A familiar tune played out around the stands at the Stamford Bridge as Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle – Chelsea players celebrated in abandon with an elated Maurizio Sarri sporting a relieved grin on the touchlines while Arsenal players slumped to the turf, their manager Unai Emery looking grim on the visiting team’s bench – ‘Blue is the colour, football is the game’ blaring from the speakers all the while.
The pulsating 3-2 thriller at West London took Chelsea to the top of the table as Arsenal suffered their worst start to the season in 26 years – before Saturday, the Gunners had not lost their first two matches of the season since 1992/93 and just like that, their losing streak in away games continued from last season. It was an ominous start for Emery's side as they were subjected to Sarri-ball in its full glory in the first half an hour of the game.
Sarri has reiterated time and again that it would take time for the Chelsea players to fully imbibe his philosophy, but if the frenzied start was any indication, this group of Chelsea players are quick learners. Led by Jorginho in the deep-lying playmaker's role, N'Golo Kante and Ross Barkley ran circles around the Arsenal players who looked shellshocked at the sheer intensity of pressing which Chelsea showcased.
The hosts were far from perfection, Willian in particular, being thoroughly lackadaisical on and off the ball, but Pedro's opening goal was a slice of beautiful football rarely seen among Blue shirts. Jorginho had found Alonso rampaging down the left flank with a neat through ball whose swerving cross was inch-perfect for Pedro to slot in. If Chelsea's first goal was suggestive that the Blues would not struggle for extended dry periods in front of the goal like they did last season, their second was even more significant.
The Spanish syndicate of Cesar Azpilicueta and Alvaro Morata came together to embarrass Shkodran Mustafi as Chelsea doubled their lead due to the agile precision of their hitherto-misfiring Spanish striker. Morata's goal was a stunning reminder of the gulf in class in the attacking exuberance of both teams, but unlike previous seasons, when the Gunners would have invariably slipped down a slippery slope into a darker crevice, Arsenal chose to fight back.
Aubameyang missed a glorious sitter from seven yards, but Emery’s men had begun to carve open the Chelsea defence at will. In a display which would have raised Conte's blood pressure should the Italian still been at Stamford Bridge, all threads of defensive resilience simply evaporated from Chelsea’s game as they conceded twice within a span of five minutes – first to Henrikh Mkhitaryan and then to Alex Iwobi. What was surprising for onlookers that both goals came from cutbacks from either Arsenal wing, as the entire Chelsea defence stood rooted to their spots.
David Luiz had a nightmare of a game from a defensive standpoint, as did Antonio Rudiger but Azpilicueta and Alonso weren't par excellence by any means – the latter making up for his defensive frailty with his offensive prowess.
As the scoreline at the halftime resembled chaos typical of the Premier League, it also provided a glimpse of what the future might resemble for these two London clubs with new figureheads at the helm.
In many ways, this summer has been the watershed moment for both clubs – Arsenal finally closing the long-drawn, mostly tragic towards the end chapter of Arsene Wenger and Chelsea getting rid of their supremely successful style of play to venture into an adventurous yet tumultuous territory.
“We did very well in the last 25 minutes today, but we have to work and improve in the defensive phase, and we are not only talking about the defenders. If we want to defend by looking only at the ball, we need to stay very compact and press in the other half,” Sarri commented after the game, laying out where his team went wrong in the first half, emphasising how it was a collective failure to defend their lead, even new recruit Kepa Arrizabalaga messing up for Arsenal’s first goal.
The Premier League isn’t kind to newbies and as the world’s most expensive goalkeeper discovered, it barely gives you time to settle down before throwing you into the deep end. For all of Chelsea’s stylistic modifications, they still have a soft underbelly, more so because they failed to bring in any defensive reinforcements and Kante’s more advanced position in the pitch exposes the Chelsea backline to all kinds of threats.
If the first half was an anarchic joust, Chelsea brought their howitzers out in the second half as substitutes Eden Hazard and Mateo Kovacic with Olivier Giroud in tow wreaked havoc through the Arsenal defence with veteran custodian Petr Cech having to come up with quite a few reflex saves to keep the Blues at bay.
The full force of Hazard is yet to be unleashed onto the Premier League as the Belgian is still not at cent percent match fitness, but the mercurial playmaker has sizzled at every moment of his 43 minutes of play in both matches, racking up two assists and countless completed dribbles.
Securing Hazard’s services for another season was Chelsea’s best piece of business this summer – the Belgian not only adds flair to this Chelsea team but also brings to the fore a certain personality, the X-factor which Emery and Arsenal sorely lacked amongst themselves.
Emery’s debut against Manchester City last week went just as expected, experimentally intriguing but not reassuring, his eagerness to substitute the underwhelming Ozil and Xhaka against Chelsea portraying how he isn’t afraid to make the brave calls when necessary, but Arsenal's regression in the past decade will need more than a summer or five league fixtures to be corrected – the results will get better hereafter, but contesting for titles is still a distant dream for the Gunners supporters.
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Updated Date: Aug 19, 2018 13:25:41 IST