COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
Not since the 5-3 game at Stamford Bridge in 2011/12 had a London derby between Chelsea and Arsenal entertained as much as this one.
The 3-2 result of this latest encounter between these old rivals didn’t quite match the aforementioned meeting for goals, nor the supremely delightful, yet chaotic events that ensued, but that shouldn’t dampen what was a good game of football in West London.
Maurizio Sarri had promised fans of the Blues lots of fun at his unveiling, and going by this enthralling game it was nothing short of that. The west Londoners hadn’t triumphed against their cross-town rivals in five attempts, so this was a statement win for him at his embryonic stint with his new side.
His opposing number, Unai Emery would have left the Bridge wondering what might have been having seen his Gunners side respond magnificently to going two goals behind in the opening 20 minutes. The pair of Alex Iwobi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang played contrasting roles in Arsenal’s best spell of the game and that’ll leave the Spaniard with plenty to mull over.
Bar the yet again impressive Matteo Guendouzi, the Nigeria international was arguably the visitors’ best performer, and given he’s not in Emery’s presumed best 11, his display would have caught the attention of the former Paris Saint-Germain trainer.
Having played in Henrikh Mkhitaryan – via help from a Chelsea foot – to halve the deficit in the 37th minute, he finished with a powerful effort to force the Gunners back into the game at 2-2 four minutes later. He also created huge chances for Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang in a 25-minute spell for the north Londoners that saw them seize the initiative.
For a huge game in which stellar players like Granit Xhaka - who had yet another Jekyll and Hyde performance - and, in particular, Mesut Ozil struggled to influence proceedings, Iwobi showed he can be an important player for Emery if given the opportunity to prove his worth.
Another player who’d feel he let his side down was Aubameyang, whose off-kilter finishing probably contributed to Arsenal not being a goal to the good at the break.
With the Gunners 1-0 behind to Pedro’s ninth-minute opener, the Gabon international missed from seven yards following a Hector Bellerin cut-back. A minute later, Alvaro Morata sent the Blues 2-0 up, and the hitherto prolific forward had been instantly punished for his miss that came when it seemed easier to score.
But there was even more atrocious finishing to come from the frontman.
With the visitors back at 2-2 and with half-time approaching, the Gabonese missed another gilt-edged opportunity to put his side in front when he dragged an Iwobi pullback wide of Kepa Arrizabalaga’s post.
For Aubameyang, inasmuch as he’s had an amazing goalscoring record since his January move from Dortmund, it should be noted that he’s now failed to hit the back of the net in five games against the so-called big sides – firing blanks against Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City (twice), Manchester United and Chelsea.
Excluding his missed chances in the most-recent derby against Sarri’s side, there have been wasted opportunities against United and City (when he missed a penalty), and the marksman risks developing a profile as a flat-track bully if his scoreless run continues.
It wasn't all doom and gloom for the former Dortmund forward, though, as it was his pressing of the opponent in possession - something his team-mates intermittently failed at - that led to the Gunners' opening goal.
Nontheless, Emery will look back on this game and wonder what might have been. The sport is a game of fine margins, and having faced a barrage of Chelsea attacks in the opening exchanges he would probably feel his side could have taken more advantage of their spell after falling behind. There are no ifs and buts in football, but going in at the break 3-2 up would have been a different ball game as his side would’ve had Sarri’s men on the ropes and playing catch-up.
Yet, he’d look at himself and question whether the decision to substitute the unpredictable Xhaka for Lucas Torreira at half-time was the right one. It’s easy to look back on moments and analyze in hindsight, but it has to be said that the withdrawal of the Swiss playmaker – who had been booked – saw the Gunners cede lots of control to the Stamford Bridge club – who admittedly upped their game – after the break.
Teething problems also seem to be a worry, not least the pervading desire to keep a high defensive line, something their hosts seemed keen to take advantage of time and again. It didn’t help that his players continually made the unforgiveable error of not pressing the man on the ball, which consequently gave the Chelsea player in possession a lot of time to pick out a pass.
Nevertheless, Emery will want to focus on the positives, Iwobi’s performance inclusive, as he searches for his first Arsenal points.
The Nigerian will feel his performance at Stamford Bridge gave the Spaniard lots to consider in selecting his future sides, and given the attacking midfielder stood up to be counted when his more fancied team-mates wilted, he can hold his head high after an exhilarating London derby at the home of the enemy.