When Gabriel Jesus failed to make enough contact on Gabriel Martinelli’s 29th minute cross, I had mixed emotions. First, frustration that we had missed a very good chance to take the lead at Stamford Bridge. Jesus held up his thumb and forefinger to indicate ‘This much …’, and nobody would have been able to argue that we didn’t deserve to be ahead.
The second emotion was something akin to pride. The move that led to the chance was just so impressive. Precise and assured passing at the back, one-touch lay-offs, drive to get us up the pitch, and the movement of Martinelli to take all those defenders out of the game. Unfortunately Jesus couldn’t finish what would have been one of the goals of the season, but the reality of Arsenal Football Club right now is in that passage of play.
There’s been a lot of talk about how this side has more character than before. Plenty of discussion about our momentum and belief; how players like Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko and William Saliba have given us something more. But it struck me that there isn’t always enough discussion about how technically good these players are individually and collectively, and that moment should open our eyes to what we’re looking at this season.
From start to finish Arsenal were on top at Stamford Bridge. We’ve won there before, this is our third successive season in a row to take all three points away from home, but I don’t think we’ve ever done it like this. Chelsea barely threatened, and the only negative you can address with regards Arsenal is that the sharpness we showed everywhere else on the pitch wasn’t quite there in the final third.
It’s rare that I mention a specific opposition player unless they’ve done something egregious, but as much as I loved our performance yesterday, I was impressed by Thiago Silva at the back for Chelsea. At 38 years of age, he basically held them together, and without him I think we’d have won by a bigger margin. No doubt we could have done better at certain moments, but the way he defended saved Chelsea’s bacon time and again.
I kind of like that the goal we scored was a bit of a scrappy one, but we shouldn’t overlook how that corner came about. As Thiago Silva desperately looked for anyone at all to pass to, Arsenal activated their press and Gabriel Jesus robbed the ball from his compatriot. Bukayo Saka fed him and his shot was saved at the near post. From the resulting set-piece, Gabriel pounced while Chelsea defenders were static, more interested in holding on to opponents than actually trying to win the ball, and it was 1-0.
As I said, the scoreline was slightly flattering to Chelsea, and it was another game without a goal for Jesus. However, with all the pre-game spotlight on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang facing his old club blah blah blah, it’s interesting to contrast the performances of the two starting strikers. Neither of them scored, but one of them had a significant impact on the game while the other was completely anonymous.
The former Arsenal captain was hauled off just after the hour mark having had a mere 8 touches of the ball all day. Jesus was instrumental in Arsenal’s dominance, even if the goal he desperately wants didn’t come. It was just superb centre-forward play from him. The way he ran, chased, harried, pressed, held the ball up under real pressure against much bigger men. The goals will come, I have no doubt, but there’s a selflessness about the way he performs. The guy desperate for a goal might conserve some energy, hang about in areas where the ball might fall for him, but Jesus’ first thought is the job he has to do for the team, and you have to respect that.
He’s not alone though. I mentioned that move for the Jesus chance, but that doesn’t just happen by accident. Arteta’s automatisms are in play there. Not just because these players are well drilled and know where they need to be on the pitch, but because they work so hard to put themselves into those positions. I watched William Saliba closely yesterday, and he was obviously outstanding defensively. His presence is incredible at just 21 years of age, but I watched him make a pass then sprint backwards to drop off and create another angle if it were needed.
That happened all over the pitch, from minute 1 to minute 96 when the referee blew his whistle. Chelsea were pedestrian in comparison. The Arsenal players knew where their teammates would be; Chelsea’s had to look up and see what was happening, and that was often the trigger for our press. This isn’t just a team that is playing well and using momentum to go from game to game; this is a team that has momentum because it is extremely talented, with smart players who can apply the manager’s training ground methods to in-game scenarios. We’re seeing the end-result of excellent coaching, very good recruitment, and behind that we have the ‘soft factors’ like desire and motivation and hunger which are obviously present too.
I also believe the experience of Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka are key components to this team’s form. The former absolutely bossed the midfield yesterday; the latter continued his fine form and late on that incident which resulted in some pushing and shoving was just what we needed at that point of the game. For a guy who has lost his cool a few times down the years, is there a better example of the more mature Xhaka than him causing Chelsea to lose theirs and their focus in the dying embers of the match? Jorginho piping away at him in the last seconds was perfect; it meant they were rattled by some shit-housing and not concentrating on grabbing the equaliser. His post-game interview on BT Sport where he did a Freddie and called the atmosphere ‘f*ckin’ unbelievable’ was great fun too.
Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:
I was really impressed, we are a really young team, but we showed a lot of maturity, a lot of composure, a lot of courage, a lot of determination to play in this stage in the way we’ve played, it’s easy to say but really difficult to do. I think the boys were phenomenal today.
He’s not wrong. Even if you make the point that this iteration of Chelsea, having spent a quarter of a billion pounds in the summer, are a work in progress (I don’t really think that, but some do), the way Arsenal controlled the game yesterday was just outstanding. I won’t say that throughout the 90 minutes I was completely calm and free of nerves, a one goal lead never really allows that, but I could absolutely recognise which team was on top and that was us right throughout.
Small things you can take note of as well. The way every single player celebrated the goal – Saliba peeled away like he’d scored the winner in a World Cup final. The togetherness in the celebrations, after the goal and after the final whistle. It’s not a new observation, but the connectivity between the players, the staff, the fans tells you plenty about what’s happening at Arsenal right now.
Arteta said of the support:
It was great, they’ve been absolutely phenomenal, they have transformed the club, the energy of the club that’s my opinion and they have transformed the way the team believes in what they are doing. To share that with them away from home is really special. I had my family there, I had my son there in the middle of the crowd so it was great.
He’s not wrong, the fans have been amazing, but he’s deliberately playing down his own role in this. Through some real difficulties and a couple of genuinely rocky periods, if he’s going to talk about how the fans have transformed the club, then as a fan I’m going to acknowledge his part in that too. Compare and contrast where we are now from where we were – and who we were – when he took over. This is far from a one-man band of course. There are plenty more behind the scenes who deserve credit for the transformation, but managers are the first to get pelters when things go wrong, so let me give Arteta a chapeau this morning because he absolutely deserves it.
We’re back on top of the league, and we all know there’s still a long way to go, but worrying too much about the destination means maybe you don’t get to experience how it unfolds as much as you should. This Arsenal team is taking us on a hell of a ride right now, and I’m absolutely going to enjoy it as much as I can.