Sunday, December 10, 2023

Chelsea 2-2 Arsenal: Martinelli takes centre-stage as Gunners show real character

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Compare and contrast the feeling of this draw with our last one, the draw against Sheffield United. The context of a game is so important in terms of how it makes you feel, and somewhat against the odds last night, the point we earned from the 2-2 with Chelsea feels very, very good indeed.

It had looked like a long-shot when David Luiz was sent off in the 26th minute. It’s fair to say Chelsea had been in the ascendancy up to that point. They’d had a number of attempts, played three times as many attacking third passes as we did, and we looked a bit less composed than you might have liked. Their high press played a part in that, and we were struggling overall.

Then came the sending off. Shkodran Mustafi made a basic error, as he has before – too many times for me to have any sympathy for him – and when Tammy Abraham drove into the box, David Luiz pushed him over to deny a clear goalscoring opportunity. It’s a red card and I had been worried about the Brazilian from the start. He’s an emotional guy as we all know, but you could see the occasion was affecting his performance on his return to his old club and all the rest. Did that impact his decision making? Perhaps, but how he thought he could get away with that kind of foul in that position is beyond me.

I’ve seen people talk about how new rules mean it shouldn’t be a penalty and a red card, but that only applies where a player has made a genuine attempt to play the ball or the foul is deemed accidental. Deliberate fouls in that situation mean a red card, that was a deliberate foul, and he’s now suspended for the FA Cup game on Monday.

As for Mustafi, well that’s what he does. Maybe as a manager you have to experience Mustafi going full Mustafi to fully understand him, that has happened to Arteta now. The new boss doesn’t have a lot to work with at centre-half though, and despite the mountain of evidence that told us very clearly the former German international should be playing football for someone else now, the people in charge of recruitment have failed to build the squad properly from a defensive point of view so this one is as much on them as anyone else. The fact that post-error Mustafi played pretty well just sums up the problem with him. He threw himself about, some of his last-ditch defending was great, but he’s always capable of mixing that stuff with something which makes it impossible to win a game and you just can’t keep playing someone like that.

As expected Jorginho tucked away the penalty to make it 1-0, and in the short-term Granit Xhaka slotted in at centre-half while Arteta considered his options. It was interesting to hear him talk post-game about how he decided against bringing Rob Holding on because he didn’t want to send that message to his team. It would have meant sacrificing an attacking player, and on TV they were suggesting that Gabriel Martinelli was going to be the man to come off. In the end, he stuck with what he had, and it turned out to be the right decision.

Xhaka was, in my opinion, outstanding at centre-half. So much has happened with him this season, but as much as anyone he’s flourished under Arteta. This Granaissance is unexpected, but in a position that’s not his own but one he’s actually quite suited to, he won tackles, headers, made clearances and demonstrated the kind of calm assurance on the ball you need in situations like the one we found ourselves in. Instead of Chelsea turning the screw as I had expected, we grew into the game, and looked more solid.

The introduction of Matteo Guendouzi ten minutes into the second half for a Mesut Ozil who was lucky not to get hooked at the break also improved things. We were much more robust and had a bit more energy and physicality in the team. We were under pressure in terms of territory, but not massively so, and in the 63rd minute we found a way through. I say ‘we’, but I mean Gabriel Martinelli who scored a goal which I think will catapult him into the consciousness of football fans far and wide. It’s not that he hasn’t contributed this season, but given our woes I suspect he’s sort of flown under the radar for non-Arsenal fans a bit.

Not any more. Chelsea had a corner, Mustafi headed it away well, and the young Brazilian was quickest and sharpest to the breaking ball. He took it, ran with it, perhaps got a little fortunate that his slightly heavy touch coincided with Ngolo Kante doing an uncanny impression of John Terry and slipping at exactly the right time, but from there what he did was incredible. At 18 years of age, he burst through the middle with defenders chasing him down but at no point did he panic, nor did his touch let him down. He was always in full control of the ball, moving at top speed, and when it came time for the finish, it ice-cold, slotting it beyond Kepa to make it 1-1.

There hasn’t been much about this season that you can say has been 100% positive, but this kid certainly is. We all know he’s a talent, we’ve watched him score some brilliant goals and we can see the raw materials are there. Doing it in a game like this is just a bit different though. A London derby, against Chelsea away from home, with Arsenal down to 10 men. He’s in the team right now because Aubameyang is suspended, but when the captain is back, Martinell is not the player who should make way, that’s for sure. You reward performances like this with playing time, and I don’t think Arteta should have any fear about doing that either.

Lampard threw on a few substitutes to try and get from his team, and although Leno had to make a couple of saves, nothing really worked. The game moved into the final 10 minutes, and I thought their second goal was preventable despite our one man deficit. I don’t want to hammer home the Mustafi thing, but when the ball broke to Abraham, I was shouting at the TV for him to make the early foul and stop the counter. Look again at where he could have done that:

He didn’t, he got bypassed, and won Chelsea a corner. Interestingly, Abraham picked up an injury when colliding with the hoardings. I thought there was a touch of offside/interfering with play as he limped back as they took a quick set-piece, but as the ball came in Azpilicueta ran ahead of a static defence to make it 2-1. I’ll admit at that point I thought our chances of getting anything from the game were gone, and that we’d have to put this down as a plucky defeat from which we’d have to just focus on the positives that were definitely there.

However, the players showed some real spirit and character, basically doing what Arteta had told them to do in spite of the disadvantage, and when the ball came to Hector Bellerin just outside their box, the presence of the hobbled Abraham played a part in our second equaliser. He could barely move because of the injury, so the captain on the night cut inside him easily and curled a left footed shot beyond the £80m Almunia to make it 2-2.

Clinical Arsenal, two shots all game, two shots on target, two goals. It was so much more than that though. Against the odds this rag-tag team with an 18 year winger doing brilliantly at left-back; a central midfielder who wanted out just a few short weeks ago playing superbly at centre-half; a right-back who is still making his way back from a cruciate injury; and an 18 year old forward who this time last year was playing in the Brazilian fourth division or whatever it was; found it within themselves to peg Chelsea back not once, but twice while down to ten men.

It’s no wonder Arteta was proud afterwards, saying:

I am. The spirit they showed, the character, the fight and the leadership was there as well. You have to really stand up. When someone makes a mistake, it can happen in football, so someone has to take a red card for him. It can happen. What cannot happen is that afterwards we don’t stand up for him. Every single player did it with belief as well.

We’re playing with a lot of young kids and what they’ve shown tonight is going to be a great experience for them, to keep believing that in football if you put everything in, anything can happen. In that sense, it’s top.

Sometimes a draw feels like a dagger in the heart, other times it’s just as good as a win when it comes to how you react to it. Arsenal have not been a team which copes well with adversity in recent times, so to see us do what we did last night in those circumstances was remarkable and very pleasing. It was a performance we can build on and take a lot of positives from. It wasn’t all good, obviously, but if you’re Arteta and you want to know and learn about the character of your players and what they’re capable of, not to mention convincing them that they can do things like this, last night was hugely beneficial.

Our progress under the new manager when it comes to results is incremental; but in terms of what he’s done with this squad, how he has changed the attitude and the mindset, what he’s getting from them individually and collectively, and just the way we play the game, it’s been massive. It’s why I feel confident that if we continue in this vein, the results will definitely come.

Podcast fans, James and I are recording a podcast this morning. Due to time constraints it’s not a full Arsecast Extra so we’re not taking questions, but we’ll have a good chat about the game itself, and how it all went down. That should be be available for you mid-morning, so stay tuned for that.

More reaction and news throughout the day on Arseblog News. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch the Martinelli goal another thirty-seven times.

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