It has been brought to my attention that certain words in my preview of yesterday’s home game against Chelsea could be construed to have been critical of Granit Xhaka.
That was certainly not my intention. When I wrote: “One thing that will sink my spirits instantly will be if the team sheet includes the names ‘Willian’ and ‘Xhaka,'” what I really meant was: “Granit Xhaka is a crucial member of our squad and is vital to our chances of success today.”
Likewise when I referred to his contributions this season as being “truly awful” I meant by his own high standards and that he is a vital cog in our armoury.
I would like to apologise for any misunderstanding arising from my poor choice of words. And now to the game itself:
Woo-hoo! That was something, wasn’t it? Who expected that result? (Well, apart from Total Arsenal, who predicted a 4-1 win to the boys in red and white, which was close enough).
A 3-1 victory over Chelsea was exactly the late Christmas present we all needed. We’re not out of the woods by any means, but we can now glimpse a bit of daylight through the tree trunks in the distance.
There were encouraging signs even before kick-off when we saw what looked to be a genuinely exciting line-up. A front three of Martinelli, Lacazette and Smith-Rowe exuded potential, particularly with Saka and Tierney also in the starting eleven. Mari was brought in at centre back alongside Holding.
It would be nice to think Mikel Arteta chose this selection of players for pure footballing reasons, but it seems likely that his hand was forced, at least partly. Aubameyang, although on the bench, was returning from injury, while Gabriel was ruled out for Covid reasons.
Right from the off the presence of Martinelli and ESR made a big difference to the intensity of our play. Those two young men showed more commitment and determination in the first half than many of our senior players have shown all season.
In that half we terrorised the Chavs down our left flank, with Tierney linking up really well with Martinelli and ESR. Elneny was playing the role of holding midfielder, allowing the aforementioned Xhaka to move into a more central mid position. And lo and behold, in this role our lump of Swiss marmite discovered a whole new concept: the forward pass.
It was one of Xhaka’s forward passes that led to our opening goal. Picking up the ball in the middle of the Chelsea half he looked up and saw Tierney advancing down the left wing. His pass was perfectly placed and beautifully weighted for our young Scot to race on to, skin the Chelsea defender Reece James and get into the box. James made an ill-advised lunge for the ball and brought down Tierney. The TV pundits tried to say that Tierney had “bought” the penalty by looking for contact and going down too easily, but close watching of the replay shows that James clips the back of his left foot, causing him to fall. One hundred per cent a penalty. Lacazette stepped up, sent Mendy the wrong way and passed it into the net. One nil to the Arsenal.
Ten minutes later Xhaka went from provider to scorer, banging home a superb free kick from outside the Chelsea penalty area.
We supporters were pinching ourselves. Could we really have scored not one but two goals? Against a strongly fancied side sitting fifth in the league?
We carried on with the pressure in the second half and got our just reward in the 56th minute when an attack down our right (for a change) saw Bellerin lay the ball off to Smith-Rowe who cut it inside for Saka. What followed next was either a brilliant piece of improvisation by the young Londoner or a very fortunate sliced cross that ended up in the net. For me there’s no doubt he meant it.
We had chances to put the match completely beyond Chelsea’s reach (an Elneny shot crashed off the underside of the crossbar, Martinelli was unlucky with an overhead kick and Lacazette forced a good save from Mendy in a one-on-one which really should have been buried).
But we didn’t, substitutions were made, we lost our rhythm and Chelsea finished strongly. Abraham chested a goal in in the 85th minute and a few minutes later Chelsea earned a penalty of their own when Mari (who had been having a decent game) brought down Mason Mount.
I can’t have been alone in fearing that, if it went to 3-2 with five minutes of added time still to come, we would have struggled psychologically to hang on. And God only knows what throwing away a three goal lead would have done to our confidence for the rest of the season. But cometh the hour, cometh the big German. Bernd Leno dived to his left to save brilliantly from Jorginho and calm our nerves.
Chelsea’s heads went down and we saw out the final minutes without incident.
All in all an excellent display from the starters given how low we have been on form and confidence, with encouraging performances from many players. If Smith-Rowe and Martinelli have not booked their places in the starting eleven for Brighton on Tuesday night then there’s no justice. Indeed we looked quite a bit shakier when Pepe and Willock came on for Martinelli and Smith-Rowe.
Leno – 8
Had very little to do but boy did we need that penalty save. If we had let slip a three goal lead it would be hard to see us recovering psychologically.
Bellerin – 7
Captain on the night. Led by example, was very solid and drove forward well at times.
Holding – 7.5
Big Rob has become very reliable and is now very much a first choice defender alongside Gabriel.
Mari – 6.5
Giving up the penalty will hopefully be a learning experience, but overall a good outing from the tall
Tierney – 8.5 (MoTM)
Brilliant outing from Tesco, both defending and attacking, where he will have given Reece James nightmares and won the penalty for our first goal.
Elneny – 6
Mo did OK but had a few dicey moments, losing possession in dangerous areas.
Xhaka – 8
Made one, scored one, passed forwards and even won a trademark free kick with his classic baby fall. A really good answer to his critics. He appeared to enjoy playing in a slightly more advanced position.
Saka – 8
A great talent. Always intelligent with his running and passing and scored a stunner.
Martinelli – 8
You could tell he was frustrated not to get on the scoresheet but whenever he got the ball you could see the looks of fear in the eyes of the Chelsea defenders.
Smith-Rowe – 8
His touch and control are already better than most of the rest of the squad and we really benefitted as a team from having someone playing a proper Number 10 role. He felt like the oil in our machine last night.
Lacazette – 8
Outstanding effort from Lacazette, who ran all game long closing down the Chelsea defenders, linked up well with his team mates and took the penalty with aplomb. He really thrived with having Smith-Rowe behind him instead of being asked to be the main hold-up player. Scored the pen and should have had another when he went one-on-one with Mendy.