By the time this contest erupted three minutes from time it is safe to assume both managers might actually have accepted the whole occasion fizzling out as a goalless non-event.
Chelsea had been surprised by the visitors’ tenacity and refusal to wilt, and had only generated the upbeat tempo which can set them apart in sporadic bursts. A point almost felt like a bonus. Arsenal, saddled with that wretched recent record both against the recent top six and here in particular, would have been delighted merely to check a five-match losing streak in this corner of the capital. A draw represented progress.
And yet, given the rather frazzled nature of the latter stages, this game was never likely to pass off entirely without incident. Frustration had been mounting all afternoon, with David Luiz and Sead Kolasinac’s duels increasingly spiky and played out all over the field. Alexis Sánchez’s introduction seemed to raise the locals’ heckles even more. Then, three minutes from time, the Brazilian centre-back became preoccupied trying to shield the loose ball from the Chilean as Sánchez grappled at him from behind. In darted Kolasinac to thump the ball in-field, with David Luiz, flustered, diving in and catching the Bosnian on the base of his left shin.
The defender had already been booked earlier in the period, for an overhead kick which connected with Laurent Koscielny inside the Arsenal penalty area, but Michael Oliver flourished a straight red to spark a melee on the touchline. Antonio Conte led the protests, barking his fury at the official having strode, incensed, into Wenger’s technical area.
The Italian has already endured the absence of Gary Cahill for three games this term, and Cesc Fabregas for one, as ramifications of the chaotic opening day loss to Burnley. Now he will be without the lynchpin of his defence for games against Nottingham Forest, Stoke and, most significantly, Manchester City at the end of a draining month.
The flashpoint provided the snarl at the end of the stalemate, leaving Chelsea’s head coach reflecting upon a disciplinary record which has seen five red cards in his team’s last eight domestic matches, taking into account those shown to Pedro and Victor Moses in recent meetings with these opponents at Wembley. The more damning statistic is probably three dismissals in five Premier League games, the same number as in their previous 73 fixtures.
Conte described that as “strange” and spoke of a need to work on discipline and decision-making in the same way he makes his players address tactical or physical deficiencies, though he added there as a need, too, “to be more lucky with the refereeing decisions”. Had Oliver spotted Sánchez’s perceived fouls, he argued, then it might never have come to this. Even so, David Luiz should have known better.
His rush of blood did not cost Chelsea the point. Arsenal’s profligacy arguably cost them their chance to glean all three, so dominant had the visitors been through most of the first half once they had survived Pedro’s burst unchecked on to Fabregas’ pass. Petr Cech saved the visitors on that occasion but, from then on in, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey exerted a stranglehold on midfield which had not been in the prematch script. Shkodran Mustafi was commanding at the heart of the visitors’ back-line, and Cech inspired when required against his former club. There were times when Chelsea were crying out for the brawn of Diego Costa just to bully the Arsenal rearguard into submission. As impressive as Álvaro Morata has been, this was an education.
Arsenal should have forged ahead in that first half, when Tiémoué Bakayoko was still kicking his heels on the home bench and the visitors commanded the centre. Twice around the quarter-hour mark they sliced Chelsea apart down the champions’ left. First Alex Iwobi liberated the galloping Héctor Bellerín only for Danny Welbeck, who would later depart with a groin problem, to plant a header wide. Seconds later it was Ramsey who picked his moment cleverly to send Bellerin beyond Marcos Alonso to the by-line, with Thibaut Courtois eventually smothering Alexandre Lacazette’s attempt to guide in a shot at the near-post.
Both chances were impressively created, and the fact they had been passed up felt wasteful. But it was another, squeezed out four minutes from half-time, which had those on the visitors’ bench cursing. Yet again it was Ramsey, revelling in central midfield, who cut Chelsea open, easing away from Fabregas and then swerving beyond César Azpilicueta and David Luiz in the penalty area to poke a shot on to the far post. Courtois was helpless, Gary Cahill caught on his heels, yet Lacazette’s awkward attempt to convert the rebound flew high and wide of a gaping goal.
Chelsea improved, at least, after the interval with Bakayoko impressive in their midst and Eden Hazard offering a fine cameo from the bench, but Arsenal were steeled where, in previous years, they have obligingly succumbed. They thought they had finally prised the hosts apart when, 15 minutes from time, Xhaka’s free-kick was nodded home by Mustafi only for an offside flag to choke the celebrations.
This visit would not yield a first win here since 2011, but the visitors still departed encouraged. “With the attitude and determination, it was vital for us to come out with a solid performance,” said Wenger, memories of that recent thrashing at Liverpool still raw. “We did that.”
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