The boos rang out at half-time and by the end they were louder. Mikel Arteta had talked of harnessing the energy of Arsenal’s supporters on their return to the Emirates Stadium. Instead, he was left in no doubt that, for many, patience is wearing thin.
Two games into the new Premier League season, his Arsenal side have no points and no goals. Next up? A trip to the Etihad Stadium to face Manchester City. It is likely to get worse before it gets better.
The fixtures have not been kind to Arsenal and nor have the circumstances. On the eve of their opening game, a Covid outbreak to rule out their two senior strikers. Before their second, another positive case to deprive them of their £50m centre-back.
Chelsea’s last visit to the Emirates Stadium proved something of a springboard for Arsenal, the Gunners emerging 3-1 winners on Boxing Day last season. But any hopes of a repeat were quickly extinguished.
Chelsea are a different beast under Thomas Tuchel, who took charge a month after that defeat.
How Arsenal supporters must envy their progress.
The gulf in quality was stark. Where Chelsea had the £97.5m Romelu Lukaku, Arsenal had Gabriel Martinelli, a 20-year-old winger with only four Premier League goals to his name.
Where Chelsea had a bench stacked with international pedigree and experience, Arsenal had a mishmash of players many of whom they are unable to sell.
Perhaps Ben White would have coped better with Lukaku than the hapless Pablo Mari. Perhaps Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, only fit enough for the bench, and Alex Lacazette, absent entirely, would have been able to cause Chelsea problems their young team-mates could not.
But the ease with which Chelsea opened Arsenal up will worry supporters. The hosts started brightly enough, the home crowd willing them forward, but they left yawning gaps behind them.
The opening goal encapsulated the issues, with Lukaku easily holding off Mari, Mason Mount dragging Kieran Tierney infield, and Reece James left in acres of space to provide the cross.
Tierney needed help on Arsenal’s left but he did not get it. The clear problems on that side of the pitch went unaddressed and soon, James had plundered a goal as well as an assist.
Roy Keane on Arsenal…
“Arsenal are decent going forward but part of football is defending and there’s a softness to them. That’s not a quick-fix. Your young players might get you out of jail the odd time but long-term? There’s a long way back for Arsenal.”
Time and again the Chelsea right-back was left surrounded by nothing more than green grass deep in Arsenal territory. At the midway point, he had touched the ball in the opposition box more times than in any of his previous 57 Premier League appearances.
Arsenal were two goals down by then and in truth it could have been worse.
Bukayo Saka should have had a penalty when he was tripped by James but the hosts went in at the break having been outshot by 10 to two. They had managed just 39 per cent of the possession in front of their returning supporters.
The scoreline stayed the same and Arsenal did rally for a brief period in the second half but the underlying numbers looked even worse by full-time. Chelsea’s total of 22 shots was the third-highest Arsenal have faced in a Premier League game at the Emirates Stadium.
“Comprehensive,” was how Tuchel described it to Sky Sports afterwards. “Dominant,” added Lukaku.
So what happens next?
Arsenal’s summer dealings suggest they have at least learned from their recent mistakes in the transfer market.
The decision to target players aged 23 or under this summer is part of a plan to build for the future and make the club “sustainable” in the long-term, as Arteta told Sky Sports before this game.
The approach is a sensible one but back-to-back eighth-placed finishes demand immediate improvement and an outlay of more than £125m – the highest of any Premier League club this summer – puts Arteta under pressure to deliver now.
He has a point, of course, when he says his team will look “completely different” in a few weeks’ time.
The players impacted by Covid will return and so too will the injured Thomas Partey and Gabriel Magalhaes. Martin Odegaard, introduced to the crowd ahead of kick-off on Sunday, will also be available following his permanent arrival from Real Madrid.
But Arteta has much work to do to show supporters he has a coherent plan for what Arsenal look like on the pitch. Against Chelsea, they pressed high, but only intermittently. At other times, they seemed to invite the visitors onto them.
Graeme Souness on Arsenal…
“I look at this Arsenal team and I think it might be a team for the next manager. Time is not your friend when you’re a manager. I see a difficult couple of years for Arsenal. It doesn’t matter if it’s Arteta or someone else, it’s going to be a painful trip.”
There is a lack of clarity in terms of their playing style and the same inconsistency can be seen in their results.
Arteta’s Arsenal have only won more than three consecutive Premier League games on one occasion and that was when there was little left to play for at the end of last season.
Arteta was defiant when pressed on whether his young squad can offer immediate improvement as well as long-term promise earlier this week. But as Graeme Souness pointed out ahead of kick-off on Sunday, it is difficult to escape the feeling that he is putting too much responsibility on the shoulders of Arsenal’s rising stars.
“Saka is arguably Arsenal’s main man,” said the Sky Sports pundit. “Is that a mark of where Arsenal are at this moment in time, relying on a 19-year-old to be the difference in games?
“In an ideal scenario you would want a 19-year-old coming in a settled team that is successful but that is not the case for Arsenal. Saka is expected to turn up every week and be the difference.”
Indeed, while Chelsea demonstrated the benefits of experience at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal badly lacked the same ruthless edge.
It could be seen in Saka dithering when one-on-one with Cesar Azpilicueta in the Chelsea box, and in Gabriel Martinelli miscontrolling the ball when offered a chance to speed away from Antonio Rudiger in a similarly dangerous position.
Those moments of indecision are inevitable in young players and Arsenal fans cannot be accused of failing to support them. But the boos around the Emirates Stadium at the end of each half show that patience in Arteta’s project is in short supply.
The challenge of lifting the mood becomes more difficult with every defeat and it’s Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City next.