Hey guys! (whispers) Arsenal beat Chelsea.
(louder) Arsenal beat Chelsea.
(screams) ARSENAL BEAT CHELSEA!!!
And it was a good beating too, three to nil. Three great goals and a clean sheet! But most important, it was the kind of beating that we fans have been begging for for years.
Any one of us would “have taken” a draw. Any one of us would have been happy with a 1-0 win decided by a dodgy penalty or a sloppy goal. But none of us expected the kind of win where Arsenal dominate to the point that that they turn the game into art.
The first Arsenal goal, however, was created out of nothing, really. Arsenal were sort of pressing, but also sort of not pressing. There was a lack of cohesion to the press early in the game and Wenger was up off the bench, urging his men to make the game more compact and to press higher up the pitch even if it was leaving gaps behind the defense. Alexis was saying the same, waving his teammates on and asking them to come join him. And now you know why.
Wenger saw the weakness in Chelsea, that Cahill and Kante might not be the best players in possession. And that by pressing them, Arsenal might find some early joy.
Here is a screen cap just before the first goal. Everyone is covered and Iwobi closes down Ivanovich while cutting off the pass to Fabregas. Ivanovich is forced to to pass to Cahill.
Alexis jumps on Cahill, who took a donkey’s age to compose himself as he tried to pass back to the keeper, but Alexis nipped in and took the ball off him. Alexis then drove at the keeper, waited for him to go down, and chipped. It was a goal forged in graft and guile. The kind of goal that justifies Wenger’s faith in Alexis as Arsenal’s forward? I think so.
And as much as that first goal was made from hard work, Arsenal’s second goal was a work of art. Wenger often says that the goal in life should be to do something so well that it becomes art. He also says that the only way to deal with the inevitability of death is to turn each day that comes before it into art. Both of those rang true in that second goal.
There were nine passes in the buildup but here are the seven that matter: Walcott to Cazorla, Cazorla to Ozil, Ozil to Iwobi, Iwobi to Ozil, back to Iwobi, Kante falls over, Iwobi drives, passes across field to Bellerin, who was left unmarked by Hazard, Bellerin rolls a perfect ball to Walcott, who scores. I will put money, right now, that you won’t find a better goal than that all season. It’s a goal of such astonishing quality that it has to surpass the Jack Wilshere Norwich goal which, let’s be honest, required quite a bit of good fortune to pull off. This goal was just perfectly executed technique that left Chelsea players on the ground, slapping their thighs, and spinning in circles.
And the third goal? Classic Arsenal. Arsenal under Wenger in the Invincibles era were known for their lightning fast counter attacks. Campbell would pass to Vieira, Vieira’s job was to pass to Denis, Denis to Henry and then “BANG” goalasso.
For the third against Chelsea, Koscielny intercepts and collects a loose ball, passes to Ozil, Ozil is pressed by Kante, Ozil turns, Kante is dead, Kante jogs back as Ozil presses forward. It’s two on two, Ozil and Alexis versus Cahill and Luiz. Luiz is mesmerized by Alexis’ simple run, he and Cahill are turned inside out, Alexis collects Ozil’s pass, and chips back to Ozil, who knocks the ball down into the dirt and over the keeper. You say you like counter attacking goals? That was a classic counter attacking goal from Arsenal.
In a way, the match felt like a vindication for Wenger. When I saw the lineup, no Xhaka, I wondered what Xhaka has to do to get into the starting lineup. There was Wenger, playing Coquelin in that inverted midfielder role with Cazorla the deepest midfielder, something which absolutely drives me nuts. And while I’m not a person who gets upset that Alexis is starting at center forward, that’s a decision I fully back, I know that’s one that drives others to drink.
But you have to admit that the whole thing worked and it worked perfectly against Chelsea. Was Wenger vindicated? Maybe, but the most frustrating aspect of the game is that Wenger’s inverted system is now going into the treatment room. Coquelin hurt his knee and is out for 10 weeks, maybe more, so Xhaka will be starting in midfield*. That means all the work of getting the team to play football this way, the way that put two goals on the board against Chelsea, is undone and they will be going back to the drawing board.
Xhaka’s abilities are different to Coquelin and that demands a different set up in midfield. Xhaka is best playing long passes out from deep in midfield. That should mean quicker transitions, especially to speedy players like Walcott and Iwobi. But he’s also not going to have a target man to play to because I suspect that Wenger will continue to keep Giroud on the bench. That means his long passes might not be as accurate and could mean less possession for Arsenal.
Xhaka is also larger and a bit slower than Coquelin. He is better in the air but not able to cover the ground that Coquelin can. He doesn’t intercept the ball as well, which is a key trait Wenger values in his teams. So, Arsenal are going to have to adapt to this new way of playing, and that means all of us fussy Arsenal fans who don’t like when things don’t go perfectly, will probably have to adjust as well.
I wish I didn’t have to! As much as I like Xhaka, I’m almost wishing right now that Coquelin would keep starting for Arsenal because more than anything this match felt like the dawn of an era. I know, I know, I know, “stop it Tim, it’s too soon to make such a call.” But Chelsea has held the advantage over Arsenal for so long that this win, and the comprehensive nature of the win, makes it feel like the dam has finally burst or like something finally clicked into place. All of the pieces were working the way that they should: Alexis was center forwarding, Coquelin was box-to-box defending, Özil was fast breaking, Walcott was winging, and Iwobi was Iwobiing.
It was the passing of another era as well, this was the death of Fabregas. His shadow has hung over the club since he forced his way to Barcelona for cheap. Then he weaseled his way back into the Premier League going to arch-rivals Chelsea under the management of the most hated man in football, Jose Mourinho. It was the biggest slap to the face for the fans and for Wenger that I have ever seen from a former Arsenal player. So, it was good to see him look weak and it was good to see him taken off in the 51st minute, which probably would have been at halftime but Conte was aware of how much that would hurt Cesc’s confidence. That performance from Fabregas finally put the Fabregas era behind us.
The win over Chelsea wasn’t just a win. The win over Chelsea felt like a watershed moment. It felt like a vindication of Alexis up front, of Coquelin playing forward in midfield, of Wenger sticking with Walcott over Campbell, and of Wenger’s search for speedy forwards this summer so that he could play in a counter-attacking style. And it was a taste of what Wenger wants to do with the team; he wants to play football the old way, the way that won titles. And it looks like he may have the pieces to do that.
Unfortunately, one of those pieces is broken. So as much as I want to say this is the dawning of a new Arsenal, this could mean back to the drawing board. Which is the only dark cloud on an otherwise perfect win.
*No, Elneny, no.