The enigma of Arsenal continues. The Gunners welcomed Chelsea to the Emirates Stadium for their final Premier League match of the season against each other (though they will meet in the two-legged Carabao Cup semi final later this month). The match was a predictably physical and exciting affair, with both teams generating quality chances to score throughout the match. Though not without controversy, the result was probably fair to both sides, as neither played well enough to be the clear favourite. The match ended in a 2-2 draw after a 92nd minute goal from Hector Bellerin robbed the victory from Chelsea, who had come from a goal down to take the lead with just 10 minuted to play. As a result, the Gunners now sit in 6th place, 5 points off of a top 4 berth, and in desperate need of an uptick in results.
Still Showing Fight, If Not Results
As frustrating as it has been, seeing Arsenal struggle variously against teams big and small this season, one of the most encouraging signs has been the improved effort and fight against their big money, top 6 rivals. The results have not been there as they would have hoped, but Arsenal have not embarrassed themselves against the best teams in the league as they might have done in season’s past. Arguably, the first Liverpool match of the season, a 4-0 drubbing at Anfield, was their worst performance against a rival, while the 3-1 losses at the hands of both Manchester clubs were marked by gutsy but ultimately unsuccessful performances, and Arsenal were undeniably the superior side against United, save for the goal tallies.
Chelsea came to the Emirates ready to give the Gunners a physical battle, but the hosts were all too ready to oblige. Players were going into challenges at full bore, and referee Anthony Taylor had his hands full trying to differentiate between fair and foul as the players thrashed into each other. Far from the soft team that many like to portray Arsenal as (at least in big matches this season), the Gunners on the pitch gave at least as good as they got and showed no quarter. When the defence is working well, they are blocking shots with total disregard for their bodies, with Shkodran Mustafi possessing a particular talent for the art. If this sort of effort continues, the results will come for a club that seems to be running short on luck at present.
If the rate of injuries has declined somewhat his season from the notoriously fragile squads of previous seasons, their penchant for popping up at the most inopportune times is still very much a factor. As you might recall, the last time Arsenal faced such a run of injuries to their defence, they had to face a red hot Manchester City earlier this season, and despite a valiant effort, were outclassed by the club that regards Financial Fair Play regulations as a mere suggestion. And so again, Arsenal went into a match with a top 6 rival with a short stack at the back: Rob Holding on the left, in for Nacho Monreal, Calum Chambers for the physically deteriorating Laurent Koscielny, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who seems intent on becoming the next “can’t miss” Arsenal prospect.
In truth, their defensive performance, if not their alignment, was solid. Chambers was shaky on the ball but showed signs of his intelligence, decent turn of pace for his size and defensive abilities. Rob Holding was solid for most of the match but allowed Marcos Alonso to step right into the box to score the go ahead goal from a cross. Ainsley Maitland-Niles might have been the most impressive player on the pitch, constantly catching the eye with his smooth dribbling, intelligent angle runs, and incredible defensive ability for a 20 year old who considers himself a midfielder. Tactically, the wingbacks were pushed too far up the pitch during build up, quite possibly to add some of the much needed width that has been lacking for so long, and Chelsea were able to exploit those spaces with occasional pressing and cutting off the lanes for line busting passes. The talent of Arsenal’s defenders leaves little to question, but as for how well they are trained in the defensive arts and how well they are aligned tactically? That continues to leave a lot to be desired.
For a brief moment, it looked like the match would be decided by Arsenal’s emotional leader and former academy crown jewel Jack Wilshere after he burst through the Chelsea defence and ripped a perfectly placed shot past Courtois for the game’s first goal. Coming in the 63rd minute, his strike capped off a period of increasing influence for the Gunners, and was followed by one of the most rejuvenated and explosive 2 minute periods that we have seen this season. Despite not scoring, the Gunners clearly tasted blood, and they looked like they would be doubling the advantage in short order. However, fate was not their friend on Wednesday, and just 4 minutes later, Hector Bellerin committed a soft foul inside the box on Eden Hazard that the Belgian was able to “miraculously” recover from (despite acting as though his foot was blown off by an IED, clutching at his shin a full foot away from where he was contacted on the bottom of his boot) in time to slot home the penalty.
Even if he was denied the deciding goal in the match, Jack Wilshere was very influential, combining with Granit Xhaka to complete over 85% of their passes, 12 duels won, and minimise their mistakes throughout the match. There is no question that Aaron Ramsey brings a different, valuable dynamic to the team with his vertical runs and his tireless work rate, but Wilshere has done enough to at least give Arsene Wenger a bit of a selection headache, or possibly even force the Frenchman to get both onto the pitch together. Now all that is left to do is to extend their contracts, as they are seemingly all that is left from the once vaunted core of young players that were expected to carry the team out of austerity and into a decorated future.
Hector the Villain, Hector the Hero
Save for perhaps Granit Xhaka, no player has divided fan opinion this season quite as much as Hector Bellerin. It’s unclear at what point Bellerin starting being graded on such a steep curve, but fans have seemingly turned on the young Spaniard since he came back from a serious ankle injury last season far from his best. There is little question that he has not improved as much as some might have hoped at this point in his career, particularly in front of his own goal, but he is perhaps being judged on a steeper curve a bit early In his young career. He is still a half decade away from what typically is prime aged for a defender, and despite some valid criticisms about his defensive awareness and final ball delivery, he is still one of the best, youngest and brightest prospects at right back in world football.
Against Chelsea on Wednesday, Bellerin put in a performance that practically defines this divide of opinion around him. For 85% of the match, he was threatening down the flank, making smart decisions with the ball, and using his unrivaled closing speed to head off attacks early. However, the other 15% is what has fans pulling their hair out, as Bellerin also played a few careless passes, got caught too high up the pitch on occasion, and of course, needlessly put in a challenge in the box on Eden Hazard that, while totally played up by the Belgian attacker, was a stupid decision and could have cost the team the match. Of course, even his most ardent detractors can’t deny the work he puts in for the club, no matter how poor his performance, and he was one of the players that stepped up their focus and urgency at the end of the match. It seemed fitting then that Bellerin would be the one to equalise in stoppage time, on a beautiful side footed shot curled away from Thibault Courtois and into the corner. His goal came in front of the backs of thousands of leaving Arsenal fans, who inexplicably gave upon the club that has salvaged more points in the last 10 minutes of games over the last 2 seasons than any other.
Arsene Takes on the FA
You really must feel for the poor man a little. After all, his life is increasingly becoming about fielding constant personal attacks against himself and his players from the fans and the media. So you could forgive the manager for feeling a bit hard done by in recent matches (even seasons, once you start pouring back over the data), as his club have been hit by controversial decisions more than most. Having litigated Mike Dean thoroughly last week in this space, the intention is not to do the same again here, but once again Wenger might have a point.
News broke yesterday of Wenger’s pending charge by the FA over his reported conduct after the West Brom match after he confronted the inept Dean in his change room. The manager might have been contrite for his actions (ironically with Anthony Taylor as the 4th official last season) the last time he was punished, but this time the Frenchman is sticking to his guns. The evidence of incompetence at least and outright bias at worst is becoming incontrovertible, especially as it seems to affect the same clubs repeatedly, and claims of “it all evens out in the end” have been decidedly debunked by data and facts from the last several seasons. Wenger almost certainly won’t win his fight with the FA (few ever do, and there is no real oversight when it comes to the governing body’s unilateral judgement), but the fact that he is showing fire and fight on behalf of his club, even after the constant abuse for years, is very encouraging indeed.