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.