Arsenal 2 – 2 Chelsea
It was, before I go further, a fine game of football; enjoyable to watch compared to the dross which is routinely served up by the World’s Greatest League™.
For once, everything in attack was sharp, aside from Alexandre Lacazette’s shooting boots. His movement was outstanding though and Chelsea’s three central defenders weren’t given a moments rest. He was ably supported by Alexis and Mesut Özil, with the latter dominating the five-man Chelsea midfield. There’s no doubt that the German was Man of the Match and if he played like that every week – and I mean every week – I’d be saying his £350k salary demands were very reasonable indeed.
Indeed, there’s very little criticism of the team in an attacking sense. Lacazette might have done better when he gave Courtois the chance to make a decent save after a nice spin from the French striker but his final shot lacked the bite we normally see.
That goal led a charmed life. Courtois’ stunning save in the first half came with a sizeable slice of good fortune as the ball struck both posts, rolling along the line between the two. And it was genuinely along the line which is a testament to the groundsmen, underlining how level the pitch at the Emirates is.
Chelsea rued the frame of the goal when a thunderous strike rattled the crossbar in the dying embers of the match. It’s a footballing cliche that these things even themselves out over a season; we didn’t have to wait ninety minutes in this instance.
Both goalkeepers made crucial saves with Cech enjoying his best game this season. Aside from the penalty; how he hasn’t even got close to 15 penalties I’ll never know. This is a man who won the Champions League by saving a penalty.
Due Reward for Hard Work?
Jack Wilshere takes the plaudits this morning for me. Fired up for the game, he made up for Granit Xhaka’s lethargy and capped a good evening’s work with a rasping finish to break the deadlock. It was a rare moment of unbridled joy this Christmas as the ball crashed into the net.
Wilshere was tigerish in the tackle, picked up an almost obligatory yellow card, got whacked on the ankle, and generally did all those midfield things we want him to. Without getting injured. In his sixth game in a row, which is the first time since records began apparently. And we still don’t think he’s worth sitting down and talking to about a new deal.
The point-saving goal came from an equally unlikely and maligned source: Hector Bellerin. The young Spaniard has been flitting in and out of form but I thought had his best game of the season last night. He is routinely criticised for erratic defending and that’s true; he is plateauing. That’s what happens when you don’t get defensive coaching; his critics need to turn their ire elsewhere.
Those two moments make Sunday’s lacklustre point at West Brom all the more irksome. The contrast in effort and thought is stark and underlines why we’re fighting with the also-rans for the Europa League places. We don’t play Liverpool and Chelsea again in the Premier League and have dropped nine points in those four games.
Once again, we’re reliant on Liverpool and Tottenham being all ‘Spursy’ to get into the Champions League. Mind you, when we are there, is it really worth the effort?
Young Heads on Young Shoulders
And with our defence at present, it’s a big ask for us to be able to take advantage of any slips. Alvaro Morata made mincemeat of Calum Chambers on more than one occasion and a mockery of his £70m fee. It was a good display of centre-forward play and an ineptitude of the highest order in his finishing, thankfully. How he missed at the end, I doubt even he knows.
At which point we come to that penalty, another poor excuse for a decision. It wasn’t a penalty; Hazard, kicked on the sole of his boot, collapsed clutching his shin. Theatrics, pure and simple. Wilfried Zaha gets called out for diving but the silence is deafening from the media over Hazard; go figure.
Anthony Taylor was in a good position and has no excuse for awarding the penalty. Hazard wasn’t impeded but threw himself to the ground nonetheless. Bellerin’s naivety – and lack of positional coaching – was exposed in that moment. He should have stood the Belgian up and made him pass; tackling in the area is fraught with dangers when a player is willing to hit the turf at the merest hint of a touch.
But why did the official fall for the trick? It’s the best case for VAR since the last time, which was Tottenham’s opener at Swansea. There are too many bad decisions now. I’d question whether there are more than yesteryear or are we more aware of mistakes thanks to the television angles we see? Are the Laws of the Game too subjective to be effective?
Whatever the case, it was a decision which changed the course of the game, coming so soon after Wilshere’s opener.
And gave Arsène the chance to get on his soapbox once again. A post-football career at Speaker’s Corner surely beckons.
Wenger made it clear that he blamed Taylor for not getting three points, declaring that foreign reporters had few qualms about telling the world how bad English officials are. You can understand his frustration, coming so soon after Sunday. However, it’s a useful distraction from having a makeshift defence in a game of this magnitude.
Calum Chambers was OK, erratic and in need of some guidance as he comes to terms with the rigours of defending with Arsenal. Rob Holding gave an assured performance. Why Wenger overlooks him when we have injury problems or need to manage Laurent Koscielny’s Achilles is anyone’s guess.
A special word for Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Sunday is time for him to move into central midfield. He learned the lessons of Mo Salah and kept Moses quiet last night. He was shuffled out of position for Chelsea’s second but it was the only mistake of the night. A costly error but now we need to see him properly in the midfield. He spent a fair portion of time there anyway…
So while there is a case for Taylor to answer, Wenger has his own issues to deal with and they are entirely separate. The two should not cross-pollinate in his mind or in reality.
Anyway, that’s the end of the festive fixtures and we’re sixth, hanging in the race for fourth by our fingertips and realistically, ensuring we stay in the top six is more of a target.