You see what you want to see, don’t you?
After our 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge last night there was a divide in the great confederation that is Arsenaldom. Some supporters saw positive signs in a gutsy, defensive effort and others saw a continuation of a sterile, cautious and uncreative brand of football.
I am unashamedly in the former camp.
Chelsea, as I said in yesterday’s Post, have become darlings of the pundit class since Thomas Tuchel took over as head coach.
Coming in to last night’s game the Blues had lost only one of their last 16 matches (a strange aberration against West Brom), a run that included victories over Man City and Liverpool. They have also made it to the FA Cup final and the final of the Champions League.
After completing their transfer ban they spent £220m on players in the last year or so and have a squad full of talent envied even by the other rich teams.
So for us to go there and beat them matters, it really does.
We took the chance they handed to us and secured an early lead, then we put in an all-team defensive effort that fans would have loved in the days of George Graham, reducing Chelsea to very few clear cut chances despite all the possession they had.
And I’m not buying the idea that the Chavs weren’t really trying. They were desperate for the win because there’s certainly no guarantee they’ll win the Champions League final, meaning they need a top four finish to guarantee CL next year.
We rode our luck a couple of times, first at 0-0 when Gabriel and Mari contrived to put Havertz through on goal for a one-on-one that he should have converted but skied over the bar. And later in the game when Chelsea hit the crossbar twice in quick succession (the first from an excellent Leno save).
But we also might have had a penalty in the closing stages when Partey was tripped in the Chelsea box. He was booked for diving but replays showed he had been clipped by the defender. It would have been a soft penalty, but by the way the rules are interpreted it should have been given.
What most encouraged me was how all our players worked hard for each other and for the team as a whole. There were some great blocks, some brave headers in the box and a huge amount of effort from a well organised group of players.
So what of the lack of creativity issue? I saw comments from people saying it was embarrassing watching Arsenal last night, so limited were our ambitions.
There’s a consensus building among a section of the support that we are too cautious under Mikel Arteta, to the extent that we don’t create chances and are boring to watch.
Sorry, not buying it. In the context of last night’s game – protecting an early lead against a talented team who really needed the win – there is no shame in doubling down on defence.
Do the supporters’ memories not extend back to last Sunday, when we put three past West Brom? Or to the Sunday before when we cruised to a 2-0 win at Newcastle?
Under the supposedly useless and over-cautious Arteta we have lost only two out of our last 11 Premier League games (Liverpool and Everton) in a run that has included wins over Leicester, Spuds and now Chelsea. In that run we have scored 23 goals (an average of more than two goals per game) and conceded 13. Not bad for a rubbish team with a ‘tactically constipated’ manager.
I understand the doubts. Arteta has made plenty of mistakes in his first full season in charge not just of Arsenal but of any football team. But I think the odour of disappointment that descended on N5 after our tame exit from the Europa League has infected us all and distorted what’s really going on.
As I mentioned in my pre-match yesterday (in which I also predicted an Arsenal win, ahem), our defensive record under Arteta this season is excellent, even though it doesn’t feel that way. Only Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs have conceded fewer goals in the EPL.
Someone might have pointed out that fact to Alan ‘Smudger’ Smith who was co-commenting for Sky and seemed amazed that we did not concede the hatful of goals that he expected, the miserable Brummie git.
I was one of those who advocated that Arteta’s first job was to tighten up the defence after the comical profligacy of the Unai Emery reign. He has done that and done it really well. It feels worse than it is because all the self inflicted wounds we suffered this season are still fresh in the memory.
Now the test will be whether Arteta can move to the next stage and add greater creativity in attack. We have several players already in place who can help with that pivot, notably Smith Rowe and Saka.
You see what you want to see. Last night I saw signs that things are starting to come together for Arteta’s Arsenal and that we will be significantly more competitive next season. Perhaps I’m deluded, but that’s where I stand.
Leno – 8
I have had plenty of criticism for Leno this season, but he was excellent last night. Tipping Zouma’s late header onto the bar was an outstanding piece of work. He was also decisive and commanding in the box.
Holding – 7.5
In a back three Big Rob defended strongly and well. He was also mostly secure when playing out from the back despite the high press from Chelsea.
Mari – 7
One early mistake aside, he was solid and dealt well with Giroud when he came on.
Gabriel – 7
A shaky first 20 minutes during which he looked uncomfortable on the ball, but settled afterwards and defended well.
Saka – 6
Looked tired and not entirely comfortable in the right wing back position. The boy needs a rest.
Partey – 7.5
In the first 15 minutes he made quite a few mistakes, giving the ball away under pressure. After that he found his feet and had a really good game. With Chelsea dominating possession his main work was defensive and he did it well. Should have had a penalty late on but was ludicrously booked instead.
Elneny – 7
Tireless effort from Mo, including some very intelligent off-the-ball positioning at times to help stifle Chelsea’s attacking moves.
Tierney – 7
Not vintage Tesco – he seems still to be not fully match fit following injury – but there was still a lot to like about Kieran’s effort.
Odegaard – 6.5
He seemed to fade in the second half but ran his socks off and made a big contribution in the first half.
Smith Rowe – 8 (MoTM)
My favourite player had an excellent game. The way he receives the ball on the turn and accelerates away from markers is a joy to watch and was important in relieving the pressure on our defence at times last night. Got another goal too.
Aubameyang – 6.5
Did really well to pick out ESR for the goal assist. After that the game state meant he was inevitably not too involved. Was he disgruntled to be taken off? If so, why?
Bellerin – 6.5
Replaced Saka and looked sharp until his injury.
Lacazette – 6.5
Typical hard-running Laca effort.
Chambers – 6.5
Came on in the 88th minute and helped us hold out for the win.