You can sense trouble brewing for Arsenal the moment they go on the attack. This sounds paradoxical but, once you’ve watched a club like this for long enough, reading the early signs of calamity becomes a sort of sixth sense, an almost shamanic instinct, like being able to see tomorrow’s weather in the pattern of a leaf. Perhaps it’s the way Nicolas Pépé retreats indeterminately towards the touchline, killing the momentum stone dead. Or the way Bukayo Saka advances just a few more yards than is probably wise. Perhaps it’s simply the breath of the wind on your cheek. Either way, you just know.
What follows is a Chelsea goal so well telegraphed it scheduled a push notification days in advance, precipitating an Arsenal defeat so utterly on-brand they could have sold it in the club shop.
And coming at the end of a month in which we have been busily losing ourselves in 2010s nostalgia this was a goal that felt like its own surreptitious tribute to some of the decade’s best-known memes.
First comes Arsenal’s initial surge (bae: come over), an attack that sends at least half a dozen players sprinting forward at full pelt in search of a late winner. Then Matteo Guendouzi (distracted boyfriend) gets his head turned by the prospect of glory and completely loses sight of his original job. Next, as Willian sprints towards goal, a half-paced Saka (the “This Is Fine” dog) can scarcely be bothered to track him. Then Shkodran Mustafi (the anime butterfly guy) is utterly hoodwinked by Tammy Abraham (“is this … a first-time finish?”). Finally, as Chelsea’s players wheel away in celebration, a furious and ultimately futile inquest (the argument from American Chopper) can begin.
And finally: The Dress. What did you see as Arsenal undid half an hour of sparkling dominance and an hour of staunch defending in the space of a few callous minutes? Was it a bad break or something more endemic? Arsenal fans were quick to point out that Jorginho, the scorer of Arsenal’s equaliser, should have been dismissed for a second yellow. And while undoubtedly true, it ignores the fact that Arsenal would probably have found some other way of screwing things up: a David Luiz brain-fade, a Lucas Torreira two-footer, Pépé dribbling the ball 60 yards into his own net.
For Arsenal’s new manager, Mikel Arteta, this was an instructive home debut. The solidity on display for large parts will have encouraged him; the fragility of the climactic minutes will probably not have surprised him. And over these first two games there have been enough moments of promise to engender a certain cautious optimism, even if neither performance produced a win. The pace has been agreeably high. The aggression certainly seems to have been raised a notch. Players like Torreira, Mesut Özil and Ainsley Maitland-Niles seem to have been emboldened by the new regime which, according to Arteta, has begun with clean slates and a refreshed sense of purpose.
There is an extent to which, of course, we see what we want to see. The same pre-match huddle that looked tired and pedestrian under Unai Emery now looks dynamic and inspiring. The same youth-inflected selections that looked like a hopeful punt under Freddie Ljungberg now feel like bold statements of intent. Even the moody-looking photograph on the front of the matchday programme, featuring Arteta in a sharp suit and bright red tie, was open to multiple interpretations: either a new coach who means business, or an air steward about to point out the nearest emergency exits.
Even so, Arsenal’s increased tempo did not feel like a trick of the mind. You could see it in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s assiduous defensive work rate, sprinting back into position to track Chelsea runners. You could see it in the way Özil bossed the first half, at one point nonchalantly dummying over the ball to let it run for Torreira, a move that brought coos of astonished pleasure from the Emirates crowd.
And yet, and yet. After that early goal – a near-post flick-on straight out of the George Graham playbook – Chelsea steadied themselves, improving after the introduction of Jorginho on the half-hour. And as their attacking trio began to weave their patterns in the second half Arsenal subconsciously began to retreat, the familiar frailties beginning to tingle like old war wounds. They, like everybody else, sensed what might be coming.
This innate fatalism, an assumption that calamity is just around the corner, is perhaps Arteta’s most toxic inheritance. For now, of course, it is an inheritance he is stuck with. Even Arsène Wenger didn’t burn the place down immediately: until Arteta has enough transfer windows to remake the squad in his image he will need to bide his time. His instincts, you sense, are more revolutionary than evolutionary: stripping away the protective layers of culture and convention that for years have let players hide and shirk and get away with just enough. In the short term, however, there’s plenty more suffering to come.