Mikel Arteta leaves celebration to Bukayo Saka and Arsenal players, who show fighting spirit in must-win game

LONDON — Few managers can have enjoyed three vital points, four goals and a triumph at the home of their great rivals with quite as little visible delight as Mikel Arteta did tonight. For most of Arsenal’s 4-2 win over Chelsea, he had the expression of a man who had just been informed he would have to fill out his tax reform whilst undergoing root canal surgery. 

“The guy who invented this game, he wanted to make us suffer,” said Arteta. That he did on Wednesday.

And yet his side have hurled back into the Champions League race and ended a three-game losing streak that was threatening to be terminal for their hopes of finishing fourth. It might still be anyway, but it is clear on Wednesday night’s evidence that they will not let Tottenham take fourth without a fight.

Admittedly, this was the sort of performance by both teams that winning managers can only enjoy through gritted teeth, a thrill for neutrals, a horror show for coaches looking for some defensive solidity. Both teams handed their opponent goals on a platter. Not for the first time in recent weeks, it was Thomas Tuchel’s side that ended the game with more critical errors to its name.

This was unbridled chaos, one riven with the most disastrous defending the Premier League has seen since yesterday. Andreas Christensen set the tone for his teammates and Arsenal counterparts with the most basic of error, shinning a back pass towards Edouard Mendy with so little pace that Eddie Nketiah was able to steal in and roll the ball into the bottom corner.

Tuchel, baffled by the string of mistakes his side have been making at the back, opted to blame the Stamford Bridge pitch rather than his center back. “I don’t take a player out because he makes one mistake. The pitch is difficult to play here. It maybe sounds like an excuse but it’s a very, very difficult pitch we have here. It’s not to our favor.

“The ball bounces very awkwardly in front of Andreas when he wants to play this ball. We had the same mistake against Real Madrid that cost us Champions League. This one cost us the next match. I cannot remember when we got a goal like this.”

It should not pass by without note that Nketiah does have quite a habit of positioning himself in the right spot for the favorable bounces and miscued clearances. When that happens often enough, it is not entirely good fortune. It is good center forward play. Whoever picks up this young striker when his contract expires at the end of the season has some intriguing raw materials to work with.

Still, Arteta was not impressed. Bukayo Saka was the chief subject of his rollicking, Arsenal’s No. 7 deployed in a role that seemed to oscillate between right wing back and winger. The triggers for changing that approach were not always clear, not least to Saka. With the ball, Marcos Alonso could not defend him. Without it, he could not defend Alonso.

Both of Chelsea’s equalizers came from Arsenal’s failure to just get rid when they were pinned into their own right corner. First of all, Ruben Loftus-Cheek stole in to claim an undercooked Nketiah pass, the ball eventually coming to Timo Werner. His shot took a wicked deflection off Granit Xhaka, but such was the pace that shot took off the ball, Aaron Ramsdale might have wondered if he could have done more.

He had no chance with Chelsea’s second where Nuno Tavares put up no fight as Cesar Azpilicueta darted ahead of him to convert Romelu Lukaku’s cross. Arteta had seen it coming. Even when his side was taking the lead, they seemed to be giving their manager a stress headache.

They had diced with fire in their own box before Granit Xhaka nutmegged Alonso to get Arsenal fizzing up the pitch on the counter. From there, the goal was a picture, Martin Odegaard teeing up Emile Smith Rowe to roll the ball into the bottom right corner. But while nine of the outfielders celebrated in the corner, it was instructive that Arteta summoned over Gabriel for an almighty dressing down.

Arsenal refused to turn the most favorable of breaks to their favor. Their manager was apoplectic, as manic as a man who had come back from a ayahuasca retreat. It did not help that he was less than enthused by Jon Moss’ officiating, fourth official Andrew Madley would have been able to spot if any hairs on Arteta’s head were even a millimeter out of place, so close was the Arsenal boss as he berated the decision to stop play when a Nuno cross hit Azpilicueta in the face.

“With the rollercoaster we had out there, it was difficult to predict what could happen,” Arteta said. “Once you look at the substitutes board and see who is coming in you think, ‘wow.'” No wonder he seemed so ill at ease.

Tuchel, meanwhile, so often a bundle of rage on the Stamford Bridge sideline, was serenity writ large. You cannot offer a more convincing explanation than these two managers having found themselves in a body swap comedy, Wacky Wednesday if you will.

Certainly, the on-field fare fit the bill. Even the rare moments of defensive quality seemed to only add to the chaos. So it was that the first notable contribution of Thiago Silva, brought on to add some composure to a defense awkwardly anchored by Christensen, saw him execute a perfect slide tackle on Nketiah only for the ball to cannon around his other center backs before the Arsenal striker turned it past Mendy.

Arsenal were never going to cruise to the finishing line, Alonso had two shots saved just after Nketiah’s second while Werner also went close. Still dropping deep to defend a lead is Rob Holding’s idea of a perfect Sunday, he relished the balls flying into his penalty area and showed real sprightliness to keep up with Werner as he charged away down the left.

Indeed, the real mess from Arsenal came at the other end. Saka slipped just as a Gabriel Martinelli pass seemed to be breaking in his direction. Charging down the right, Cedric seemed to get caught under his own feet, delaying a cross that was then smashed into the away fans by Nuno.

Still, this game had one last inexplicable moment to deliver. With his teammates pushed up the pitch Azpilicueta had to do something to deal with Cedric’s cross. It was perhaps debatable whether hauling Saka to the ground was the right approach, though the Chelsea captain was clearly aggrieved at what he felt was his opponent’s determination to sell the foul as best he could. 

It did, however, offer Arsenal’s No. 7 with the perfect moment to move on from the most trying moment of his fledgling career, missing the decisive spot kick at the final of Euro 2020. Saka’s thumping penalty will be painted as a redemption moment, he has no need to redeem himself for having the courage to step up at a decisive moment and try to deliver. He did the same again at a time when one miscue might have set visiting nerves jangling. He delivered in emphatic fashion.

“I thought Gabi [Martinelli] was going to take it,” Arteta told CBS Sports. “When I saw Bukayo was going to take it, honestly my first thought was back in the summer and what happened. When that happened to Bukayo, it happened for a reason. He learned so much and he matured so much, that’s why he has had the season he has had. For him to have the courage to say I’m going to take it again — because I’m sure it was in the back of his mind — for me it’s to applaud, even if he missed it.”

At last, a smile broke out across Arteta’s face.  

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