Well that went just about as we should have it expected it would. Arsenal fell 2-0 to Chelsea at the Emirates. It’s the first time in club history that Arsenal have lost both matches to open the season without scoring a goal.
There’s been a COVID outbreak at the club that sidelined four players last weekend, three today, and will probably sideline at least Ben White next weekend per Mikel Arteta. Thomas Partey, Gabriel Magalhaes, and Eddie Nketiah are all likely out until after the international break. Kieran Tierney and Gabriel Martinelli limped off the pitch today.
It’s going great at Arsenal football club. Do we really think they should be getting results right now?
Today, I counted six players who’d be first choice if they were available who either didn’t start or didn’t dress — Aubameyang, Lacazette, Partey, Ødegaard, Gabriel Magalhaes, and Ben White. By my napkin math, that’s more than £250M of players. And on top of that, Ben White was a late change because of his positive COVID test. The entire team had been training and gameplanning for most of the week with one setup, and then it changes at the 11th hour.
Sudden changes like that (and Aubameyang and Lacazette last week) matter! At the very least, it unsettles things. It doesn’t change the fact that Pablo Mari was playing either way, but maybe he plays slight less atrociously next to the guy he’s been training with all week as opposed to the backup.
The performances to open the season have been pretty poor. There’s no two ways about that. But let’s also acknowledge the context and understand that there is reason to believe this isn’t how it’s going to be. This club needs that international break to reset. Badly.
Arsenal had decent spells of possession and some promising attacking moves. Sambi Lokonga was spreading the ball around nicely and looks a real talent on the ball. But too often, those good passes and attacking moves didn’t turn into chances. Kieran Tierney’s crossing wasn’t as good as it usually is. Bukayo Saka had some uncharacteristically loose touches and was a bit off today (he’s probably knackered and needs a break that he may not get because of all the absences). Neither Gabriel Martinelli nor Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang got much service or did anything of note.
That’s still a big, big issue. Arsenal need to generate more goal threat if they’re going to do anything this season. Hopefully Martin Ødegaard helps with that. I’d wager having either one of the first choice strikers anywhere close to full fitness will too.
One place the Gunner could improve is on corners. They had nine today, and I think they got on the end of one of them. Granted they created an excellent chance on that one connection that Rob Holding really has to put away, but more chances from set pieces would be nice.
Arsenal probably also should have had a penalty today — Bukayo Saka was pretty clearly tripped by Reece James on one of those “tangle of legs” plays that David Luiz seemed to always get whistled for. Maybe things play out a little differently if it’s just 2-1 at the half, but the refereeing, while pretty inconsistent today, wasn’t the difference-maker. That said, two things can be simultaneously true: Arsenal can be bad and get no help from the calls.
The defense, which was so solid last season, suddenly look as if they don’t have a clue what they’re supposed to be doing. For all the good things he did on the ball, Sambi looks lost when Arsenal are out of possession. He’s late to react to runners, and he doesn’t seem to have a solid grasp of where he’s meant to be. That’ll come, I hope — he’s young and needs to adjust.
Granit Xhaka doesn’t have the range to cover the wide areas, which left Kieran Tierney woefully exposed on the left. He was also exposed because Pablo Mari was dreadful today. I wrote last week that Mari’s performance against Brentford was probably his worst in an Arsenal shirt, and well, he’s outdone himself. He was overmatched physically by Romelu Lukaku, beaten several times on the dribble by others, and dragged all over the pitch and out of position by Kai Havertz and others. He looked like he was chasing shadows all match.
Cedric is awful. He had one good instance of 1-v-1 defending, and other than that, he was out of position, too deep, and generally ineffective. Arsenal desperately need a real right back because apparently Ainsley Maitland-Niles either doesn’t want to play there or Arteta won’t put him there, Hector Bellerin wants “a new challenge,” and nobody in their right mind would put Calum Chambers back there after last week’s performance.
Personally, I don’t think the match was nearly as bad some people think, but that might be because my expectations are low right now. This isn’t the Arsenal team I was expecting to see, and so I’ve adjusted my expectations accordingly. It undoubtedly needs to get better (and fast) but I think with a closer-to-full complement of players it will.
Emile Smith Rowe has been brilliant to start the season. He keeps getting close to scoring; one of them is going in soon. Sambi has been a revelation on the ball. He’s progressive and accurate with his passes. The 40-yarder he hit to Kieran Tierney on the dead run in the first half was gorgeous. Bernd Leno played well today too, which was a nice change. He made one incredible save in the second half on Lukaku, a strong one on Havertz, and had two good punches on corners, which he doesn’t normally do.
I’m choosing to focus on the positives. Looking at the schedule, we knew that if Arsenal failed to get a result against Brentford, it would probably be an oh-fer to start the season. Even without all the absences, it was probably going to be no points from Chelsea (before they bought one of the best strikers in football) or Manchester City. That hasn’t changed.
There is plenty of season left and plenty of chances to win points we weren’t banking on Arsenal winning. I’m not going to get really worried until the Gunners drop more points we “expect” them to bank. Crazy things (injuries and COVID) have happened to Arsenal to start the season, and they’re likely going to happen to other clubs at some point. Hopefully Mikel Arteta’s men are ready to capitalize when those opportunities come.