Yesterday evening as I took the dogs for a walk before the match, I ran into a neighbour who lives a couple of streets over. He’s an Arsenal fan.
“Confident about tonight?”, he asked.
“No!”, I said. “You?”
“You never know,” I said. “If Southampton can beat us, there’s no reason we can’t beat Chelsea,” but it was really just one of those things you say rather than it being something you really mean. I was living in hope more than expectation, and when I saw our team, and I saw their team and their bench, the hope side of things dwindled a bit.
As I thought he might, Mikel Arteta added Mohamed Elneny to midfield, and he brought in Rob Holding, starting with a back three set-up. Early on, I thought both of them had moments of rustiness, which isn’t necessarily unexpected given how little they’ve played of late, and in general we gave the ball away quite a bit which worried me.
Chelsea also gave it away, Andreas Christensen under-hitting a pass back to his keeper which Eddie Nketiah pounced on. I thought Mendy was a bit hesitant, but I’m not complaining. Eddie took it on, and finished very calmly to make it 1-0. With the best will in the world, that’s not a goal we score with Alexandre Lacazette up top, he just wouldn’t have had the legs for that.
The lead didn’t last long, Timo Werner’s deflected shot wrong-footed Aaron Ramsdale who I think saw it late as it skidded just beyond Rob Holding. That was annoying, but to be fair we didn’t go into our shell despite obvious disappointment with conceding. There were chances at both ends, Eddie mis-kicking a shot not far wide, Mason Mount causing problems up the other end with his sly face but also his studs which went into the shin of Nuno Tavares but it’s not like we have video replays to help officials or anything so I don’t know how anything could have been done about that.
Our second was quite a goal. Holding’s rustiness was obvious at the back, but he was rescued in extraordinary fashion by Granit Xhaka who turned into Santi Cazorla in our own box, nutmegging Lukaku and Alonso (no man deserves to be nutmegged more) to drive into midfield and spark a counter-attack. It went from Xhaka to Odegaard, then out to Saka on the right hand side. He took it on, found the Norwegian again who laid the ball into the path of Emile Smith Rowe who passed it into the bottom corner of the net first time. A finish of outstanding and delicious simplicity.
Once again though, we let them back into it very quickly. Ben White looked for a foul and I don’t think there was one. Mount crossed, Azpilicueta got ahead of Nuno too easily at the near post and it was 2-2. Annoying, but again we didn’t stop. Eddie curled a left-footer not far wide, and after brilliantly quick feet to beat three men on the edge of the Chelsea box, Smith Rowe flashed a shot just outside the post with the keeper stranded all ends up.
So, 2-2 at half-time, and it absolutely felt like there were going to be more goals in the game, but it wasn’t easy to be sure where they would go. Chelsea’s carelessness in possession cost them again as Nketiah put us ahead in the 57th minute. They gave it away in their own half, Nuno took it on, and Eddie’s persistence in their box paid off as he kept at it to poke it home and give us the lead.
Opinions in football swing wildly these days, a bad game and the guy is a no-hoper, a good one and he’s the next coming of [insert favourite player here], but I do think there’s something interesting about Eddie talking this week about wanting a run in the team to be judged properly, then nabbing a brace in his second start. Against the team that cut him loose when he was 14 no less. Fair play to him, he really took his chance and took his chances, and his disappointment when he was taken off for Gabriel Martinelli was as understandable as the substitution itself to give us fresh legs.
While the goal that sealed the win came late, there were at least two moments – maybe three – when we could have had it a bit earlier. A poor final pass, a player slipping on what must have been a greasy pitch, and chances got away from us as we looked to hit them on the counter. We basically sat in and defended. We started with a back three, changed mid-game to a back four, and at the end brought Cedric on so we could go back to the back three/five to nullify Chelsea. It’s not easy to watch, especially when a win is so important and you’re facing a team who can bring on the likes of Ziyech and Havertz off the bench, but I thought we defended really well.
Then one of those moments up the other end paid dividends. It was astonishing on Sky to see former professionals, one of them a striker too, say it wasn’t a penalty, but Azpilicueta had hold of Saka and if Saka did likewise and went down in the box, it’s because the Spaniard initiated the contact and that’s exactly what he should do in circumstances like that. Considering Sarr escaped a second yellow because of Cedric’s honesty/desire to keep going, and Mount got away with a red card challenge that, at the very least, should have been his second yellow too, I was amazed Jon Moss gave us anything, but there you go.
I was wondering who would take it, given none of our established penalty takers were on the pitch. I guessed Martinelli but then I saw Saka himself with the ball – eschewing the Thierry Henry edict that says you don’t take a penalty you’ve won yourself. Considering his last spot kick was in the Euro 2020 final, I was nervous for him. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted someone to score a penalty more (apart from the last time we had a penalty and the time before that and the … ) you get the picture, but you know what I mean.
He made no mistake, slotting the ball into the right hand side of the net. Afterwards, they showed replays and that slippy pitch nearly made him a victim, his right foot almost went out from under him, but if anyone deserves a bit of karmic juice when taking a penalty it’s Bukayo Saka. In much the same way John Terry got his in the Champions League final.
In the end, 4-2 to the Arsenal. Wow. Definitely not the kind of scoreline I would have predicted, but then as the last few weeks have shown, I’m entirely rubbish at predictions.
Afterwards, Saka said:
I told you before, we wanted to give the fans something to believe in. We’ve done that today. We showed fight and character. It’s a huge result for us.
While Mikel Arteta said:
What I love is the spirit of the players. When you lose matches you get punched and you get criticised. For these players, I don’t care, it’s so worth it. They are phenomenal people and as a group they are growing and they are really enjoying that. Then, for our people because I know with all the highs and expectations that they had, it’s been really disappointing for them. So for us to win a London derby, away from home, the way we did it, I’m really happy for them as well.
Football has an incredible way of taking you from highs to low, from lows to highs, and I can’t lie and say I wasn’t feeling very low and quite worried about this team going into this game. I know there have been discussions about progress and all the rest, but despite our inconsistencies, night’s like last night are – to me at least – real evidence that there is something about this team. We have kinks to iron out, we have some quality issues in key positions, but you don’t win a game like that in circumstances like that against a team that good unless you’re together and willing to put in the hard yards.
We didn’t go into it with our heads down, that’s first. We also had a tactical plan, which we tweaked mid-game to good effect, and we played some really nice football at times too. The goals came from a 22 year old, a 21 year old and a 20 year old. You can see how the quality additions we need would make a real difference to this team too, and while there are likely to be some ups and downs between now and May, I think the potential for this side to continue its growth is huge. The away fans were in great voice as well, right throughout the game, and while there might be an element of the result informing their ‘performance’, I honestly think it’s generally reflective of how much people like and believe in what’s happening – even when we hit those bumps in the road.
It’s something we’ll probably tease out a bit more on the podcast this morning, but last night was really enjoyable, and as much as there has been criticism in the last couple of weeks, there’s a lot of credit to go around for this one. Now, we just need to do it again at the weekend, but we can discuss that more in the days ahead.