s best league. How this lack of quality in our officiating continues to plague the game I don’t know, but the Premier League or FA must take action. All this talk of VAR ‘ruining football’, maybe people should begin to look at the bigger picture- the officials monitoring our game and using VAR aren’t good enough.

From this moment, however, unfortunately we can have no one to blame but ourselves. With Chelsea being the side with the momentum and energy heading into the final 5 minutes, we failed to manage the game and accept a point was a good one. A lack of positional discipline from half our team saw Chelsea hit us on the counter, with Guendouzi, Maitland-Niles, Willock and Saka all being caught far too high up the pitch, allowing the dynamic duo of Willian and Tammy Abraham to expose Mustafi and Luiz. The goal reflects very poorly on Mustafi in particular, who stood off Abraham inside his own box, but questions must be asked of the team collectively, as to why our full-backs were so high up the pitch at that point in the game with the way it was panning out and Guendouzi’s inability to win a simple aerial duel which would have prevented the counter. Perhaps a bit of inexperience. We’ll learn and grow as a team.

Very frustrating, but at this point as fans we may have to accept this season is a write off. We may have to accept results may not be perfect in the next 5 months, and, as long as we can see a clear identity being slowly implemented, this shouldn’t be too difficult.

Whilst a rest and more training sessions may be more beneficial to the side, in a way having another big game in such quick succession is a good thing- it could enable us to alleviate some of the pressure on us and retain some optimism amongst the pessimistic and impulsive fans. We move.

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