Well how about that for a turn up for the books?
Away from home.
A modern day Arsène Wenger team performance. Sure, it wasn’t the victory we craved but hey, there was enough in that 0-0 at Stamford Bridge to suggest that actually when their heads are screwed on, this Arsenal team know how to perform in a big game away from home, but also can be disciplined.
I must admit to some skepticism before the game and when I saw the team line up not a lot helped to alleviate that. No Mertesacker – although he did play on Friday – and no Alexis, with Özil not in the matchday squad with a minor injury. Speculation amongst friends was that Wenger is fiddling with the team again, but whilst Alex Iwobi may not be in the form of his life right now, there were questions as to whether he would do a little more covering than Alexis on the day.
I suspect it was more to do with the fact that Alexis still wasn’t 100% and Arsène is easing him back in.
So we started amongst much hand-wringing from yours truly and after 10 minutes I think it’s fair to say that game has a familiar feel to it. Chelski started brightly, worked the ball around us well and we never looked like going near their goal.
I feared the worst.
But that goal never really came and after the initial exchanges we started to produce some chances. Welbeck should have scored with a header (naturally), Lacazette forced Courtois into a couple of good saves and Aaron Ramsey (superb all game) hit the post. There were still scares at the other end and Pedro probably should have put them one up when through on goal, but we rode the storm and at halftime I thought we’d been the better team.
It’s almost as if we’d realise that sometimes in these big games you need to ‘suss out’ your opponents. Like boxers trading a few initial jabs in a fight, we were cautious in our approach and kept our shape. I’d wondered if we would continue the pressing quickly into opponents like we did at Bournemouth and sure enough, the whole team worked very well to ensure that Chelski weren’t given too much time.
Fabregas caused some initial worry with some good balls in behind, but after about 25 minutes I thought we worked hard to negate that, as the forwards began to close down the deep-lying Chelski midfielders, denying them space to be able to pick up those balls.
The second half meant more of the ball from Chelski and I don’t think we fashioned a meaningful chance, but as soon as the final whistle went I afforded myself the luxury of thinking that we’d negated Chelski rather well, and in that second half I don’t remember Cech making worldies of saves. There was a decent Hazard shot that he made look easy, plus a scary looking Monreal backpass that again he made look easy, but it’s not like our goal was peppered.
That’s because the players at the back were disciplined. Sky Sports showed a great graphic of how touch-tight the players were in their shape and we have to look at this performance as one in which the defensive side of the game was our biggest joy to take from the overall performance.
Monreal was tidy. Mustafi looked scary at times against Morata but overall had him well marshalled. And Koscielny mopped up well too. I liked the way we snapped in to tackles in the middle third of the pitch when Chelski moved the ball forward. It forced turnover of possession and often ensured we weren’t in panic mode in front of goal.
But what we also got was a good, solid, midfield performance. Aaron Ramsey was superb. He was unlucky not to score but his balance between the defensive and offensive side of his game was perfect. He got the blend right and with Chelski also not putting pressure on Xhaka, we also had a set up which allowed us to distribute the ball effectively all over the pitch.
If there’s any retreat from that game it’ll be that we didn’t win it after hitting the post and the rebound, which you’d expect Lacazette to mop up, but I’m being really picky. People might also point to the 10-men factor, but when that happens as you’re just about to hit injury time, it isn’t exactly like you have a lot of time to react to the advantage and you’ve honest I suspect we were just happy to keep our shape and keep the point.
There’s no doubt that it’s a red though. Conte can point to what he thought was a foul before – there wasn’t – but Luiz going steaming in like that was reckless and I’m just glad that he hit the tank and not a more fragile player like Ramsey or Jack. As such Kolasinac just dusted himself down and went again.
And we can go again too, because despite it being a draw, the team should take much credit for this but above all you have to give it to Arsène. There was a game plan. The players had instructions and the balance of the team was right. It’s mornings like today that we need to acknowledge that he does get it right sometimes and tactically his team set up was right.
The trick now though, is to use this as a blueprint, not a game in isolation. We thought we had that a few years back against City but we reverted back to the old ways shortly after. What we need to see in these big games is more discipline and organisation from a defensive perspective, with the team building on from that stable base throughout each game. Do that, and we’ll see our fortunes turn in these big games, for sure.
That’s me for another day. Have a good’un folks.