It was everything you would have expected from two talented teams in transition. It was frantic and illogical. Patternless and insane.
The twists and turns of the first meeting between Chelsea and Arsenal under their new managers made for fantastic theater. The second Premier League match of their new eras was the soccer equivalent of a roller coaster. And thanks to an 81st-minute Marcos Alonso winner, it ended in Chelsea victory.
The Blues sped out to a stylish 2-0 lead, then threw it away before halftime. But Alonso snuck into the penalty box from his left back position to decide the London derby with one telling sweep of his left boot.
Eden Hazard, again in off the bench as a second-half substitute, was brilliant as always. It was his skip past an uninterested Alexandre Lacazette that enabled the decider.
The 90 minutes featured games within games, storylines on top of storylines. They were anything but linear. Heck, the first of two halves alone had enough action to fill four.
But the final score reflected the initial trend, and undoubtedly the most glaring one: Arsenal, as it had been as Arsene Wenger’s reign petered out, was startlingly vulnerable at the back.
An early warning sign
Not even five minutes in, Chelsea, quite generously, sent up smoke as advance notice: Arsenal had a problem.
Jorginho picked up possession in space inside the Arsenal half, and very nearly picked out Ross Barkley with a ball over the top:
Arsenal had neither pressure on the ball nor cover in the 25 yards between keeper and back four. It had no plan to deal with that space other than a shoddy offside trap. In soccer terms, it was committing defensive suicide. The back four were disconnected, asking to be picked apart.
Jorginho, probably the second-best deep-lying playmaker in the world, barely missed Barkley on that occasion. He wouldn’t miss again.
Jorginho’s wizardry, Arsenal’s woe
Soon thereafter, Arsenal’s defense was again pulled apart. Willian dragged Hector Bellerin away from his post. Shkodran Mustafi failed to slide over. Henrikh Mkhitaryan failed to cover. And Jorginho played a peach of a through-ball to Marcos Alonso to set up goal No. 1:
Chelsea recognized the flaw in the Arsenal plan, and had the orchestrator to exploit it. The gunners never really adjusted. They never accounted for Chelsea’s threat in behind. Their midfield was a step slow, their back line exposed.
David Luiz beat that back line over the top again on 12 minutes. N’Golo Kante couldn’t make anything of the chance, but his untracked diagonal run was another omen. Eight minutes later, with defenders pressed up to the halfway line, Alvaro Morata beat the trap to put Chelsea up 2-0:
Arsenal’s comeback, Chelsea’s troubles
But the Gunners, all the while, had their opportunities. Chelsea, at times, looked threadbare as well. Mesut Ozil flashed an early volley wide. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed an absolute sitter:
Mkhitaryan did as well. Chance creation wasn’t Arsenal’s problem. For Maurizio Sarri’s system to function on the defensive end, it needs to be functioning high up the field. Pressure wasn’t consistent enough, so Arsenal routinely found avenues in between Chelsea’s midfield and defense, or out wide. Its forays tugged Jorginho all over the place, and left vast spaces open for cut-backs.
Mkhitaryan found that space and brought the visitors back to within one goal:
Alex Iwobi equalized before halftime with a dart to the penalty spot. With center backs retreating toward the goal, Kante failed to track the Nigerian winger:
Chelsea, riding the two-goal lead past the half-hour mark, almost seemed to switch off. Arsenal converted the chances it had wasted earlier.
The opening 45 minutes were emblematic of the adjustments both sides are making to their new managers. Neither is a refined defensive unit just yet. So at halftime, Arsenal’s Unai Emery realized he had to make a fire-fighting tweak.
Arsenal’s halftime adjustment doesn’t pay off
At halftime, Emery brought on Lucas Torreira, a ball-winner, for Granit Xhaka, a ball-player. The Gunners tried to shut up shop. And to some extent, they did. The second 45 minutes were certainly much less of a track meet.
But Emery’s fundamental problem is that his defenders simply aren’t very good. Mustafi can be poor positionally. Sokratis, signed from Borussia Dortmund this summer, is nothing special. Bellerin has stagnated. The defensive midfielders in front of them are inexperienced.
They couldn’t suppress Chelsea’s attack even at a slower pace.
On balance, Arsenal’s holes were more gaping than Chelsea’s. The Blues, under a manager who only took charge last month, looked closer to a finished product than the Gunners, who have had their boss in place since May.
Alonso’s winner was deserved. And Arsenal will trek back across London with zero points from its first two Premier League games.
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