To put the scale of this shock result into some sort of context, Arsenal had been able to score four goals in their previous 10 Premier League matches – a sequence that had brought them five points. It had the club mired in their worst start to a season since 1974-75 and the manager, Mikel Arteta, in crisis. One of the big pre-match questions asked whether Arsenal were in a relegation battle.
This was a restorative result and performance, with Arteta’s bold team selection returning a rich dividend. He gave first league appearances of the season to Pablo Marí and Emile Smith Rowe and a first start in the competition this time out to Gabriel Martinelli. Smith Rowe emerged with honours, driving from his No 10 role.
Arsenal were in control by half-time, with Alexandre Lacazette’s penalty being followed by an absolute banger of a free-kick by Granit Xhaka, who is one of the players the Arsenal support love to hate. On his comeback from suspension, Xhaka was excellent.
Bukayo Saka got the third and the crazy thing was that Arsenal could have scored more, with Martinelli working Édouard Mendy and Lacazette almost punishing the goalkeeper for a loose pass out. Mohamed Elneny also rattled the crossbar.
It would not be Arsenal without a wobble. After the Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham had converted a cross from the substitute Callum Hudson-Odoi – the goal was given when VAR overruled an offside against Abraham – the visitors won a 90th-minute penalty when Marí fouled Mason Mount.
They could not mess this up, could they? Bernd Leno, though, saved from Jorginho, another substitute, and, finally, Arteta could wear a wide smile at full time.
There was an energy about Arsenal from the outset and a clear chance after 44 seconds when Héctor Bellerín’s cross flicked off Thiago Silva’s head and broke for Martinelli. He could not get his body shape right and scuffed wide.
Chelsea are settled in their system with Frank Lampard clear about the identity of his favoured personnel, but upheaval seems to come as standard for Arteta these days. He had to contend with the absence of most of his Brazilian contingent, with David Luiz and Willian ill and Gabriel forced to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone who has recorded a positive Covid test.
Mount grazed the outside of the post for Chelsea with a curling free-kick on 12 minutes after Xhaka had tripped Christian Pulisic, but the first half was almost all Arsenal. They were on the front foot, posing all the questions.
Arteta had reverted to 4-2-3-1, having started with 3-4-3 in the previous three games, and it was startling to see the youth in his line of three behind Lacazette. From right to left, it was Saka, 19, Smith Rowe, 20, and Martinelli, 19.
Smith Rowe was not fazed by what was a massive challenge, running hard and probing for openings, although he fluffed his lines on 25 minutes when gloriously placed, allowing a low Bellerín cross from the right to come across his body and failing to get a clean contact with his left foot.
Arsenal pressed on and they gained the lead when Kieran Tierney who, like Bellerín, made inroads from his full-back position, took a fine first touch following Xhaka’s pass to cut inside Reece James. Tierney knew the slightest touch from James would add up to a penalty. He felt it and went down and if it looked a little soft the law of these moments lies in the contact. Lacazette’s conversion was nerveless.
The second goal was all about the technique of Xhaka. Saka’s slicing run inside had forced N’Golo Kanté to trip him and when Xhaka sized up the free-kick his sights were fixed on the near top corner. He picked it out with a beautifully flighted left-footer that had Mendy clutching at thin air.
Lampard wore face of thunder. He sent his team out early for the second-half and Mateo Kovacic and Timo Werner did not reappear. The pair had failed to make anything happen with Werner looking low on confidence, but Lampard was spoilt for choice when it came to who to hook.
Chelsea upped the tempo and they looked a little better and yet they were 3-0 down when Arsenal broke up the right through Bellerín and Smith Rowe, with the latter working the ball inside to Saka. Mendy expected the cross, everybody did and Saka’s shape seemed to suggest that he was aiming to cross. Did he spot Mendy off his line? It was difficult to say. The delivery was deep and there were jaws dropping when the ball dipped in off the far post.
Arsenal went for more, with Martinelli working Mendy with an overhead kick, among the other chances, and Chelsea’s push was too little, too late.