LONDON — Perhaps Chelsea felt they didn’t have enough to play for as it is. Either side of this weekend’s FA Cup final and the Champions League final at the end of the month, the Blues now face a needlessly nervous end to their Premier League campaign after slipping to a 1-0 home defeat to Arsenal.
This was almost entirely a mess of their own making. Thomas Tuchel made seven changes to the team that won at Manchester City on Saturday, setting the tone for a disjointed display that lacked the intensity and precision that has epitomised Chelsea during the German tactician’s tenure.
The Blues amassed 68% possession, totalled 19 shots and hit the woodwork twice in stoppage time, but there was a curious lack of purpose to this performance, only really explainable by falling in what could be viewed as a lull in the schedule given the Gunners have precious little to play for. In that sense, it bore a passing resemblance to Chelsea’s only other league defeat under Tuchel, against West Bromwich Albion on April 3. The visitors that day were seemingly doomed to a relegation that has subsequently been confirmed, and with a Champions League quarterfinal first leg against FC Porto on the horizon, Chelsea allowed their focus to slip and an embarrassing home defeat followed.
“With West Brom we were 1-0 up and with 10 men, we were not fully concentrated after the national break,” Tuchel said. “That was a pretty freak game because we won all statistics, even expected goals. So did we today. So, it is an easy one to say it is a totally lucky win and nobody can argue with that. It is not a deserved win, not at all for Arsenal. But I don’t want to go there 100% because I think we all lacked concentration, we lacked focus. That is very unusual. Maybe I also gave some signals into the team with changes that Saturday is on my mind. Even if it is only 5%, or 1%, this is not how we approach things. You get punished because you cannot be naïve in the race for the top four.”
Tuchel can at least console himself with Chelsea’s response on that occasion. The Blues won 2-0 in Porto before putting four past Crystal Palace, the start of a seven-game domestic unbeaten run that also included that FA Cup semifinal win over City.
How they need that now.
Leicester City‘s win at Manchester United on Tuesday moved them above Chelsea into third place and served as the perfect morale-booster for Saturday’s showpiece at Wembley. The Blues still hold a six-point advantage over the teams below them but each of them have at least one game in hand — last season’s champions Liverpool have two — and suddenly a sense of jeopardy is likely to be present right until they face City in the Champions League. Meanwhile, City can rest, plot and cogitate on that game knowing the Premier League title is secure.
Arsenal have less ambitious aims after a disappointing campaign but this win slightly increases their chances of qualifying for the inaugural Europa Conference League next season. Results elsewhere will have to go their way in addition to winning their final two matches against Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion, and so perhaps of greater significance is the glimpse this offered of a blueprint for certain games next season.
Arteta’s tenure is undoubtedly a mixed bag but their best performances have arguably come with this more disciplined, defensive approach against top opposition. There is growing evidence that a back three — or a back five as it was for long periods — suits them against superior opposition. In addition to beating City and Chelsea to win last season’s FA Cup, they have now completed victories at teams currently occupying second, third and fourth in the table.
There was a framework for the future here with Pablo Mari and Rob Holding particularly solid at the back, Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny marshalling the midfield well while Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard supported Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in attack. Partey in particular was a disruptive influence all evening, breaking up play and easing pressure. Bukayo Saka was deployed in an unfamiliar right wing-back position but otherwise there was a lot that made sense here, a possible glimpse of future foundations.
“What we are trying to do is be as competitive as possible, a way to win every game with the players with we have, the amount of games they have played and how much they are trying,” said Arteta. “Next season will be a different season. We have to focus and try to do the best because it will have a focus on next season.”
That said, they needed to catch Chelsea on an off-night, their somewhat blasé attitude typified by the only goal of the game.
Under minimal pressure from Smith Rowe, Jorginho returned the ball toward goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, not realising he had taken up a position to the left of his goal wanting to receive the ball on his right foot. Jorginho’s backpass possessed excessive pace and suddenly Kepa was at full stretch to keep it out, handling the ball in a foul referee Andre Marriner opted not to call as Aubameyang seized on the loose ball. He squared it to Smith Rowe, who scuffed his shot but still found the net via Kepa’s left-hand post.
“In the end, we were not on the pitch with the same energy,” said Tuchel. “It was not easy to come up with a big intensity in passing because they defended 5-4-1 very deep around the box but we were not sharp enough, not with the same energy, not with the same hunger, not with the same attitude like we used to play so it is on us. Totally unnecessary but that is the reality.”
Totally unnecessarily, Chelsea’s Premier League battle is now far from over.