Thursday, February 29, 2024

Chelsea 2-2 Arsenal: Rice and Trossard rescue a point

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Arsenal remain unbeaten in the Premier League, but only just after a poor performance and late drama at Stamford Bridge. The team news saw Bukayo Saka come back in, meaning the front three with him, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli started together for the first time this season. Jorginho kept his place in midfield, and with William Saliba deemed fit, the back four was as expected.

The tone to our display was set early on when Oleksandr Zinchenko was careless in our area, requiring Ben White to block a shot before another Chelsea player fired over. That was inside the first two minutes, and it was something Declan Rice touched on afterwards, saying:

I think the first half is probably the worst we’ve played all season, in terms of our sloppiness. Not doing things in our structure, not doing things how we’ve worked on them all week.

Chelsea controlled the space with a tight midfield three, and were awarded an early penalty when Saliba was adjudged to have handled the ball. In the cold light of day, I still think the handball rule is kind of absurd, but would I have wanted it if it happened up the other end? For sure. I still don’t know where Saliba is supposed to put his arms when he’s trying to jump though. Do players have to become seals in the penalty box or something?

Cole Palmer stepped up and scored the penalty, but I think he was perhaps a bit fortunate to still be on the pitch. The awful foul on Gabriel Jesus a few minutes earlier was borderline red for me: from behind, late, nowhere near the ball, studs down the Achilles. Much like Kovacic the other week, he got away with one there.

After that he took a tumble and questioned why Rice wasn’t booked. I thought that kind of thing was forbidden these days, but maybe only on some days, and perhaps you have to do the yellow card gesture too. Who knows when the refs make it up as they go along? Meanwhile, Arteta got booked for questioning the penalty, the same punishment as a dangerous tackle. Football really, really needs to rethink the card system, but that’s a conversation for another day.

We were, when we had possession, very poor in the attacking third. Nothing came off. Martin Odegaard’s passing radar was in for repairs, and Chelsea came closest to scoring when Palmer drilled a shot beyond the post. The manager made a half-time change, bringing on Takehiro Tomiyasu for Zinchenko whose yellow card was inhibiting him. The Japan international immediately made that side of the pitch more secure.

Chelsea’s second felt inevitable given it came from Mudryk, the player we pursued so vigorously before the money men shuffled him off to West London. I found it a bit odd how determined the TV coverage was to categorise this as a goalkeeping error rather than the complete fluke it was. Yes, Raya was caught out, but that’s because Mudryk miskicked it perfectly – if that makes sense. It was the only trajectory that could have ended up in the back of the net, and it was obvious he was trying to cross it.

Raya didn’t cover himself in glory shortly afterwards, playing a terrible pass straight to Palmer who probably should have made it 3-1, but the Spaniard got back to prevent it. That, for me, was his big mistake on the night. Not the goal. And to be fair, I thought Robert Sanchez up the other end was far more jittery than Raya. I said to James at half-time that I thought Chelsea had a rick or two in them, and so it proved.

How we didn’t get a penalty when Sanchez channeled his inner Harald Schumacher to clatter Jesus in the head I just don’t know. You sneeze near a keeper and they get a free kick, but how many times this season have we seen them blunderbuss an opponent in the box and get away with it? His time would come though.

Arteta made changes, with Jorginho, Jesus, Odegaard, and Martinelli making way for Smith Rowe, Nketiah, Trossard and Havertz. We were a bit better but with 15 to go, I was steeling myself for defeat. I didn’t really see how we were going to break down a stubborn Chelsea side where a 40 year old defender still looks like their best player. Enter Sanchez, who misplaced a pass, Rice caught Gallagher napping, and curled home a beautiful finish from 35+ yards out into an empty net. Yes, it was a goalkeeping error, but it was hardly a tap-in, and the curl and control from Rice was excellent.

You know the way people ask all the time ‘Why does Mikel Arteta play Bukayo Saka all the time?’, well the second goal is your answer. By his own high standards he had a really quiet game. No shots, his passing was below the 70% completion mark, and the woolly Cucaracha was allowed wrestle and kick him with impunity all evening. But even on nights like this, he is capable of making something happen.

I think some credit for this one needs to go to Ben White whose first time pass to Havertz was just lovely. The German fed Saka who came inside, crossed to the back post, and there was Trossard to guide the ball home with the outside of his foot. A really lovely goal, a fine finish from the Belgian, and for Saka that’s 10 goal involvements in 10 games this season. That’s why when he’s available, he plays. And stays on.

We might have nicked it, Eddie got to a long ball well and hooked it just wide with Sanchez beaten, and I thought we didn’t quite manage that period after the second goal as well as we might have. Maybe it was because we knew we’d gotten away with it a bit, but some of what we did was unnecessarily rushed and inaccurate.

Afterwards, the manager was pleased with the character of his side, which is understandable, but not happy with the performance:

What went wrong is the start of the game. I think we didn’t play with enough purpose with the ball and clarity and we were just moving the ball without really having the intention to threaten them, and that’s a really dangerous thing to do against teams like Chelsea.

Then we didn’t win enough duels and in tight areas when we had them, they escaped from that and they attacked open spaces and they are really dangerous things to do. So credit to them as well because they are top side, full of top players and you have to acknowledge that.

And:

What I really liked as well is going to the dressing room and the dressing room being quiet after playing 2-2 against Chelsea and being 2-0 down. Because I know that they want more.

IF You cannot win, you don’t have to lose the game and in those games against big teams, big rivals, it is that. we’ll take some learnings .

There’s no question that was one of our worst performances of the season, but I also think we were a bit unlucky to be 2-0 down. Chelsea were fine, well organised and snappy in the tackle, but nothing special, and were ahead via a penalty and a fluke. If you are seeking positives, it’s that not only did we have the ability and character to come back into it, we had a bench at our disposal that really helps you to do that. I don’t think this was all down to the subs, but the players we brought on did give us a little bit of variety, and it helped in the end.

There is plenty for the manager to take from this one, but not much time to parse what has happened. We’re away to Spain on Monday to face Sevilla on Tuesday, and after the away defeat in Lens, it’s critical we raise the level immediately. All in all, you can have your complaints about the performance, but not about the point. I don’t think we deserved much more, but I did enjoy how we came back to earn it.

That’s it for now. Have a great Sunday, and we’ll have an Arsecast Extra for you at some point tomorrow, recording time not yet confirmed but we’ll keep you in the loop.

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