Chapter 10: Chelsea away

Narratives are narrow. They don’t work well when telling the tale of real life events because real life events aren’t 100% right or wrong and are complex. The whole story can’t be told, however. We don’t have the time. So, the writer decides. Can we contain multitudes, contradictions, and contrary elements or do we simplify, streamline, and ultimately leave just some folks unsatisfied? Or can we go for an unusual angle? And ask different questions from the ones which the average writer asks? While still maintaining some complexity and understanding of the contradictions?

The main narratives from Arsenal’s 2-2 draw away to Chelsea were that the Chelsea players
“wanted it more” and that “Arsenal were a bit unlucky (and lucky)” because they were “outplayed for most of the match”. And I agree with those things to some extent while also saying “yes, and…”

Pochettino did well organizing Chelsea’s defense. This is what he’s good at and when given the chance, he can put out a team that will frustrate their opponents while maximizing their counter attacking threat. Chelsea’s set up wasn’t revolutionary. I’ve seen many teams recognize that Arsenal’s main threat comes from the wide players, you’d have to be a buffoon not to, and structure the defense in such a way to slow down those players and funnel the Arsenal attack into the middle. Once there, the next big step is to mark Ødegaard out of the game, limit his ability to get on the ball. If the wide defensive tactic is simple, this 2nd step is much more difficult to do since Ødegaard has quite a bit of freedom in the Arsenal set up. Chelsea, however, passed him off in the midfield, very consciously making it difficult for him to get into the game and forcing Arsenal’s two deep lying Midfielders (Rice and Zinchenko in the 1st half) to progress the ball.

Chelsea also put Arsenal’s fullbacks under pressure from wide counter attacks. This helped prevent Arsenal from getting Zinchenko into the middle in the way that we like and kept Benjamin White from bombing forward as much as he would normally. I’m not saying neither of those things ever happened, of course they did, it’s more the scale and frequency. And even more important: the quality and availability of outlets when they were on the ball. While Arsenal enjoyed much of the ball, almost every pass in to Saka and Martinelli was repelled and Ode disappeared from this game.

That said, the Chelsea players also acquitted themselves well. It’s one thing to have a plan and another to execute it. Chelsea players were helped by the tactical formation but they also put in a ton of work: as evidenced by the fatigue at the end of the match. Chelsea players were visibly tired and Arsenal took advantage – scoring the goal off a lapse of concentration from Malo who’d had an incredibly good game up to that point.

For Chelsea’s two goals I can also see the argument that Arsenal were unlucky. The first was a penalty awarded for a handball under the new rules. Saliba stooped to head the ball, his arm was out for balance, Mudryk beat him to the header and headed the ball off his arm. Under the old rules, I doubt most neutrals would have suggested it was a deliberate handball (though, I have literally seen that same thing given dozens of times back in the day). But under the new rules, Saliba was easily found guilty since his arm was away from his body and clearly blocked the ball, though again, there was some wiggle room there to say that the shot was too close to Saliba’s arm but that isn’t how the refs saw it. Thus, it was unlucky to bounce on to Saliba’s hand, doubly unlucky that football has changed the Laws of the Game, and triply unlucky that the ref didn’t choose to say that the shot was too close.

But of course, it’s also true that Chelsea created that luck. They were a dominant force in those first 15 to 30 minutes of the game (some say the whole first half and I wouldn’t disagree too forcefully) and were the only team that looked like scoring (apart from once when Jesus got a chance close to goal in the 25th minute). Chelsea rebuffed nearly every Arsenal attack and put Arsenal’s defense under great pressure.

And not for the first time this season (or last!*), Arsenal looked nervous under pressure. This was a huge theme when Wenger was fired, it continued into the Unai era, and persisted somewhat into the Arteta era. No team can be perfect under pressure, there is a continuum. Arteta has made us more confident and improved this, but in these big games (think of City and Spurs this year and Liverpool, etc. last season) we are, I’d suggest, a fair to middlin’ press resistant side: neither the best nor the worst.

But I would add that there’s something unquantifiable which happens with Arsenal players in these big games. It’s just a Gut Feeling I get watching them which reminds me of the times I’ve played and you can feel the opponent’s nerves kicking in. It’s little mistakes. It’s weird positioning errors. It’s the way that they reprimand each other. And those will almost always lead to big mistakes, turnovers, and momentum going in the favor of the pressing team. This is, for me, the real next step for Arsenal. Just a confidence that we don’t really have at the start of these games.

The good news is that toward the end of the game, we did have that confidence. That swagger. That sense that we could get something out of this match if we just kept trying. I kept wanting an Arsenal player to “step up and take the game by the scruff” and it wasn’t a huge surprise that it was Declan Rice who did it. It was just a brilliant read and audacious shot from Rice to get Arsenal back into the game. And it gave the team confidence to go for it and get the draw.

One last narrative; David Raya. It’s clear that Arteta wants Raya and not Ramsdale. Fair enough, he’s the boss and as long as the club has the money to keep burning on moves like this, it’s fine by me. I also *slightly* understand what it is that Arteta wants: he wants the keeper to play what I consider insanely high up the pitch. Raya does that better than Ramsdale. But when it comes to the basic stuff, what I expect from a keeper, Raya isn’t an improvement at all and may be a bit of a downgrade on Ramsdale. The Mudryk goal was partly down to Raya’s positioning, for example. But irregardless of the nonsense Arteta spun after the transfer, I would bet my hat that Arteta sticks with Raya all season. Arteta probably feels that the marginal losses at saves and other basic keeper functions are outweighed by the marginal gains of playing Raya 30 yards from his goal. And I have no evidence to contradict that.


*One of the most annoying narratives is that Thomas Partey is “press resistant” and that is true to some extent but only against lower level opposition. In big games, he is not, and he is also a defensive liability in those games, seemingly incapable of reading threat and covering space in counter attacks.


  1. This is the second game in a row where I feel like Arteta has nailed the subs. I have some qualms about Eddie’s performance, and ESR looked rusty before looking pretty good. However, at least we were making moves to get back into the game instead of just trying to stop the bleeding. Speaking of bleeding, I’ll gripe about Cucurella committed multiple yellow worthy offenses in the first half, and the lack of caution influencing the game.

    I’d like a plan B striker in January, but I suspect we’ll buy 2 or 3 more goal keepers instead.

      1. …of the Cockaroacha challenge on Saka immediately before the VAR penalty review? At the time I thought yellow, especially since Saka, the players around him and the bench all screamed/appealed at the same time.

        What happens in a scenario like that where the game is pulled back for an infringement 30secs prior while a player is lying on the ground with an ankle snapped and ankle snappers team goes un-penalised and a goal ahead? It’s going to happen at some point…

  2. Yeah, it does seem as though there’s often a Hack a Saka plan the way there used to be Hack a Shaq. Foul him a lot early when the ref may be less willing to give fouls or cards.
    The way the handball rules currently are, I’d have wanted that penalty given if it had been on the other team. But if one is trying to reflect arms in a “natural” position, always having to jump/defend with your arms at your side is not that.
    At this point, feels to me that against most teams, Tomi should be starting ahead of Zinch. Teams have figured out Zinch in the attack, and he’s not a great defender.
    One thing that has felt good over the last two matches…we have depth now! We can start a very strong 11, and still have some game changers to come off the bench. First time in a long while it’s felt that way.
    On the GK thing, the goal was mostly not Raya’s fault. His positioning wasn’t perfect, but even if it had been, that might still have gone in. It was just a lucky fluke. Mudryk was trying to cross, as he used his left foot. If he was shooting, he’d have used his right and tried to curl it.
    But again I wasn’t generally impressed by Raya. His kicking looks no better than Ramsdale’s. Again a couple went straight out of bounds. A comment on on of the other sites made sense: By bringing Raya into a fairly settled situation with a good and popular keeper, not only did Arteta probably make Ramsdale unhappy, he’s also put Raya under a lot of pressure.

    1. totally agree on the GK situation – maybe a bit better dribbling with his feet, but his kicking is only getting worse – is it perhaps a Barca thing?

  3. A great article, Arteta subs got things right, we were lucky maybe but the ref had a poor game I thought, Palmer foul, our PK incident, Cucurella allowed to have a fee ride and so on
    I think U’re too harsh on Raya, he has much more saves than Ramsdale, yes he’s been shaky and making unforced errors but I think he’s a better GK compared to Ramsdale who plays too much in goal and gets carried away trying to please the fans

    All in all, a very important point on our off day… COYG

    1. I agree that it was a great result at the end of the day, but man, it was a sloppy unlucky mess that the team got into – I think that the GK should be should be up for grabs at this point – Raya looked a nice change at first, but his distribution seems to be getting worse game by game – though he does show certain preternatural GK abilities at times, and is smoother with ball at feet – time will tell, but I’m starting to feel a Barca favoritism…

  4. I am totally on the Option B striker – and I was recently reminded of one of the great “Option B” strikers from our past (who I still love – Olivier Giroud) – who else can score a Scorpion kick and also play GK ?- unfortunately they broke that mold – nuff said.

  5. Saliba’s hands were roughly at the same height and position as Mudryk. That’s just the natural position when you were jumping. It does put defenders at disadvantage.

    To me, a rule change where an indirect free kick inside the box (much like caught backpass) should be considered as it is too much to change the outcome of a game. Especially, let’s say, if this is the only goal in a champions league final for example.

    1. Agree. And I’m fine with it being somewhat of a judgement call depending on where the contact occurs and if it’s likely to score. For instance, a ball hitting an arm on a cross over by the edge of the penalty area going into a crowded box shouldn’t get a PK. On the other hand (literally), an arm that blocks a shot on target from the center of the 6 yard box that likely would have ended up in the net probably deserves a PK.

  6. Refereeing in this league is broken. It was never a well oiled machine though, which is why VAR felt like a positive step at first. I remember feeling hopeful. I remember wishing a mechanism like this existed when tough calls went against us. I thought it would fix it. Now every weekend across the league there are multiple controversies.

    I’ve seen a few camera angles where it looks as if the ball is not on its way towards the goal. My interpretation of the rule, given the proximity of Saliba to the header, was that this mattered. I’ve heard multiple pundits express this same take. If we’re all viewing the path of the ball correctly, and our understanding of the rule is correct, then the PK shouldn’t have been awarded.

  7. In the latter-day Wenger era, i would have cherished a point, and a draw away at Stamford Bridge.

    But now, with this Arteta team, I really feel like we can win against anybody, away or at home, so I’m disappointed. How will I feel when we finally drop all three points in a league match?

    If this is unrealistic, I stand guilty.

    1. Yes. Back 3 on back 3, Arsenal’s defensive line of Gabriel-Saliba-White is the best in the league, better than Man City’s Akanji-Dias-Stones line. Back 4 on back 4 though, adding Zinchenko is a tad weaker than the Man City’s- although this is purposeful sacrificing of the defensive line for a thicker midfield.

      Having the best defensive line in the league makes every goal conceded just feels so frustrating, while we were so used to it in the late Wenger years 😏

  8. On the confidence front I can add another two tell tale signs: a) everybody takes an extra touch and that’s not only because they are being pressed/options shut down, but they seem to be unsure of the risk/benefit and want to think it through before committing b) when an attacking move does break down players don’t dive in to get the ball back.

    On another note the weather also was not in our favour. It had been pissing from the morning and the pitch was so heavy the passing was slowed down significantly.

    1. Do you think the weather effected us more than Chelsea? If so, why? I’d understand if we were playing a lower league team or even, say, Everton, but I don’t see it against a team like Chelsea.

      1. I’d say that the main difference was that we were trying to pass the ball around until the 68th minute. With double the number of passes completed.

        Surprisingly (or not) after the 68 minute and the double change of Eddie and Emil, we became way more direct and/or Chelsea decided to/could keep hold of the ball. From then to the end of the game Chelsea completed almost double the number of passes we completed.

        So basically and simplistically if you had possession you were more likely to concede.

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