There were plenty of lowlights and not all that many highlights from Arsenal’s 2-0 loss to Chelsea on Sunday. The Gunners have been ravaged by injuries and COVID absences, and it is showing in their play. Chelsea didn’t really need to play like the European champions to win at the Emirates — they didn’t play poorly per se, but they also didn’t play the Gunners off the pitch. But who stood out positively and negatively for Mikel Arteta’s side?
Bernd Leno - 8
It was nice to see Bernd make two incredible saves. The one on Lukaku’s header was a pure reaction stop to tip it onto the bar. I’m counting closing his legs enough to deaden the shot to keep it out a great stop — attackers know that moving laterally opens up spaces in keepers, and I’d bet that Havertz was aiming between his legs. Leno also had two solid punches on corners, which has been a weakness in the past. Not much he could have done on either of the goals.
Kieran Tierney - 5
This is a lower number than I usually give Tierney, but he just wasn’t at his best today. His crossing was a bit off — he had a couple blocked and didn’t pick out teammates on most of the others. He was left on an island defensively, with Reece James having the run of his side of the pitch. Maybe he needs to trust Pablo Mari a bit more to do his job on Lukaku instead of shading to the middle to help out. Maybe if not enough was coming from Arteta, somebody in the back four should take charge and make an adjustment themselves, or at least communicate with each other to straighten it out. Something wasn’t right defensively, and as one of the defenders, Tierney bears some of the responsibility for that. Concerned about him limping off late in the game.
Pablo Mari - 1
I thought last week was the worst match he had ever played in an Arsenal shirt. And then he played today. He was completely over-matched physically and skill-wise by Romelu Lukaku, although to be fair, Big Rom is going to make a lot of CBs look pedestrian this season. Mari also charged out of position several times for no apparent reason and got toasted on the dribble a fair few times. As one of the CBs, the disorganization at the back falls even more on his shoulders than on Tierney’s. A match to forget for him. And I guess the silver lining is he really can’t play much worse than he did today.
Rob Holding - 4
I have a bit more sympathy for Holding simply because he likely spent the entire week until Ben White tested positive for COVID thinking that he wouldn’t be starting. He and Pablo Mari looked as if they’d never played together, which is quite bad because they played together a good bit last season. He missed a golden opportunity off a corner to nab a goal — he’s got to at least get that on frame. He hit a few balls in generally the right direction of where they should have gone but they weren’t nearly accurate enough. Instead they were a stark reminder why Mikel Arteta wanted Ben White. I don’t remember any particularly poor defensive efforts from him, but I don’t remember any really good ones, either.
Cedric Soares - 2
He held everybody onside on the first Chelsea goal. He mindlessly chased the ball at the start of the second move, which set everything off-kilter. He’s just not good enough for where Arsenal want to be as a club. But it’s not his fault that Arsenal haven’t bought a proper right back / can’t convince Ainsley Maitland-Niles or Hector Bellerin to play the position / stay at the club.
Granit Xhaka - 3
His limited range / ability to cover the pitch was really on display. Somebody who can cover more ground might have able to get out wide to help out Kieran Tierney, but Xhaka can’t do that. He also strangely ran up the pitch to instigate the press a few times, which, why was he doing that? It’s almost as if he was trying to cover Thomas Partey’s high ball recovery responsibilities without Partey’s ability to recover. The only way I see that making sense is if the instruction was for Xhaka to take on that role to lessen the responsibility on Sambi.
Sambi Lokonga - 6
He’s really good on the ball. He is always looking to pass progressively, usually picks the right pass, and mostly hits them well. His 40-yard switch to Kieran Tierney on the run was magnificent. He almost released Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang but was foiled by a nice piece of defending from Mendy. But Sambi looks lost defensively. I don’t think that he knows where he is supposed to be without the ball at this point, which is understandable given his youth, being forced into action because of Thomas’ injury, and his not really having heavy defensive responsibilities at Anderlecht. He’s going to be quite the player as he develops a more complete game, and the experience he’s getting right now will help that.
Bukayo Saka - 5
Should have earned a penalty for Arsenal, but it was inexplicably not given. A good attacking move where he had an uncharacteristically loose touch 1-v-1 against Azpilicueta sticks out in my mind. My general feeling is that he wasn’t as sharp or dangerous as he usually is, which is understandable given how much football he has played with very little rest. I don’t think he’d have started today if everyone were available for Arsenal. And he’s not helped by the fact that the attack as a whole still seems to lack cohesion or much of a plan. Until (what I presume were) halftime adjustments, he provided zero defensive help to Kieran Tierney behind him, which isn’t great.
Nicolas Pepe - 4
Had a couple nice runs, including one where he split Marcos Alonso and Rudiger really well, but not much came of it. He looked more the inconsistent, drifting in and out of the match player that he was earlier in his Arsenal career than the consistent attacking force he was for the final three months of last season. To his credit, he has improved his defensive involvement noticeably, which is a plus. Cedric Soares felt much less exposed than did Kieran Tierney.
Emile Smith Rowe - 8
Once again was Arsenal’s best player. He looks well-suited to the #10 shirt and was the lone unblemished bright spot on the day. He came close to scoring a few times, as he did in the Brentford match — the goals are going to come soon, I think. He looks best when he has the freedom to roam and create, I hope he has that same freedom with Martin Ødegaard in the lineup.
Gabriel Martinelli - 4
Wasn’t really able to get too involved in the match, which is as much his teammates fault as it is his — the service wasn’t really there. The few times the ball came into him, his touch wasn’t stellar. I seem to remember him making a few good runs. And you can never question his effort level - he runs himself ragged chasing down the ball and pressuring defenders. Concerned about him limping off late in the match, too.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang - 4 (but also 10)
Mikel Arteta said after the match that Aubameyang was quite sick and in bed while recovering from COVID, so for him to make the bench and play on one day of training is impressive in and of itself. He didn’t have much of an impact (I honestly forgot he was on the pitch for a while), but he did get off a snap-shot half chance. After trying to play through malaria and then hurrying himself back from COVID, I’d appreciate if nobody ever questioned his effort or commitment to the club again, thanks.
Folarin Balogun - NA
I’m honestly not sure he touched the ball in the 11 minutes he was on the pitch.
Nuno Tavares - NA
Didn’t have the chance to do much, but I do like how far forward he gets to be involved in the attack.