LONDON — Mikel Arteta desperately needed a result to back up his rhetoric, and Arsenal beating Chelsea 3-1 on Saturday, was precisely it.
It is a popular refrain among managers attempting to arrest a decline to cite the importance of hard work, but you suspect Arteta means it more than most given his taskmaster style and the lack of application that epitomised the end of the Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery eras. With the Gunners seeking their first Premier League win since Nov. 1, Arteta packed his lineup with grafters, urging them to show the unity and spirit he insists is in everyday plain sight at the club’s London Colney training base but has been lacking on the pitch of late.
This time, they duly delivered.
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– ESPN+ viewer’s guide: Bundesliga, Serie A, MLS, FA Cup and more
Gabriel Martinelli shook off an ankle problem to pick up where he left off against Manchester City, combining work rate and quality to probe from the left. Bukayo Saka continued his remarkable consistency despite the turbulence around him on the opposite flank.
The surprise name on the home teamsheet was Emile Smith Rowe, getting his first Premier League start in a year, and in many ways his inclusion epitomises the existential fight Arteta is battling at Arsenal.
Arteta switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation, and on the occasions when he plays with a No. 10, the Spaniard issues specific defensive instructions to a primarily creative position. It is arguably the most pointed footballing reason why Mesut Ozil, the club’s top earner on £350,000 a week, remains in the wilderness. Nobody could reasonably argue that Ozil isn’t a far greater talent on the ball than Smith Rowe, but the accusation so often levelled at the former is he does apply himself out of possession with sufficient thought for his teammates. Smith Rowe excelled in this regard.
By the time of his 65th-minute substitution, no player had regained possession more than the 20-year-old’s six occasions. As if to underline the point, Smith Rowe’s replacement, Joe Willock, won three tackles in the final 25 minutes, equalling Martinelli’s team-high tally. It was this pressing from the front that unsettled Chelsea from the outset, establishing a level of intensity that the visitors never matched aside from a late flurry when the game was already lost.
Gabriel, David Luiz and Willian missed the match with COVID-related issues. Gabriel has tested negative but must self-isolate after coming into contact with someone in his bubble who tested positive, while Luiz and Willian have symptoms but have also tested negative. It is doubtful all three would have been involved, but Willian’s absence in particular enabled Arteta to pick a front four with much greater movement and dynamism than the static performances of recent weeks.
They still needed a penalty, a wonderful free kick and a fluke to take a 3-0 lead, scoring with their only two shots on target of the first half. Alexandre Lacazette stroked home a spot kick after 34 minutes following Reece James’ tackle on Kieran Tierney, before Granit Xhaka fired home from 25 yards just before half-time. Saka appeared to be eyeing a cross when he made inroads 11 minutes after the restart, but his right-foot effort looped over Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and in off the far post.
Tammy Abraham struck five minutes from time, but even though Jorginho then missed a penalty after Pablo Mari fouled Mason Mount as Chelsea improved, they were second-best throughout.
“Obviously [it’s a] a really big win for us,” Arteta said. “We were really disappointed and frustrated with the results, not so much with the performances, but the results. The players were suffering, our fans were suffering and today is a really special day. It doesn’t get any better: Boxing Day, playing a London derby at the Emirates and winning the way we’ve done it.
“Hopefully this is a turning point and will elevate the confidence of the team, because I know that they can play at this level. It is how consistent we are throughout the game to sustain that level and to maintain it.”
Saka, Smith Rowe and Martinelli thrived in contrast to the much more expensively assembled trio at the opposite end of the pitch as Chelsea slipped to a third defeat in four games.
There must be doubts as to whether Frank Lampard knows his best team after spending £220 million in the summer, with Kai Havertz left on the bench and Christian Pulisic failing to hit the heights reached during Project Restart. Timo Werner was superb in the formative weeks of the campaign but he has now gone eight starts without a goal, looking more of a peripheral figure on the left flank with each passing week. He was substituted for Callum Hudson-Odoi at half-time in a double change along with Mateo Kovacic for Jorginho.
The latter swap makes it even easier to see why Chelsea continue to monitor Declan Rice, among other defensive midfielders, given the imbalance of their team at the Emirates. N’Golo Kante has his merits playing further forward, but it feels counterintuitive when Chelsea are losing a midfield battle to Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny.
“Not good enough first half, better second half but too much to do at that point,” Lampard said after the match. “Not good enough on the basics on sprints, pressing and running, speed of pass, trying to play and make angles. All the basics were wrong.
“There was definitely a lethargic approach to the first half that, no matter whether you were playing Arsenal in a tough moment or any team in the Premier League, you can’t turn up like that. I am concerned at what’s at the bottom of it, but I’m not sure if it’s complacency. The fact that actually matters is if you come and play slow, on and off the ball, you are going to have a big problem trying to get a result. The message was clear: we had to attack it in the right way and we didn’t.”
Arsenal need more than one result to turn the corner. After needing 683 minutes to score three goals, they managed to equal that tally in a 22-minute spell that will surely create fresh confidence for battles to come against Brighton & Hove Albion and West Bromwich Albion either side of New Year’s Day.
Another defeat in either game would be a severe blow to a fragile group and under-pressure manager, but they had to start somewhere, and convincingly beating rivals from the other side of town is an impressive way to do it.