Chelsea 2-2 Arsenal: Palmer stays right, ‘keeper glitches, Arteta’s game-changers, handball?

Arsenal came from two goals down to draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in a thrilling game which saw former Paris Saint Germain team-mates Mikel Arteta and Mauricio Pochettino draw in their managerial head-to-head.

A penalty from Cole Palmer following a William Saliba handball and a Mykhailo Mudryk strike, with what looked to be a cross, put the home side ahead before Robert Sanchez gave the ball away and Declan Rice scored into an open net from distance. Leandro Trossard then tapped in from close range to give Arsenal a share of the points.

Here our writers analyse the key points of the game.

Strikerless Chelsea

An early talking point of Chelsea’s season (like every season) has been what to do at the striker position: Nicolas Jackson? Armando Broja? Any random fan out of the stands?

Against Arsenal, Pochettino went with (d) none of the above. On paper, the 21-year-old Cole Palmer lined up as a centre-forward in a 4-2-3-1, but for the first hour he operated where he usually does, as a right-sided attacking midfielder tucked inside Raheem Sterling.

On the other side of midfield, Conor Gallagher dropped much deeper, but when the ball was on Palmer and Sterling’s wing he would crash the box. The sort of dual-false-nine system recalled nothing so much as a bygone version of Man City, where Palmer came through the academy.

The rotation suited both players’ strengths: Palmer could operate as a creator, dragging Gabriel out of Arsenal’s back line to open space for Sterling, while Gallagher could crash the box. And both dropped in often to overload central midfield, giving Chelsea control of the early stages of the match.

Goalkeeper glitches

Unfortunately for Mikel Arteta, the external debate surrounding Aaron Ramsdale and David Raya will continue. Ramsdale was not with the travelling squad due to his wife giving birth, but Raya’s second-half performance failed to silence any noise around his arrival.

His positioning was under scrutiny for Mudryk’s goal, but the 28-year-old may not have been at total fault because of the unexpected trajectory of the ball. Similarly he is seen as a proactive goalkeeper when it comes to claiming crosses. However, that moment being followed by a loose pass directly to Palmer was cause for concern, however, as it kept Arsenal in their state of angst from the first half.

Raya was shaky in the first half against Manchester City, almost having a clearance deflected in off Julian Alvarez. He grew into the game after that, but these have not been his only worrying moments since arriving from Brentford.

For Chelsea, Sanchez’s mistake is a product of the way Pochettino wants him to play, but it also shifted the momentum of the game.

Do not expect Pochettino to blame him though; he praised the Spaniard’s “character” after loose passes in the EFL Cup last month gave the ball to Brighton strikers twice in the space of nine minutes, and he will want him to continue to take risks with his passing — for better or occasionally for worse. 

Chelsea’s head coach also has evidence elsewhere in his dressing room that his confidence reclamation projects work; not least Mudryk, who less than a month ago was still losing regular crossbar challenges to his head coach at Cobham.

Art de Roché and Liam Twomey

Was it handball from Saliba?

There was considerable debate over the decision to award the handball that led to the penalty, and the opening goal.William Saliba jumped to try and head a cross away, but was beaten to the ball by Mykhailo Mudryk. Mudryk’s header then struck Saliba’s arm, which was raised and far away from his body. Referee Chris Kavanagh did not give the decision, but was told to review it by VAR Jarred Gillett. Kavanagh then awarded a penalty.

One of the elements of the handball rule states that a player is considered to have handled the ball if they touch it with their hand or arm “when (the arm) has made their body unnaturally bigger”. In basic terms, a body is “unnaturally bigger” when the positioning is not part of a natural movement. So, for example, if a player puts his hand down to block a fall but the ball rebounds against it, it would not be a handball.

Saliba’s arm was clearly away from his body and far in the air, but the debate was whether it was a natural movement in order to get into the air and try and clear away the ball. Former defender Gary Neville on Sky Sports stated he would have done the same when trying to defend a header. He also pointed out that players defending with their hands behind their backs — which has become commonplace — makes it more difficult.By the letter of the law, Saliba’s touch probably was a handball, but like most decisions on the back of the current handball rule, it will be argued about for a while yet.

The Cucurenaissance

One of the many mysteries of Chelsea’s lost year was why the hybrid defender Marc Cucurella, who had shone for Graham Potter at Brighton, couldn’t settle in at Stamford Bridge. 

Today, making his first start on his preferred left side for Mauricio Pochettino, he looked like a completely different player — confident, controlled and comfortable.

Are we witnessing the Cucurenaissance?

It wasn’t just that he kept Bukayo Saka, Arsenal’s most dangerous player, away from Chelsea’s goal. He didn’t even let Saka complete a pass or dribble into the box. His aerial game helped cut out threats and his litany of defensive sins in one-v-one situations felt like a distant memory.

When Arsenal tried to overload his side by pushing Ben White high up the sideline behind Mudryk, Cucurella switched alertly between the full-back and winger and was quick to launch counterattacks each time he won the ball.

In the 48th minute, Cucurella trapped White against the sideline and forced him backward, causing the turnover that would send Mudryk up the wing for Chelsea’s 2-0 goal. It was a small, tidy piece of routine defending — the sort of thing Cucurella struggled with last season, but not today.

John Muller

Arsenal gamechangers

If there were any players who exemplified the importance of Arsenal getting their transfer business right, it was Rice and Trossard. One was a primary target while the other was a back-up option, but both have consistently changed games since they arrived in July and January respectively.

Overall, Rice had his worst performance in an Arsenal shirt but still had the instinct to sniff out an opportunity to stamp his authority on the game. Had he taken a touch instead of shooting when he latched onto Roberto Sanchez’s loose ball, Arsenal would not have left Stamford Bridge with any points.

As for Trossard, he is one of the most efficient weapons in Arteta’s Arsenal. Last season he claimed 10 assists and a goal in 20 Premier League games (10 starts) after his move from Brighton. This season, he has four goals and an assist in eight appearances in all competitions. Bukayo Saka’s cross was exceptional, but his finish showed the technical quality he possesses (off both feet).

Art de Roché

A point well made for Chelsea

It will not feel like it to supporters given the passage of the game, but holding Arsenal at Stamford Bridge is still the best result yet of Mauricio Pochettino’s slow-burn Chelsea project.

Arsenal are way ahead of Chelsea in football terms, having backed and empowered Arteta through their lengthy transition. They had also won six of the previous seven meetings between the teams — a trend punctuated by the 40-point gap between the clubs in last season’s Premier League table.

Yet for most of the match Pochettino’s team had the tactical measure of their unbeaten London rivals and held their vaunted attack at arm’s reach, the momentum only shifting with Sanchez’s wayward pass.

That is something real for Chelsea to take from this. There were positive signs prior to the October international break: attackers beginning to find goals, a lavishly expensive midfield clicking into gear and a defensive unit proving consistently difficult to breach. 

But the victims of Chelsea’s improved results were a changed Brighton and Hove Albion in the EFL Cup, Fulham and Burnley. Pochettino needed a performance that would put the rest of the Premier League on notice, and battling Arsenal to a standstill does that, even if ending their unbeaten start to the campaign would have made an even bigger statement.

Liam Twomey

(Photo: Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images)

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