One-nil to the Arsenal has not sounded as good to their supporters for some time. Or been as comprehensive. Mikel Arteta’s intense and cohesive team had wanted a victory statement, something to add a further layer of substance to their unlikely Premier League title challenge. How they got it.
The goal was scrappy, a horror show for Graham Potter’s Chelsea, who never got into any kind of stride. They were not allowed to. William Saliba went to meet Bukayo Saka’s flat delivery from a right-sided corner and did not get there and then, in darkly comic fashion, neither did any of the three Chelsea players behind him – Jorginho, Kai Havertz and Thiago Silva. It looked as though Saka’s kick had gone all the way in but it was Gabriel Magalhães who touched home on the line.
There was so much to admire about the Arsenal performance. They did not allow Chelsea the sniff of a clear chance; Potter’s team could have played all day and not scored. After the 4-1 mishap at Brighton last weekend, this was another humbling and there were boos from some home fans upon the full-time whistle.
Arsenal dominated in midfield, it was they who won the challenges and found the room to play and, in Gabriel Jesus, they had a non-stop presence up front. He did not give the Chelsea backline a moment of peace.
And so Arsenal return above Manchester City to the top of the table, plainly relishing their best ever start to a Premier League campaign, and their fans celebrating loudly in the pouring rain. They remain on course to be the “winter champions,” as it is called in other parts of Europe, and if that line ahead of the World Cup pause will invite jibes – stirring memories, for example, of Arsène Wenger and his “fourth place trophies,” it is quite the barometer of progress.
The unusual noon kick-off had required a fair degree of head clearing at the stands but it was easy to feel where the clarity would lie on the field. Arteta’s first-choice lineup picks itself these days, the system fixed, whereas it can be a guessing game with Chelsea, especially as Potter juggles a raft of defensive injury problems.
Potter set up in a 4-2-2-2 formation, the midfield parts fluid. It was 4-2-3-1 when Raheem Sterling went to the far right and a diamond when Ruben Loftus-Cheek stepped up on the inside right and Havertz rotated higher in the middle.
Arteta felt that his wingers, Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, would have the beating of the Chelsea full-backs, César Azpilicueta and Marc Cucurella, for pace and there were signs of that during a confident Arsenal start, which saw them push high, making life uncomfortable for their hosts.
Martinelli versus Azpilicueta was a mismatch – Arsenal needed to make the duel happen more often – whereas Saka against Cucurella was more even, heavy on physicality. Arteta raged when Saka went down under one first-half challenge from the Chelsea man and there was no foul. Saka chased back and kicked Cucurella to pick up a cheap yellow card.
Chelsea had little time on the ball and their passing was consequently loose, the errors all too visible. More worrying for them as the first half wore on was the lack of options for their player in possession. The only one that they really exploited before the interval was the pass up the inside right for Havertz. Twice he got in around the back only to fluff the cross.
Arsenal could not turn their first-half superiority into the breakthrough. They had the chances, three of varying difficulty, the best being created by Martinelli for Jesus on the half hour. It followed a wonderful move up from the edge of the Arsenal area, marked by one touch passing and choreographed movements. Martinelli took over in the final third, cutting inside to whip a ball towards the far post and the only surprise lay in how Jesus momentarily checked his run. He restarted but could not get there to get sufficient purchase on his diving header.
Before that, Ben White had dragged a shot just past the far corner, having pushed up from right-back, while Jesus had a shot blocked by Silva after robbing Loftus-Cheek and exploding away from two blue shirts. Jesus’s desire to sniff out spaces and opportunity in between the lines was a problem for Chelsea.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was determined to shine against the club for whom he scored 92 goals in 163 games but it was an afternoon to forget for him. The Arsenal fans were in the mood to boo his every touch only he had barely any of them and his frustration was reflected in the late tackle on White for which he was booked.
Arsenal continued to radiate belief after the interval; Chelsea looked hurried and disjointed. Thomas Partey glanced wide from a corner when he might have been better leaving the ball for Martinelli behind him and the goal followed another moment of Jesus hustle. He tracked back to dispossess Silva and, after swapping passes with Partey, he forced Édouard Mendy to tip behind at his near post.
Saka and Gabriel combined on the corner and thereafter, Arsenal might have had another one only for Saka to blaze high at the far post and Martin Ødegaard to overcook a chip after yet another Jesus surge. Chelsea went quietly.