Spending money is one thing, but spending it wisely is another matter entirely. Arsenal’s much-maligned owners have stepped up to the plate this summer, perhaps more than anticipated, backing Mikel Arteta with more than £130 million of new talent in a bid to bridge the gap between the Gunners and the Premier League’s leading contenders. Now it is time for Arteta to deliver.
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It remains too early to judge him on the signings Arsenal have made this summer — defender Ben White, a permanent deal for Martin Odegaard, a new goalkeeper in Aaron Ramsdale, among others — but Arteta has been given the component parts and the responsibility of moulding them into a team rests squarely on his shoulders.
It’s worth remembering that Arsenal actually promoted Arteta from “head coach” to “manager” in September 2020, symbolic of the greater influence he would now have over vast swathes of the club’s operations, not least transfer policy. The Spaniard had won the FA Cup a month earlier, but it felt at the time like a leap of faith in a thirty-something embarking on his first managerial role. The decision was in part founded on his clear vision for the path ahead and huge promise as a coach, honed during three years under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, but Arsenal now need to see that on the pitch.
It was almost painfully predictable how Romelu Lukaku bullied Arsenal’s makeshift back-line, and it could have been worse had Pablo Mari earned a second yellow card for hauling down Lukaku at the end of a torrid afternoon. Referee Paul Tierney opted against it, although a sending off may have been the greater mercy in the circumstances.
It was a metaphor for the two teams as a whole: one, expectant, purposeful and powerful, the other desperately clinging on for dear life, never convincing and ultimately outclassed.
Lukaku marked his second Chelsea debut — 3,648 days after his first — with an all-action display, encapsulated by the opening goal. He didn’t score in 15 appearances between 2011 and 2014, but having returned as a £97.5million signing, he needed just 15 minutes to open his account on Sunday. After holding off Mari with ease, he laid the ball off to Mateo Kovacic, who fed Reece James in acres of space on the Chelsea right. Lukaku’s instinct after passing was to drive into the box, where he met James’ delivery to side-foot the visitors in front from close range.
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The mood among a home crowd at maximum capacity — aside from a smattering of empty seats — for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March last year had been one of fervent support, but that began to dissipate as it dawned on them there was little to rally behind.
James doubled Chelsea’s lead 10 minutes before the break and although Arsenal improved a little after half-time, they were unable to put Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy under any sustained pressure. In fact, Lukaku could have extended the Blues’ advantage with a close-range header that Bernd Leno saved superbly, just one of several dangerous moments Chelsea failed to capitalise on.
It was too easy for them. Lukaku has proven to be an elite striker during two years at Inter Milan and his acquisition, while expensive does feel as close to a guarantee of success as is possible, especially given his personal motivation and greater maturity now aged 28. Chelsea are under much less financial pressure to make every penny count, but afternoons like this underline how smart they have been in the market in comparison to many of their rivals.
On the other side, Arteta was without a host of first-team players. White, his £50m centre-back, was unwell, Gabriel has a knee injury, Thomas Partey is battling an ankle problem, Hector Bellerin sustained a “tight thigh” according to the club, Martin Odegaard could not be registered in time following his arrival from Real Madrid, Alexandre Lacazette and Willian had not sufficiently recovered from testing positive for Covid-19 and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was only fit enough a 29-minute cameo off the bench. A lack of cohesion was therefore understandable to some extent, but one of the most damning aspects for the second weekend running was how it remains difficult to discern how Arsenal were trying to get back into the game.
The Gunners managed six shots in 90 minutes; Lukaku had eight on his own. Arteta’s side had just three shots on target, and the last came in the 63rd minutes as Aubameyang tried his luck from the edge of the box.
It must be noted that Chelsea are European champion, operating with loftier aims than Arsenal at present, but Tuchel arrived in mid-season and organised a team that had become ragged under Frank Lampard, quickly establishing an identity that’s delivered immediate success.
Arteta, meanwhile, has been dealt a difficult hand, but he has to prove he knows how to play the game. Last season ended in these parts with fan protests at Kroenke Sports Enterprises as Arsenal’s involvement in the failed Super League project reignited longstanding antipathy towards the club’s owners. That hostility remains, but the focus will soon shift to the dugout if Arteta cannot find a serious amount of improvement in the coming weeks.
At least they’ve only got a trip to Manchester City away next.