It was entertaining throughout, although moments of true quality were fleeting. On an afternoon at Stamford Bridge where attacking intent was met by defensive naivety in bountiful supply, Chelsea struck the odd goal in five to edge out Arsenal.
Both sides face similar challenges this season, having each replaced their manager over the summer and added numerous signing with a view to reclaiming a top-four spot.
On Saturday’s evidence, Chelsea are closer to making a fist of this shared objective, although both Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery were given plenty of cause for concern by their sides’ defensive displays.
A thrillingly bonkers first 45 minutes ended level at 2-2, with Arsenal having clawed their way to parity through goals by Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi, after Pedro and Álvaro Morata had put the Blues two to the good.
Both teams conjured and squandered opportunities thereafter, and it wasn’t until second-half substitute Eden Hazard weaved his customary magic down the left to slip Marcos Alonso in to score in the 81st minute that Chelsea cemented their marginal superiority.
Here are the five things we learned from this five-goal thriller at the Bridge.
Lost art of defending
The fact defending appears to be an art increasingly forgotten at the highest level of the game has been a common lament among keen-eyed observers for some time, and this game served only too further stuff the evidence folder.
First Arsenal were passed through too easily, applying too little pressure to their opponents, as Chelsea worked their was up the pitch to open the scoring through Pedro, then the Gunners were undone by a simple long ball over the top and a strong-if-unspectacular run and finish from Morata.
Next it was Chelsea‘s turn to exercise their defensive ineptitude, allowing Arsenal several clear runs to the byline and offering an open invitation for the Gunners’ attackers to race on to the subsequent cut-backs. Only shoddy finishing from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan prevented the away side bridging the deficit sooner.
Signs of Sarri-ball
While Arsenal offered very little in the way of resistance, some of Chelsea’s interplay mirrored that of Sarri’s magnificent Napoli side.
At the heart of it, predictably, was Jorginho, the Brazil-born Italian with a metronomic right boot. The former Napoli conductor orchestrated proceedings throughout, completing 91 of his 99 attempted passes.
Some of Chelsea’s employment of third-man runs and intricate passing triangles evidenced the efficacy of Sarri’s early work on the Cobham training ground, from where reports are emanating of a more contented group, enjoying the new Italian coach’s methods much more that the last’s.
A late-in-the-window loan arrival from Real Madrid as part of the deal which took goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to the Santiago Bernabéu, Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovačić was deemed unready to start for Chelsea’s visit of the Gunners, instead contenting himself with a 30-minute second-half cameo.
But half an hour was all it took for the former Inter Milan star to show why he has been one of Europe’s most coveted midfielders in the last few transfer windows, despite having been unable to crack the starting XI in Madrid on a regular basis – for which there is no shame, given his competition consisted of Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos and Casemiro.
Kovačić found a blue shirt with all 43 of his attempted passes, adding verve, vigour and dependable quality on both sides of the ball, successful with his one attempted take-on and three tackles.
The only downside to Kovačić’s emergence: gifted English midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek will seemingly be further marginalised. Left out of the squad altogether today, the 23-year-old would be best served seeking continental transfer before month’s end.
High line and no press a recipe for disaster for Arsenal
Emery’s insistence that Arsenal play out from the back at all times has been the major bone of contention for most analysts when discussing the Gunners’ defensive performances so far this season.
But more troubling than their commitment to working the ball through midfield, rather than going long and high to a group of forwards unlikely to win many aerial duels, is their destructive approach of maintaining an ultra-high defensive line while failing to apply pressure on the ball in high areas.
With Héctor Bellerín the only member of Arsenal’s back four capable of holding his own on a race against most attackers, defending so high while allowing the opposition time and space to measure dissecting passes in behind is a recipe for catastrophe.
Hazard picks up World Cup from
Entering the fray in the 61st minute, replacing Willian – whose biggest contribution to the entertainment was his unwillingness to track back – Hazard brought the flair he lit up the World Cup with this summer back to Stamford Bridge.
For a while, it seemed as though the Belgian was destined to depart West London, with Real Madrid said to be keen suitors. But retaining Hazard will prove to be the best piece of transfer business Chelsea did – or, rather, didn’t do – this year.
Immediately, Hazard grabbed control of the game and had the Arsenal defence back-tracking.
Despite only participating in a third of the game, he completed more attacking-third passes (20) than any player on the pitch, equalled the top performers in successful dribbles (two) and created three chances, including a typically bewitching piece of wing-play to set up Alonso for the winner.