Arsenal recorded a vital win in a high quality if messy spectacle that was every bit as end to end and chaotic as the reverse game in August.
Chelsea named an unchanged side, meaning Eden Hazard played in the false nine role, whilst hosts Arsenal made three changes with Bellerin, Ramsey and Torreira replacing Maitland Niles, Mustafi and Iwobi.
The changes to Arsenal’s lineup allowed Xhaka, Torreira and Guendouzi to set a ferocious tempo in midfield which the pedestrian Jorginho, Kovacic and Kante never came close to matching.
Aubameyang and Hazard traded early missed chances before a ball into Lacazette by Bellerin on the quarter hour mark allowed the French forward to drive diagonally across the Chelsea area before unleashing a powerful right footed effort past Kepa.
Aubameyang was unlucky with an overhead kick as Arsenal turned the screw. Their dominance in either penalty area was rewarded as Sokratis shinned in a looped cross which Laurent Koscielny slightly misjudged, meaning the ball looped off his shoulder and into the corner of the net for a two-goal lead on 34 minutes.
Chelsea dominated the ball – a shade under two thirds possession – but didn’t create much of more, with a set piece header onto the post by Marcus Alonso the closest they came to responding, although Pedro was also unlucky with a smart lob that landed wide after an exquisite David Luiz pass. Arsenal’s win was later marred by a ligament injury to Hector Bellerin which could be a season ender.
Arsenal now move level on points with Manchester United and just three behind Chelsea in fourth, as the battle for Champions League football intensifies.
Sarri needs to share the blame
The Chelsea manager spoke afterwards in what was not so much a press conference as a sawn-off shotgun pointed firmly at his players. The manager accused his players of being mentally weak and hard to motivate. Whilst this is unquestionably true – lads it’s Chelsea – Sarri has to take responsibility for setting a team up with his two best players out of position. Ngolo Kante is not a wide right with a skill set to go beyond a front man. Eden Hazard deserves better than trying to play as a number nine with no chance to run at defences, drop his shoulder, twist and turn and play one twos.
Sarriball at its best early in the season had Chelsea as dark horses for a title challenge. However the style is now reminiscent of Oasis’ career. At its best great, but otherwise unpragmatic, rehashing of the same old with diminished returns.
Only Sarri knows why Giroud is not being played as a foil for Hazard or why Kante has been displaced to accommodate Jorginho a man who has never seen a safe, easy pass he didn’t like the look of.
Higuain the answer?
Comparisons to Oasis in Sarriball may be slightly unfair as at least Oasis had a talented frontman.
Sarri has seemingly already sold Morata, and appears not to trust Giroud despite the Frenchman seeming to be Hazard’s preferred partner.
Higuain comes on the back of a shaky season with Milan – less goals than Morata – and questions still have to be asked why both Juventus and Milan are blasé about letting him go. Higuain holds the single season goal record, 36 in Serie A playing for Sarri and on paper seems an upgrade on their current strike force. However with the main role of a centre forward at Chelsea surely needing to be filled to get the best of Hazard, it remains to be seen whether a loan deal for Higuain will be the answer to this stifled, interminable Chelsea attack.
Lacazette the big game star
As mentioned in previous reports, a massive flaw in Aubameyang at Arsenal has been his inability to score in games against top six opponents. His brace against Spurs remains the only game in ten against top six rivals he has scored in.
Lacazette has now scored against all of these teams in his year and a half in England and, whilst he may not be the flat track bully that his strike partner is, in all the chopping and changing of Arsenal’s starting eleven this season the one constant has been the need for Lacazette to partner Aubameyang.
Ramsey and Ozil symbols of a strange time at Arsenal
Aaron Ramsey started today despite having signed a pre-contract with Juventus. The Welshman was a bundle of energy, clever running and his delight in Koscielny’s goal suggests strongly Arsenal are making a huge mistake in letting him go. Meanwhile, Ozil sat on the bench and presumably the German will star in the next league game against Cardiff while the lack of joined up thinking at the club remains a worry.
With Mislintat leaving his role as head of recruitment barely a year into the role, no money to spend and Ozil sat on the bench on £350,000 a week whilst Ramsey joins Juventus, Arsenal look a shambles and the role of Ivan Gazidas in all this looks increasingly suspect – not that he cares as he carries on his AC Milan career. The role of chief executive looks very much one to get into – all the money, none of the responsibility.
The “Orange card” tackle issue rumbles on
The Christmas period saw tackles by Shelvey, Kompany, Pogba and Boly on Pogba, Salah, Alli and Bernardo, all four of which were similar in execution and malice. Two were deemed red cards with two deemed not worthy of sending offs.
Tonight saw a similar tackle by David Luiz where he nearly left the floor, barely in control with studs up, caused an injury but got the ball nonetheless.
This type of tackle was common place ten years ago but nowadays is deemed dangerous. However, there seems to be a huge inconsistency in the way the rule is applied by referees, and with VAR on the way next season this rule and the enforcement of it could cause the most chaos in the early months of VAR, as a new technology blends with a vague interpretation of a rule in a perfect maelstrom of disciplinary carnage.
Man of the Match – Laurent Koscielny
A welcome return to form for the Arsenal stalwart, with his shouldered goal the icing on the cake of a great defensive display.