Spare a thought for Maurizio Sarri’s pulmonologist. Because if this is how animated the chain-smoking Italian gets watching Chelsea play an ultimately meaningless pre-season friendly, he’s going to be puffing his way through an awful lot of cigarettes when the season kicks-off proper.
For 92 minutes of this match Sarri was a furious blur of blue movement, constantly flitting between his seat and the technical area as a light rain fell under the lights of Landsdowne Road in Dublin. He only ceased to move in the final minute, as Alexandre Lacazette scuffed home a last-gasp equaliser to cancel out Antonio Rudiger’s early header. It was a disappointing ending to another encouraging night that suggested his squad are already coming to terms with his notoriously demanding philosophy.
Only it wasn’t the ending, of course. Under hallowed International Champions Cup rules, the game naturally had to proceed to the most pointless penalty shootout since Diana Ross teetered up to the ball and banged one wide at the 1994 World Cup. Suitably the only player to miss was an Englishman — with Petr Cech saving Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s tame effort — to seal the most bizarre of comeback victories for Arsenal.
Okay, so we should probably get all of the mitigating factors out of the way before we get stuck in. Arsenal were far from full strength, while Chelsea substituted half of their team after sixty minutes. And it probably shouldn’t be ignored that a handful of morale-boosting exhibition wins does not automatically equate to a good season — Arsene Wenger’s summer of 2016 stands testament to that.
But none of that is likely to stop both sets of intrigued supporters from pouring over the minutiae of this result with all the frenzied intensity of middle-aged nerds breaking down a new Star Wars trailer, eager for evidence that a transformation is already well underway. Really, then, the question is not how much excitement should Chelsea and Arsenal fans feel after this match, but just how nervous should the rest of the Premier League be?
On this evidence, at least: a fair amount more than they were last time around. Arsenal’s young midfield performed admirably, with Mattéo Guendouzi in particular catching the eye. Meanwhile Chelsea impressed before their raft of substitutions, and already look well-adjusted to the rigours of Sarri’s demanding 4-3-3. But most exciting of all was the performance of 17-year-old forward Callum Hudson-Odoi, who shone last time out against Inter Milan only to be warned by Sarri that his first-team opportunities were limited. It may not be long before the former banker revises that estimation.
The teenager was superb. His contribution to Chelsea’s opening goal was a moment of genuine Premier League quality: darting down the flank, he cut the ball back to Cesc Fabregas, whose half-volley was smartly tipped over the bar by Cech. And yet what followed was a stark reminder that this was, essentially, a play-off for sixth place in a friendly tournament. Fabregas swung the corner in. Arsenal’s defence evaporated. Rudiger languidly headed low into the net. Emery will desperately hope he can iron out such defensive wrinkles ahead of Manchester City’s visit.
Hudson-Odoi was at it again moments later, latching onto a skidding pass from Marcos Alonso and leaving Hector Bellerin in his wake. Only this time, he didn’t cut the ball back but expertly drew the foul from the right-back. A blatant penalty and a fine save: Cech springing to his right to beat away Alavro Morata’s tame strike. It was a portent of things to come.
Meanwhile, Arsenal’s exciting young teenage prospect was having an equally impressive evening. Guendouzi started the evening as he meant to go on — hitting a sublime first-time diagonal into the path of Henrikh Mkhitaryan from kick-off, which drew a loud purr of admiration — and although he was occasionally guilty of attempting too much, his touch and positional intelligence were sublime for a man snapped up from Lorient for just £7m.
Arsenal’s problems were located in front and behind him. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was moved back into a centre-forward role after spending much of his time in Singapore out on the wing, but was toothless. There is meanwhile work to do for Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi, particularly from set-pieces. Rudiger was gifted a second free header in the box after the interval, only to this time head wide.
Any pretence that this match offered any meaningful insight into this month’s Premier League match between the two sides — Chelsea host Arsenal in just under three weeks’ time — was ultimately ended when Sarri decided to switch half his team around shortly after. Of the substitutions, the returning Tabby Abraham was the most lively: immediately stretching Arsenal’s back line by latching onto a long ball over the top and firing wide.
Perhaps stung into action by the sight of half a team’s worth of kids ambling onto the field, Arsenal began to up their game slightly. Aubameyang shot straight at Caballero before being subbed. Alexandre Lacazette spurned his obligatory gilt-edged opportunity, rolling a shot wide. And substitute keeper Marcin Bulka did superbly to deny Alex Iwobi, with the 18-year-old animatedly pumping his arms as if he had won the game.
Only he hadn’t. Lacazette poked home Reiss Nelson’s low cross in the dying seconds to take the game to penalties, with Arsenal prevailing 6-5.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech; Bellerin (Chambers ’78), Sokratis, Mustafi, Kolasinac (Maitland-Niles ’70); Guendouzi, Elneny; Mkhitaryan (Nelson ’72), Smith Rowe (Iwobi ‘63), Ozil; Aubameyang (Lacazette ’72).
Chelsea (4-3-3): Caballero (Bulka ’78); Azpilicueta (Zappacosta ’63), Luiz (Drinkwater ’45), Rudiger (Ampadu ‘63), Alonso (Emerson ‘63); Jorginho (Loftus-Cheek ’78), Barkley (Bakayoko ’78), Fabregas (Christensen ’45); Hudson-Odoi (Piazon ’85), Pedro (Moses ‘63), Morata (Abraham ‘63).