With Arsenal’s Premier League campaign hopes looking to have all but evaporated, fans would have been hoping for some festive cheer.
Heading into their Boxing Day clash with Chelsea, Arsenal had failed to win a Premier League match since November 1st, an away win at Manchester United and they now faced a Chelsea side who were not exactly in top form in recent weeks either, having won only two of their last five matches.
For Mikel Arteta, there were a few changes that needed to be made. The absence of summer signing Gabriel Magalhães was in line with the club and the league’s COVID-19 protocols, whereas the absence of former Chelsea men David Luiz and Willian, was down to a bout of illness (not COVID). This meant that Pablo Marí was handed his first start of the season, Granit Xhaka returned after a three-match suspension and Emile Smith Rowe was bought in as Mikel Arteta looked to try and strike a balance between the exuberance of youth and the reliability of experience.
Arsenal started off well with Gabriel Martinelli coming closest in the opening seconds of the match. Though Chelsea threatened here and there with Mason Mount coming the closest, it was Arsenal who stamped their authority on the match.
It was as though Arsenal finally seemed to understand what their performances had been lacking. There was still sloppy ball work here and there, but it was punctuated with an inherent desire to win the ball back, chase down potential attacking routes that Chelsea may have been exploring and a hungry desire to prove that they deserved a place in the team.
It cam as no surprise that Arsenal took the lead. Perhaps a somewhat soft penalty decision from Michael Oliver and the VAR team, as Reece James clipped Kieran Tierney in the penalty area, but the decision was made and Alexandre Lacazette calmly slotted his penalty home, sending Édouard Mendy the wrong way with a stuttering run-up.
Arsenal continued to dominate and to hit Chelsea where it hurts and soon, Bukayo Saka had won a free-kick on the edge of the box. Fresh off scoring his penalty, it looked as though free-kick duties would fall to Lacazette, however, it was Granit Xhaka who stepped up and curled an excellent unstoppable curler past Mendy into the net and doubling Arsenal’s lead.
Arsenal will have been the more frustrated of the the two sides that half-time had approached, but Arsenal picked up where they left off in the second-half. The next goal would prove crucial. A third for Arsenal would essentially see the game buried, whereas a reply from Chelsea left the result in the balance.
After some clever work from Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka found himself in the penalty area and though the youngster will say he saw Mendy off his line and attempted an audacious chip, it was likely no less a surprise than to Saka himself to see his effort float past Mendy and into the net to give Arsenal a three-goal cushion.
And the attempts didn’t end there! Arsenal could have had several more, with Mohamed Elneny hitting the crossbar, Alexandre Lacazette forcing a superb save from Mendy, who atoned for his mistake that led to the chance and Gabriel Martinelli’s somewhat tame effort.
Chelsea did find their way back into the game though. Crosses had been whipped in all game and it was bound to find a man soon enough and Tammy Abraham chested the ball into the back of the net for a consolation goal. VAR checks took a very long time, but the goal stood.
The away side were in the ascendancy at this point and found themselves getting a penalty of their own after Pablo Marí bought down Kai Havertz in the box. It looked as though, despite all their hard work in the first-half, Arsenal were going to implode in the second and hand Chelsea a few more lifelines.
However, Jorginho’s subsequent penalty was saved by Bernd Leno and the final whistle rang out around the empty Emirates Stadium a few minutes later.
Finally, Arsenal had three points! But this was no scrappy result born out of luck as the attackers fed off scraps, no, this was a consummate performance and a vast improvement on the previous weeks.
Though there are still areas that require improvement, it was good to see Arsenal creating chances again. Arsenal combined the wings and the middle together well and the performance of Emile Smith Rowe, who received only his second Premier League start (and his first under Mikel Arteta), is sure to give Arsenal fans hope.
The youngster found himself in pockets of space all game and his quick feet was essential to Arsenal’s movement going forward.
Alexandre Lacazette has been in for his fair share of criticism in recent months, but the Frenchman combined well as Arsenal’s linking forward, often finding himself at the heart of the attack. Though this is not always welcome from the striker, it was encouraging to see Arsenal building more off of Lacazette’s deep collection, rather than hurtling forward with no prospects.
The performance of Bukayo Saka is likely to have Per Mertesacker, Arsenal’s Academy Director, in high spirits too! Though his shot-cum-cross is perhaps a point of contention as to whether or not he meant to score it, his overall performance was a class above many on the field. Chelsea simply did not know how to handle the England youngster, who is very much leading by example, alongside Gabriel Martinelli.
The handwork is far from over for Arsenal. There is still a lot that needs to be improved upon and there are still areas in the squad that need addressing in January, but Boxing Day was a very good reminder that Arsenal do have talent ready to step up and an encouraging performance like that, can only be a positive as Arsenal’s attentions now turn to Brighton.
1.) Bernd Leno
2.) Héctor Bellerín (c)
16.) Rob Holding
22.) Pablo Marí
3.) Kieran Tierney
25.) Mohamed Elneny
34.) Granit Xhaka
7.) Bukayo Saka
32.) Emile Smith Rowe (Willock 65’)
35.) Gabriel Martinelli (Pépé 71’)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Mustafi 92’)
13.) Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson
20.) Shkodran Mustafi
17.) Cédric Soares
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
8.) Dani Ceballos
28.) Joe Willock
19.) Nicolas Pépé
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
30.) Eddie Nketiah
16.) Édouard Mendy
24.) Reece James
15.) Kurt Zouma
6.) Thiago Silva
21.) Ben Chilwell
17.) Mateo Kovačić (Jorginho 45’)
7.) N’Golo Kanté (Havertz 74’)
19.) Mason Mount
10.) Christian Pulisic
11.) Timo Werner (Hudson-Odoi 45’)
9.) Tammy Abraham
1.) Kepa Arrizabalaga
2.) Antonio Rüdiger
28.) César Azpilicueta
33.) Emerson Palmieri
23.) Billy Gilmour
20.) Callum Hudson-Odoi
29.) Kai Havertz
18.) Olivier Giroud