By the end it was difficult to know which team’s future looks brighter. Chelsea had stumbled to their third successive defeat at Stamford Bridge and Arsenal, who seemed hell bent on throwing the points away at times, had secured a crucial win in the race for fourth.
This was Mikel Arteta’s side in all their maddening glory. They were comical at the back during a wild first half, but they were inspired in attack. Two goals from Eddie Nketiah, his first in the league this season, were enough for them to go level on points with Tottenham in fourth place with six games left. Even more intriguingly, they are only five behind Chelsea and have seen that Thomas Tuchel’s side are wobbling.
As ever there was no way of knowing which version of Arsenal would turn up. They are a team that lurches between extremes and the onus was on them to raise their level after Manchester United’s capitulation to Liverpool. The pressure was on after three consecutive defeats and the encouraging thing for Arteta was that Arsenal did not shy away from the challenge posed by Chelsea, who looked nervous after successive home defeats against Brentford and Real Madrid.
The problem, however, was that the opening period summed up the contradictions in this Arsenal team. They were a joy to watch going forward, the interplay between Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Ødegaard constantly giving Chelsea headaches, and yet twice they failed to hold on to the lead.
Their back three was an accident waiting to happen at times and while Arteta was pleased with his side’s football, he must have been frustrated by their lack of conviction when they were in front.
With the attendance capped due to the sanctions on Roman Abramovich, there had been a vulnerability to Chelsea. Malang Sarr, who started at left centre-back with Antonio Rüdiger unavailable, was shaky in possession.
There was space for Saka to run at Sarr, who did not receive enough protection from Marcos Alonso, and that weakness in Chelsea’s defense would lead to Smith Rowe putting the visitors 2-1 up in the 27th minute.
A lot had already happened. Arsenal, who wore black armbands in remembrance of their former chief scout Steve Rowley, who passed away at the age of 63, had started well. Arteta had matched Tuchel’s system by starting with a back three and Arsenal were soon in front.
The goal summed up Chelsea’s difficulties without Thiago Silva and Rüdiger at the back. A long punt from Nuno Tavares had Andreas Christensen running towards his own goal and Eddie Nketiah hot on the centre-back’s heels. Christensen’s backpass was woefully underhit and Nketiah, who is considering a new contract offer from Arsenal, stole in to beat Edouard Mendy with a composed finish.
Chelsea’s fans wondered whether Christensen is already thinking about his impending move to Barcelona, but the lead did not last long. Ruben Loftus-Cheek won possession high up the pitch and Timo Werner let fly with a shot that spun past Aaron Ramsdale thanks to a heavy deflection off Granit Xhaka.
Chelsea were energized but they remained frail. Nketiah missed a decent chance after beautiful play from Saka, who was excelling at right wing-back, and the second goal soon arrived.
Arsenal had just avoided another defensive calamity, Xhaka rescuing Rob Holding before beautifully bringing the ball forward. The ball came to Saka, then to Ødegaard. His pass set up Smith Rowe and the midfielder threaded a low shot past Mendy from 20 yards.
Yet Chelsea refused to stop. After 32 minutes Mount hounded Ben White off the ball and crossed for César Azpilicueta, who escaped Tavares and prodded the ball home. Arsenal appealed for a foul on White; in truth the defender was not strong enough.
But Arsenal continued to threaten. Tuchel was alarmed. He replaced Christensen with Silva at half-time but the change had no effect. After 57 minutes Azpilicueta misplaced a pass to Werner and Tavares attacked. The left wing-back found Nketiah and, when Silva, Sarr and N’Golo Kanté failed to clear, the striker prodded the ball past Mendy.
Tuchel had seen enough. He removed Romelu Lukaku, who had done nothing but annoy the home crowd with his sluggishness on his first league start since 19 February, and put Kai Havertz up front as Chelsea chased another equaliser.
It almost arrived when Ramsdale pushed out a cross from Reece James and Alonso saw a shot blocked. The pressure grew and Tuchel threw on Hakim Ziyech. But Arsenal, who host United on Saturday, held firm. They pushed on the break and the points were theirs when Azpilicueta conceded a penalty for fouling Saka. Saka nervelessly made it 4-2 from the spot and Chelsea, who finished with 10 men after Alonso limped off, had run out of ideas and their place in the top four is not certain yet.