Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea: Young players show us what we’ve been missing

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Wow. A not loss. What a thing it is.

It’s difficult to read too much into one game, and into one performance, but anyone who has watched Arsenal of late will have noted that the inclusion of some young, hungry players in key positions had a marked impact on how we played.

Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe started and the team looked sharper. Bukayo Saka, 19 years of age, was man of the match. At one point Smith Rowe took the ball in a central area in front of Chelsea’s final third, fed it to Kieran Tierney who then combined with Martinelli, and all I could think of is ‘This is the future’.

Perhaps there’s an element of over-egging this particular pudding, because the previous pudding has been so turgid, cold and lumpy, but it’s the kind of pudding I can get behind even if it doesn’t always turn out so well. It feels like something to build on, rather than a desperate attempt to make something work from disparate pieces that we feel we have to use.

In an Athletic article about Edu (£) which came out over the weekend, there was a section about his long-term vision for Arsenal:

In the long term, he envisages a squad based on youth and academy players, but with a sprinkling of stars that bring quality and leadership. He wants a style of play that is attractive and fits with the Arsenal ideology.

If he and Mikel Arteta, having witnessed that performance last night, can’t see that some of that long-term is now, then we should be worried. So many of the things that were missing were rediscovered. Players who were brave on the ball, took responsibility, tried to make things happen, and who weren’t cowed by the occasion. We’ll never know for sure how much the pre-game absences of Gabriel, Willian and David Luiz forced Arteta’s hand, but handing Emile Smith Rowe only his second Premier League start in a game like this does demonstrate faith in the player.

We know Martinelli is a stellar talent, he’s basically made himself un-droppable in the space of three appearances. Yes, we have to manage him carefully after a long injury, but if you want Arsenal to try and become the Arsenal we want to see, he’s a key ingredient. Saka was tireless and impactful, and like the Brazilian, a player who just has to play.

We started the game really brightly, Chelsea got back into it, but we came around again. Saka, Smith Rowe, Martinelli and Tierney won us a corner. We kept it alive, Granit Xhaka made a really smart pass to the left-back and his drive into the box saw him fouled. Penalty all day long. I don’t know what Gary Neville was on about. Alex Lacazette stepped up and slotted it home perfectly.

Saka driving across the edge of their final third with the ball at his feet saw him fouled by N’Golo Kante. Lacazette and Xhaka stood over it, and the Swiss international buried it. He was an idiot in the game against Burnley, but he played a big part in last night’s performance, not just with the goal. It’s a strange thing, we can all see we need to improve midfield, but he remains basically our second best player in there after Partey so he kinda has to play until we can make further additions. If he can produce more like this, and less of the other stuff, we’ll be better off.

‘Course man!’, said Saka when asked if he meant to score the way he did. Did he? Who cares?

Don’t worry if he meant it.

Look at Arsenal playing it out from the back again with some assurance. Leno > Elneny > Mari > Leno > Holding > Xhaka > Lacazette > Xhaka > Bellerin > Smith Rowe > Saka. In 24 seconds the ball went from our keeper’s hands into the back of the Chelsea net. That’s more like it. If there was a touch of good fortune to the finish – and I’m choosing to believe it’s a big IF because that is my inalienable right as someone who loves to see the ball go in against Chelsea – it was deserved because of how we fashioned that opportunity. It’s been in short supply anyway, so we were overdue a bit, if it was luck (which it wasn’t for the reasons I have previously specified).

Changes came with Joe Willock replacing the tiring Smith Rowe and Pepe for Martinelli around 70 minutes (a sensible sub given his long injury absence and the fact we were 3-0 up). We lost something on that left hand side, which isn’t to be critical of Pepe per se because the game state meant we didn’t look to get forward as much, but we could have sealed the game a couple of times. Lacazette, who had a very good game overall, didn’t make the most of a Mendy mistake; Elneny cracked a shot off the crossbar; Mendy saved from Holding.

And then the terror came.

Abraham’s chest from close range looked offside but VAR demonstrated it wasn’t. 3-1 on 85 minutes. Thiago Silva headed just wide. Then Pablo Mari conceded a clumsy penalty. It was a tired challenge from a player starting his first Premier League game of the season, and who had been injured a few minutes previously. Up stepped Mr Tumnus to do his hop, skip and jump penalty routine. I saw the future play out as clearly as you all did. They’d make it 3-2 and somehow, some way, in the last minute of injury time we’d let in another and the deflation would be immense.

But wait! Bernd Leno read it well, dived to his left and made a superb save. Mari hugged him for saving his blushes, and you kinda knew that was gonna be that. Mustafi came on for Lacazette. The final whistle went.

Arsenal had not lost. Arsenal, my good old friends, had won. And it was good.

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:

I said that today we had to take this opportunity now to put some of the performances in the past where we didn’t have the results into everything, we needed a big performance to win against this team and we need the three points, and I think the boys, right from the beginning, did really well.

But I thought the best summation came from Kieran Tierney, who said:

It’s a start, innit.

And look, I think we’re all perfectly entitled to sit here this morning and enjoy this result as we much as we want. It’s been so long since we won a game in the Premier League – 56 days and seven matches – that basking in this a bit is not only perfectly acceptable, but actively encouraged.

There were genuine positives from last night, not least the young players I’ve mentioned, but also the way they were backed up and supported by some of the more experienced members of the team. Beating Chelsea is always fun, and after such a difficult period, it’s ok to feel good about this game. When you’ve felt like you don’t know where and how the next three points are coming from, embrace the points.

However, that mindset that Tierney lays out is important. It has to be just the start. It has to be followed up with more of the same. The reality is that the schedule at this time of the year demands some rotation, so those that think we’ve seen the last of certain players will be disappointed by some team selections, I’m sure. But what the young players showed us as fans, and Mikel Arteta last night, is that they can make a difference. Smith Rowe is absolutely ready to play at this level. He might not be a 90 minute, three times a week player yet, but that’s what we have to look to build him into.

It might even light a fire under the arses of some of those disappointing senior players, who should now be made very aware that their place in the team is not a foregone conclusion. Arteta has, too often, erred on the side of experience and been let down. Last night, whether it was enforced or not, he was rewarded by youth, by enthusiasm, by energy, and by their burgeoning quality.

We have some tough games coming up, but that’s the main takeaway from this result and performance, and I hope it’s one which he pays close attention to.

Right, that’ll do it for now. I’m looking forward to an Arsecast Extra with James tomorrow, so join us for that. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of a weekend which hasn’t been shat on by football.

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