Chelsea edged the balance of play in Sunday’s early afternoon encounter against Arsenal, for the most part, but thanks to plenty of mistakes and sloppy play, failed to take advantage of a similarly poor visiting side. It was the third competitive encounter between the two sides in a span of just eight matches but that familiarity only added to the bitter taste of the 0-0 final scoreline, which was the first time Conte’s Chelsea have failed to score at Stamford Bridge in a competitive match.
With Gary Cahill once again available after serving a three-game suspension, Antonio Conte reinstated Chelsea’s longest-serving active player into starting line-up. It was a questionable change given new signing Antonio Rüdiger’s performances in the Captain’s absence, but Cahill had surely earned himself Conte’s trust over the past year to justify his selection. The option to start Cesc Fàbregas instead of Tiemoué Bakayoko also raised a few questions, as did the very careful consideration we continued to give Eden Hazard’s fitness and recovery. So as Hazard still lingered on the bench, Pedro and Willian were once again called upon to play on either side of Álvaro Morata.
As Arsenal once again mirrored Chelsea's 3-4-3 shape, the game quickly settled into various man-vs-man battles across the pitch, with Chelsea having the upper hand intially. With Willian and Fàbregas running the show, the Blues forced Petr Čech in the visitors’ net (still weird) into two interventions inside of just five minutes. The linesman’s flag was the next thing to intervene as Azpilicueta and Morata tried to combine for the same goal for the third game running, though Morata also did not make good enough contact and his header went just wide.
Chelsea's edge lasted for a good 15 minutes before Arsenal came to grips with N'Golo Kanté’s immense presence in midfield. But once Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey found their footing, with great support from their wing-backs, the game turned in the Gunners’ favour.
Héctor Bellerín’s speed was proving (unsurprisingly) impossible to deal with, while on the opposite flank, Sead Kolašinac forced the issue almost as effectively, though more through brute force than speedy guile. As the crosses rained in, Arsenal’s front three of Alexandre Lacazette, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck all spurned decent chances.
Despite Arsenal’s mounting pressure, it was Chelsea who should’ve taken the lead, with a trademark Fàbregas ball over the top breaking Arsenal’s lines. Pedro was in 1-v-1, and that normally results in only one outcome. But the former Barcelona man was still recovering from a knee knock (which would eventually force him off at half-time), couldn’t quite take the pass cleanly, and after working it out from under his feet, his eventual effort bounced tamely off Čech.
After that, Arsenal's midfielders decided that setting up chances was not enough and started to get some attempts of their own at our goal. First came a typical Xhaka blast from long range, which had Courtois at full stretch before slamming into the advertising hoardings just wide of the post. Then it was time for Ramsey to show off a bit of fancy footwork, but the man who scored the winning goal in the FA Cup back in May, this time only managed to hit the post. Lacazette got to the rebound first but thankfully hammered his effort well over from close range.
Chelsea hadn’t needed a half-time whistle as badly as just then in some time. Michael Oliver duly obliged soon after and Chelsea escaped without any permanent damage.
Perhaps for the first time in living memory, Conte made a half-time change, rectifying his error in not starting Bakayoko and withdrawing the possibly injured Pedro. The 3-4-3 thus morphed into the still-new 3-5-2, with Fàbregas drifting in front as well as in behind the French pairing of Kanté and Bakayoko. Bakayoko's introduction made an immediate difference as he injected initiative and impetus into what was a losing battle for Chelsea. Most games are won or lost in midfield, and Chelsea once again had the upper hand in that regard.
It still wasn’t an exactly trouble-free performance from Chelsea, but it was a marked improvement on what had come before. Pressure from Arsenal’s front players led to a lot of mindless and useless passing at the back, which was eventually rectified by Fàbregas dropping back into a deep-lying playmaker role. The sight of Arsenal sitting in and playing prevent-and-counter was as unfamiliar as it was frustratingly (and familiarly) effective.
As time started to tick away, frustration levels rose. Morata, who had just about had enough of the treatment he was receiving from Shkodran Mustafi, earned himself a booking for a bit of backchat, though perhaps the referee should’ve awarded the same punishment for the persistent fouling and targeting of the Chelsea striker — lest we forget, it was Oliver who correctly sent off Ander Herrera last season after José Mourinho’s Manchester United employed similar tactics on Eden Hazard.
With a quarter of the match left, Arsène Wenger removed the rather useless Lacazette and introduced his ace in the hole in the form of Alexis Sánchez. Conte answered with Eden Hazard. Neither proved a difference-maker in the end, though Hazard did come close with a typical inside cut and curling shot, which on another day would’ve surely made Petr Čech work at least a little bit harder than just the simple-looking catch that was needed this time.
Meanwhile, the general level of play continued to degrade, with neither side being able to string together more than a handful of passes and attacks getting reduced to hopeful lobs forward. The few opportunities other than Hazard’s chance that Chelsea were able to create were almost all blocked by Arsenal, who were marshaling the spirit of George Graham rather effectively. Combined with a bit of random refereeing, it made for frustrating viewing.
Putting the sour cherry on top of this rotten pie was David Luiz’s rush of blood to his head, a throwback not quite as classic as George Graham, but just as unwelcome. Up to that point, for the first 87 minutes of the game, David Luiz had been one of the best players on the pitch, winning his duels and marauding forward opportunistically to try to force the issue. While he was (somewhat harshly?) booked for a bicycle kick in traffic that connected with Koscielny rather than the ball, there was little doubt about the punishment for his reckless Cahill-esque lunge at Sead Kolašinac. A straight red means a three-match absence, including the trip to Manchester City in a couple weeks, and it means that Chelsea have now had a man sent off against Arsenal in three consecutive (semi-)competitive matches.
With only a few minutes of added-on time left, there wasn’t quite enough time for Arsenal to take advantage of this shift in momentum, and Conte used his third substitution to bring on Andreas Christensen to help see out the clean sheet.
Five games into the new season, Chelsea are exactly where we were last season. That’s not bad, and the 10 points is good enough for third place currently, three points behind both Manchester City and Manchester United. But if we are to challenge for the top four or even the title, we cannot afford to lose too many more points at home.