Chelsea stumbled to defeat for the first time in six Premier League games on a night at Stamford Bridge when the slickness of our recent attacking play proved hard to find.
Against an Arsenal side who were resolute in defence, and having taken the lead with only quarter-of-an-hour played, could afford to keep bodies back, the Blues found it hard to play through them throughout.
Kai Havertz missed our best chance of the first half with the game still scoreless and Mason Mount had a couple of shots blocked or saved, but a badly judged Jorginho pass led to Emile Smith Rowe scoring the only goal of the game to slow our drive for Champions League qualification through our league position.
Christian Pulisic had the ball in the net in the second half but the goal was correctly ruled out for offside so we had to wait until the closing minutes to go close again and when we did so, we did it twice, with a Kurt Zouma header saved onto the bar and substitute Olivier Giroud hitting the same piece of woodwork on the follow-up.
The result leaves Chelsea in fourth, six points ahead of West Ham who have played a game less, and seven in front of Liverpool who have two in hand on us.
There were seven changes overall as Thomas Tuchel continues to fully utilise his squad in the busy climax to the campaign. Mason Mount, Ben Chilwell and Thiago Silva were rested completely from the Man City game at the weekend so they were both back in the team, with the rests this time going to N’Golo Kante and Toni Rudiger. There was another game in goal for Kepa and Zouma, who replaced injured Andreas Christensen during the City game, continued in defence. Havertz was asked to lead the attack and there was another chance for Billy Gilmour, starting his third Premier League game in a row.
A tale of two slips
Chelsea came into the game knowing that three points here, after those taken from the win at the now-crowned champions Manchester City at the weekend, would give us a very strong hold on one of the top-four positions we are occupying, but with the games coming thick and fast and against big local rivals, the task was never likely to be easy.
After a first 10 minutes to the game which were utterly uneventful, Chelsea should have scored from the first meaningful attack. The chance was presented by the Arsenal defence, with Pablo Mari slow to react to a pass his way and Havertz alert to the possibility. He nipped in and won the ball and then strode towards goal keeping clear of the chasing Spaniard. Having seemingly set himself however, the German cleared the bar with his shot.
Five minutes later, it was Chelsea’s turn to make a big error at the back when not under pressure and Arsenal were not as charitable as we had been. It was Jorginho who sent the ball back towards his own goal but without the due care and attention to realise Kepa had moved out wide of the posts to make himself available for a pass.
Our keeper raced back across and did well to keep the ball out initially, although with what could be have been conisidered handling a back pass, but that became academic as Aubameyang collected it and teed up Smith Rowe for a finish off the post. It was the first goal conceded with Kepa in goal since Tuchel took over. Jorginho’s reaction having chased back into the net, was full of regret.
Mount, playing his 50th club game of the season, led the Chelsea response, with a goal-bound shot that was blocked by Holding after Pulisic had pulled the ball back, and then one that was saved by Gunners keeper Bernd Leno from an angle on the left, where Mount had started today’s game with Pulisic on the right.
The American headed the ball onto the roof of the net after a corner with half-an-hour played but Chelsea were proving unable to put the Arsenal goal under sustained pressure, with much of the play compressed in the middle third of the pitch.
Clever play from Chilwell did rescue possession inside the opposition penalty area but they defended his ball into the goalmouth well. The final minutes of the first half were played out with Blues players on the ball almost constantly but we went in at the interval trailing to Arsenal’s only shot on target.
Unsurprisingly given the lack of penetration from the Blues before the break, Tuchel made a half-time change, bringing on Callum Hudson-Odoi out wide on the right with Mount moved back into midfield and Gilmour making way.
There was a check early in the half for a foul on Havertz by Gabriel in the penalty area but VAR said no, and neither did Stockley Park rule in our favour with an hour played when Pulisic at the far post bundled in a corner after a Havertz flick-on. The offside decision was the correct one.
Olivier Giroud was added to the reshaped attack, hoping to continue his good record against his former club. He did get his head to a James cross from the right but at full stretch could only send it wide.
The pattern of the first, with Chelsea striving without much joy in front of the organised Arsenal lines, continued.
With 20 minutes left to play, the visitors conjured their first sight of the Chelsea goal in the second half but Odegaard lifted his effort over and despite the introduction of Hakim Ziyech’s creativity for the closing stages, we could not make them pay for wasting that chance.
Opportunities come late
It looked to be opening up for a Hudson-Odoi attempt at the back stick but substiture Hector Bellerin somehow, and at the cost of an injury, got his boot to the ball mid-air before it arrived for our no.20 to send it goalwards.
With five minutes of the 90 left, a Hudson-Odoi centre did reach Pulisic but sliding and stretching, he could not find the power to beat Leno.
That tame effort was our first on target in the half but in the closing moments we hit the bar twice in the space of seconds, the first time with a Zouma header touched onto it by Leno and the second from the boot of Giroud as he hooked the rebound back towards goal.
It was the clear indication this was not to be our night. Arsenal record a first double against us since 2003/04 with their first league win here in 10 years.
Does anyone need to ask? Just the small matter of the FA Cup final at Wembley on Saturday (kick-off 5.15pm UK time), when the Blues will be aiming to lift the trophy for a ninth time in our history. Leicester City stand in our way.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta (c) (Ziyech 78), Thiago Silva, Zouma; James, Gilmour (Hudson-Odoi h-t), Jorginho, Chilwell; Pulisic, Havertz (Giroud 65), Mount.
Unused subs Mendy, Alonso, Emerson, Livramento, Anjorin, Werner.
Arsenal (3-4-2-1): Leno; Holding, Mari, Gabriel; Saka (Bellerin 65) (Chambers 88), Elneny, Partey Tierney; Odegaard, Smith Rowe; Aubameyang (c) (Lacazette 80).
Unused subs Ryan, Ceballos, Soares, Pepe, Willian, Martinelli.
Scorer Smith Rowe 16
Booked Partey 90+4
Referee Andre Marriner.