So we were waiting for Arsenal to properly ‘click’ this season. There were glimpses against Hull and Watford, but everything came together in a thunderous and thrilling first half display at Emirates Stadium on Saturday. A win over Chelsea was long overdue, and when it arrived, it was comprehensive.
20 years after Arsene Wenger was introduced as the Arsenal manager, this was a performance that had all the hallmarks of Wenger’s best teams. The football was played at break-neck speed and the passing was crisp, while the Gunners looked solid at the back and didn’t allow the visitors to bully them again.
It was one of those game where picking a man of the match was a slightly futile exercise because you could have made a compelling case for every Arsenal player to be up for the award. Each man was superb in one of the most complete performances at the Emirates in recent years. After romping into a 3-0 lead in the first half, Arsenal then controlled the game with Chelsea unable to muster a shot on target until late in the second half. After a string of decent results following the loss to Liverpool on the opening day, the visit of the Blues was viewed as a real test of where Arsenal are in terms of being able to launch a title challenge this season. On the evidence of Saturday, the Gunners are in very decent shape indeed.
In recent years against Chelsea, Arsenal have usually been unable to score the opening goal in matches between the two sides, with Chelsea usually able to get a lead and then just hold Arsenal at arms’ length. Last season there was also the issue of keeping 11 players on the pitch with Gabriel, Santi Cazorla and Per Mertesacker all seeing red. On this occasion, Arsenal managed to solve both of those problems with an early goal, and they subsequently kept their discipline by not even picking up a yellow card.
The early goal came about from the tenacity of Alexis Sanchez and the intensity with which Arsenal started the game. The Chilean pressurized Gary Cahill into playing a loose back-pass, allowing Alexis to race towards goal. The goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was drawn out of goal and Alexis delicately clipped the ball over him and into the net. It was as if the ease the confidence with which Alexis finished the chance seemed to pervade around the team as Arsenal immediately grabbed a strong grip on the game.
If the first goal had an element of fortune, the second was pure footballing magic. It was Wengerball at its best. Cazorla and Walcott linked up before the ball came to Iwobi near the edge of the box. He exchanged one-touch passes with Ozil before spinning to slide a ball in behind the covering defenders for Hector Bellerin. The Spaniard rolled the ball across the box for Theo Walcott to stroke the ball home with Chelsea chasing shadows. It was a goal that looked so simple but was absolutely brilliant because of the crisp and clinical execution.
The only downside in a barnstorming start was the knee injury picked up by Francis Coquelin when blocking a shot from N’Golo Kante. The Frenchman had made an excellent start to the game alongside Cazorla in midfield, justifying his selection in a competitive part of the Arsenal squad. But whereas his injury destabilized the Arsenal side last season, Granit Xhaka strolled on in his place and slotted in perfectly into the team on Saturday. He’s had a good start to the season, so hopefully Coquelin isn’t out for a long time, but the strength of the squad now means that it won’t be the major blow it was 12 months ago.
At 2-0, there was still a fear that Chelsea could sneak a way back into the game. But Arsenal topped off a thrilling first period with a brutally beautiful third goal on the counter-attack. After a Chelsea attack broke down on the edge of Arsenal’s penalty area, Mesut Ozil glided away from Kante and alongside Alexis charged towards Gary Cahill and David Luiz. Alexis broke to the right and chipped the ball perfectly to the back post after receiving the ball from German, allowing Ozil to run onto the ball and volley it past Courtois via the post. It wasn’t the cleanest connection from Ozil, but the breakaway was clinical and emphatic.
The start of the season has brought about a lot of debate about the make-up of Arsenal’s front four, with Alexis predominantly playing down the middle. On Saturday, it suddenly all made sense as, after going ahead so early, Arsenal then had the perfect four to break quickly on Chelsea with the pace of Alexis and Walcott, and the guile of Ozil and Iwobi. So far this season, Walcott and Iwobi have taken some of the creative and scoring burden from Arsenal’s two main men, something that wasn’t happening as much last season. If Ozil wasn’t creating chances, generally Arsenal weren’t creating chances, but Iwobi has helped change that by offering a different option.
Arsenal did have chances to kill the game off in the second half as Walcott’s chipped cross was just too high for Alexis before the winger had a shot saved by the legs of Courtois. That didn’t take away from an excellent all-round display from Walcott as he was keen to get involved, tracked back to assist Bellerin in negating Hazard and read the game superbly to pop up in the middle to tap in Arsenal’s second goal. Something has happened to Theo Walcott this season as he looks more focussed and more committed for the team. Long may it continue.
The longer the game went on, the more desperate Arsenal fans were to keep a clean sheet to emphasize the nature of the victory. Bar a one-on-one saved by Petr Cech, Chelsea struggled to find a way through a stubborn Arsenal defence. Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny dealt with Diego Costa superbly as they hassled him, were physical and cut off any supply around the box by challenging him higher up the pitch. I’ve never seen Costa bullied by two centre-backs in the way Mustafi and Koscielny did. When Costa was shoved unceremoniously to the ground by Koscielny late in the game before picking up a yellow card for dissent, it summed out how dominant Arsenal had been against a player that has used all of his tricks to deceive, cheat and score against the Gunners in the past.
On the odd occasion that the centre-backs were caught out, the full-backs covered superbly. Nacho Monreal kept Willian quiet, while Hector Bellerin stopped Eden Hazard making any sort of impact on the game. Bellerin also brought the house down with a stunning recovery tackle on Pedro when the winger looked set to go through on goal. Despite giving Pedro a few yards as a head start, Bellerin ate up the ground in a staggering show of speed before perfectly timing the tackle on the edge of the box. Even at 3-0 up, it was brilliant to see the determination and commitment of the Arsenal team to not give Chelsea anything to take from the game.
The win was long overdue against Chelsea. While Antonio Conte clearly has plenty to sort out in his squad, it wasn’t as if the visitors were dreadfully poor at the Emirates, they just got taken apart by the Gunners. They came up against a united and determined Arsenal team, who had a game plan and executed it perfectly.
The win and the performance was a fitting way to mark 20 years since Arsene Wenger was unveiled as the Arsenal manager. It harked back to the glory days of his early reign as Gunners boss, and hinted those days could yet return with a few more similar performances this season. The challenge is now for Arsenal to replicate that performance again and again during this campaign, but it is also important to savor it as a game on its own. It was a day that makes the bad ones as a football fan seem worth suffering through because sometimes you get to witness some breathe-taking brilliance. Arsenal served up plenty of that on Saturday.