Chelsea left ruing defensive inconsistency as season in limbo shows no signs of abating

In public, Thomas Tuchel offered some manner of headline-making statements. The Chelsea manager said he “understood” a Chelsea fan that remonstrated with Cesar Azpilicueta. His team had been that infuriating, as he blamed them for so many mistakes. Tuchel also blamed the pitch for contributing to those mistakes, in what was perhaps his most outlandish comment of the evening.

It certainly grabbed most attention.

“It’s a very, very difficult pitch here,” Tuchel complained. “It’s not to our favour. The ball bounces awkwardly.”

Preposterous as it sounds, it probably just offers insight into a greatly frustrated mindset, where one issue seemed to just get layered onto another. So it was with Chelsea’s general play.

Because, in private, it is understood that Tuchel mostly blamed himself. He regretted the XI he played, because he knew Arsenal would “want it more”.

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They certainly needed it more, as this 4-2 win revitalised their challenge for a Champions League place. It all fed into a game where Arsenal had a much greater intensity than their previous three games, and Chelsea again had a laxness.

Mikel Arteta had told his team before the match that, if they wanted to actually make the Champions League, they needed to beat its top teams. They did that, taking an unexpected opportunity, with impressive opportunism.

Arteta was beaming with pride after the game, particularly with the character shown by his team. That was displayed most of all by the match-winners.

With Arsenal already 3-2 up, Bukayo Saka’s stoppage-time penalty may not have had the stakes of the Euro 2020 final, but it had a real pressure because of his miss on that occasion. Arteta said it was “a chapeau” for just stepping up.

Saka did more than that. He scored.

Tuchel was aghast at much more than the decision. He couldn’t believe his side could be so clumsy, when they could instead have given themselves “another six minutes” to try and equalise.

Chelsea were in that situation because of one of the revelations of the night, Eddie Nketiah.

It was to his credit that he was so sharp after 367 days without a league goal, and so few minutes in the competition.

Arteta admitted afterwards that, if there is one player he has been “unfair” with, “it’s Eddie”. He has still man-managed him well in that time, and has now seen the rewards.

The two goals were fine striker’s finishes. The first was a smart strike from a Christensen short pass – for which Tuchel specifically seemed to blame the pitch.

The second was smart movement and a neat finish as the ball bounced around Chelsea’s box.

There might be something more to that, too.

After a series of tortuous games against mid-tables, where Arsenal toiled and so often struggled to create chances or even momentum, this was like a release. It is known within the Premier League that, after half a season of form in a way that tends to happen, opposition sides have now learned how Arteta’s team play. They have adjusted, and prevented the wide players finding the same space.

Almost counter-intuitively, that space was just offered up against Chelsea, but there’s perhaps an obvious logic there. The top teams will come out against Arsenal, feeling that onus to attack. It means Arteta’s team finally have that space to run into, allowing them the transitions that bring out their best.

It also emphasises the general shape of the team does look good. There is clearly a core idea there that works. In some areas, it is genuinely an issue of personnel. Nketiah showed the difference of a striker who is scoring. Mohamed Elneny, another hero of the night, showed the difference of a strong midfielder.

The two are such characters they are capable of this kind of performance from time to time, but not consistent enough to be regular starters for such teams.

Then again, the other side to that was that Tuchel didn’t think Chelsea played anything like a top team.

It was a third consecutive defensive horror show at home, bringing it to 11 in three games after Brentford and Real Madrid.

“The amount of mistakes in consecutive games at home, it’s impossible at this level.”

Such an atmosphere would bring questions about Tuchel’s future, right down to whether he himself might go, but then it’s difficult not to think all this itself is a rare product of circumstances. Chelsea might even find themselves in a strange sort of limbo for the rest of the season, naturally connected to the takeover. They are just about secure enough for the Champions League that motivation will be difficult for league games, but probably have enough to keep them ticking over until the main target of that FA Cup.

It wasn’t what was expected at the start of the season, or even a few months ago, but then this campaign has been like no other.

Much of that has of course been influenced by real-world circumstances far more important than football, but they still prove a sentiment that Arteta himself has felt throughout, and expressed after the game.

“The guy who invented this game, he wanted to make us suffer, because when you expect something, something else happens!”

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This 4-2 win was the ultimate proof of that.

Just when they thought they were out, Arsenal are back in. Tuchel meanwhile has so much to ponder for Chelsea.

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