Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley
As the chants roared out from the Matthew Harding Stand, most of the Arsenal fans sought solace in their beer glasses and cupped hands. Two goals in 20 minutes and Chelsea were running away with it.
It had been a disastrous opening period for Unai Emery, who might have been hopeful of a riposte after the limp defeat to Manchester City last week. But as Alvaro Morata rolled in a casual second just minutes after Pedro’s finish, it felt like his team were being consigned to another dreadful result.
The chants of ‘Are you Wenger in disguise?’ whipped across the pitch with more than a hint of genuine concern. Could, irony of ironies, Arsenal have replaced Wenger with another Wenger?
Ch... Ch... Changes
There was nothing Wenger-esque about the Gunners’ thrilling response to going 2-0 down.
Emery’s selection had been brave enough. Matteo Guendouzi, after a spotty first-team debut last week, was trusted to perform again in the middle of the park.
In reply, the Frenchman registered a tremendous offensive performance, playing countless scything balls beyond the static Chelsea backline. Incessantly probing, he was arguably one of his sides’ most efficient performers.
Action Images via Reuters/John SibleyEmery further distanced himself from Wenger with his decisive substitutions. Granit Xhaka ghosted through 45 minutes, collecting a yellow card and not much else before he was hooked by his exasperated coach.
It was an action that would have been justified across most of the Swiss’ abject performances last year and Emery’s immediate reaction speaks volumes about his rejection of shirkers: unlike the previous regime, there will be no passengers.
Mesut Ozil, after a committed but fruitless 68 minutes, suffered the same fate as he was brought off for Aaron Ramsey.
Arsenal should have been 4-2 up by the time Marcos Alonso slid in an unlikely winner.
It was a victory secured against the run of play with Maurizio Sarri’s outpatient chic and bony elbows gesticulating wildly at his team’s laboured performance.
Had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Henrikh Mkhitaryan deigned to score from separate, gilt-edged chances in the first half, the tie would have been over long before Eden Hazard came off the bench.
REUTERS/Toby Melville Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin, players who have attracted their fair weight of criticism in an Arsenal shirt, were savages on the wing: mincing Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso to pieces with their raiding runs and pinpoint deliveries.
Yet it was familiar failings that undid Arsenal here. “We lost a little the positioning on the pitch and we were working very deep in one moment,” Emery admitted about his sides’ lull into complacency in the second half.
Arsenal’s players, having shown uncharacteristic grit to claw back from two goals down before allowing themselves to drift into their destructive habits.
Their pressing, unified and insistent in the first half, felt sporadic and half-hearted in the second. Chelsea’s runners were given increasing space and time on the ball. Hazard was virtually unchallenged by Bellerin as he supplied the winning cross.
The result will hurt Emery, but he will be encouraged by aspects of his team’s performance nonetheless.
Action Images via Reuters/John SibleyAfter just two competitive games, the change in the Gunners’ approach is tangible. Languid sideways passes are no longer indulged, whilst the tempo had a zest that has been unknown for years.
Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira displayed a keen forward vision, nixing Jorginho – a man who cost more than both combined – for whole swathes of the game.
Two defeats from two games is not a good start – that cannot be denied. What also cannot be denied is that Arsenal under Unai Emery represent a leaner, more focused, more threatening proposition than they have for years.
That is something for Gunners fans to look forward to.