Arsenal hosted Chelsea at the Emirates on Wednesday in the penultimate game of the festive fixture list. The match turned out to be a thrilling 2-2, as Arsene Wenger’s men scored in the dying moments of the game to earn themselves a draw against Antonio Conte’s Blues. And yet, despite both teams dazzling at the top end of the pitch, it was their defensive deficiencies that took centre stage, writes Maryam Naz.
On paper, Chelsea appeared to be the stronger side. Conte was blessed to not have his team blighted by a long injury list. His defence was playing well enough to not miss the absence of David Luiz, and the welcomed return of Andreas Christensen remained in their back three.
In comparison, Wenger was facing a defensive crisis in the build-up to the game, and he was forced into playing the two youngsters Rob Holding and Callum Chambers either side of Shkodran Mustafi. The Frenchman was without key defenders Laurent Koscielny and Sead Kolasinac who had picked up injuries in the midweek draw against West Bromwich Albion, as well as Nacho Monreal.
Against the likes of Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata, this posed a real problem for the Gunners, especially since their midfield of Jack Wilshere and Granit Xhaka hadn’t shown much this season to suggest that they would be able to adequately protect those behind them. Their best form of defence would have to be attack, and with the return of Mesut Ozil, who had been rested against West Brom, it was.
Only 13 minutes were on the clock when Arsenal’s inexperienced defence was exposed. Chambers, who was busy having a conversation with Wilshere, left room for a long ball to be played up to Morata. The defender caused further havoc when he dropped back, assuming that his goalkeeper Petr Cech would come for the ball, when the responsibility should’ve been taken by the young Englishman. Luckily for both of them, Morata’s shot was placed well wide. Arsenal were off the hook, this time.
Moments later, the Spaniard had another chance to put Chelsea in the lead after a low cross by Victor Moses, but again he was unable to find the goal; both Holding and Chambers were finding it difficult to contain the Spaniard in the early portions of the game, and Mustafi did not appear to be doing anything to ease his relatively inexperienced colleagues into the high-octane match.
Arsenal finally began to break into the game midway through the first half, with their attack running more smoothly. This was partly assisted by the positioning of Tiemoue Bakayoko, who was not doing enough in the Chelsea midfield defensively; he was either getting drawn towards the ball, or he made fruitless forward runs, which allowed Ozil all the space in the world to try and dictate the game.
The German exploited this space and passed to Alexis Sanchez, whose shot would’ve put Arsenal 1-0 up, were it not for an exceptional save by Thibaut Courtois.
The half-time break allowed players and fans alike to take a breath after a thrilling first half, and both teams started the next 45 at high intensity. Cech made a crucial double save, and Courtois had to stave off a powerful shot by Alexandre Lacazette.
Then, controversy occurred: 54 minutes were on the clock when Wilshere, already on a yellow card, made a run into the box and dived, which invoked rage from the Chelsea players around him. He was lucky to get away without receiving a second yellow as referee Bobby Madley had his view obstructed by Cesc Fabregas, and he felt unable to penalise.
This would prove to be a crucial decision, as less than 10 minutes later, Wilshere put the Gunners 1-0 up with a rocket of a shot that even Courtois couldn’t save. The Englishman’s six starts in a row in the Premier League have proved that he is a valuable asset for Wenger to have, especially in the absence of Aaron Ramsey and Mohamed Elneny.
Yet despite going 1-0 up, defensive frailty would show again for Arsenal, when Hector Bellerin was deemed to have fouled Hazard in the penalty box, missing the ball and kicking his shin, earning Conte’s side a penalty.
The spot-kick was converted by Hazard, breathing new life into Chelsea. They piled on the pressure, causing Arsenal to gift another chance to Morata, who again missed a game-changing chance. Unfazed by this latest miss, Chelsea continued to attack in waves; something was going to give.
Conte’s tactical substitution of taking off Moses for Davide Zappacosta paid off; in the first half, Moses had refused to take on his inexperienced opposite number Anthony Maitland-Niles on three occasions, and he again missed the opportunity to take on the rookie in the second half.
Zappacosta had no such qualms. The Italian took on Maitland-Niles and put in a cross to the near post that his fellow wingback Marcos Alonso put into the back of the net via an exquisite little flick. It was another goal from a Spaniard for Chelsea, which is a feature of their performances this season.
With a 2-1 lead going into the last 5 minutes of the game, Conte’s men displayed some complacency. They decided to invite pressure, being drawn to the ball by Arsenal’s attacking flair, and failed to clear the ball in their own penalty box when it was flooded by Arsenal players in the final minutes of the match.
Eventually, the ball came to Bellerin, who’d caused the foul for Chelsea to go 1-0, and when he hit it, there was no doubt that it was going in the back of the net.
In the aftermath of the goal, Morata had another massive chance to put the Blues ahead for the third time, but his shot was parried away by Cech.
The referee blew the final whistle amidst a fresh Arsenal attack, leaving fans disappointed that the entertainment had come to an end, and that the points had merely been shared.
Despite an inspired performance from his players to rescue a point when all seemed lost, Wenger will be annoyed that they were on the wrong end of a dubious penalty decision for the second time in a week, and he may question the defensive frailties inherent in his team.
One thing he can be delighted about is that his team at least played some entertaining football, unlike in the goalless draw in last season’s encounter at Stamford Bridge.
On the other hand, whilst Chelsea’s top goal-scorer was sub-par yesterday, Conte will be glad that his wide ‘defenders’ rose to the occasion and played their part in the attack. The draw in yesterday’s game has made the race for top four even closer, and come May, the point given to either side may be the difference between a spot in the Champions and Europa Leagues.