They laughed at the idea David Luiz might bring spirit and a fighting mentality to this
Arsenal team. Well, he found a way here.
Not the orthodox way. Rather, in a way that involved removing himself from the pitch for 64 minutes of this
slightly wild 2-2 draw , the opening act in one of the more robust and indeed quietly encouraging Arsenal performances at Stamford Bridge of recent years.
In the process Arsenal’s defense posed an interesting philosophical question. Could it be the case that a David Luiz-shaped hole, the absence of David Luiz, is more defensively resilient than the actual, material David Luiz? Is the hypothetical David Luiz, an entity best expressed as (David Luiz – David Luiz) more effective as a defensive rallying point than the real thing?
What is certain is that on a ground where Arsenal have in the past been alarmingly supine
they recovered from losing a man, equalized twice and showed further signs of the kind of rigor Mikel Arteta has been working to instil.
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This is of course the real story here. Red cards aside, Arsenal’s manager will be heartened by the performance in the final hour. Arteta played in the infamous 6-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, the first of those gruelling collapses of the late-Wenger endgame. The future is still wide open but something was gained here, something cast off.
It is a story that begins, as it must, with The Incident. David Luiz’s game in numbers: minutes, two fouls, four inaccurate long balls. Almost all of that time was taken up in a bruising duel with Tammy Abraham.
David Luiz’s first act was to punch and kick Abraham to the ground, leaving him clutching the small of his back. It is an underrated David Luiz trait, in among the crossfield punts, the dribbles, the flowing mane. He’s also a solid B clogger.
For a while this was a good battle, one that favored the younger man when he could stretch his legs and gallop free. And then it happened. Shkodran Mustafi was David Luiz’s enabler. As the ball bounced in midfield Mustafi attempted a backpass. It was a truly terrible pass, not just badly executed, but badly conceived too, with Abraham reading it in an instant.
The Chelsea man pounded off in pursuit. The
Chelsea fans began to rise, feeling something strange, the inverse of all their own David Luiz moments, the other side of this thing. So this is how it feels. Thank you, thank you Shkodran, for this moment of healing.
David Luiz thundered back, Abraham nicked the ball around Bernd Leno. The tackle when it came wasn’t cunning or “professional”. It was instead wholeheartedly doomed, a slide from behind that brought to mind one of those Hollywood westerns where some unsmiling sheriff splinters his way through the saloon doors with a single punch.
Stuart Attwell pointed to the spot. Seconds later there was an even bigger cheer as the red card was brandished. In that moment the whole tableau almost felt a little obvious, a little cheesy, like an at-Wembley-stadium final tour bonanza, the Eagles creaking into their , th calloused rendition of hotel california. Really? This again?
There was a circularity too. David Luiz’s last red card came here in a blue shirt in the same fixture three years ago. More notable, these are David Luiz’s only two Premier League red cards. This is an extraordinary achievement given the sheer volume of fouls and oddities in that time.
Perhaps it’s also evidence of some improvement as a defender. He was at least in the right place to hack his man down from behind.
As Jorginho slotted away the penalty the narrative seemed set. The hope with David Luiz had always been that his best qualities – leadership, physicality, a winning mentality – could be soldered on to the Arsenal exoskeleton. At times it has seemed the opposite is happening. Arsenal-ness has been injected into the veins of David Luiz like some banned laboratory experiment, creating a potentially fatal super-David Luiz.
Something has shifted though. True, this was David Luiz’s third penalty concession of the season, more than any other player in the league. True, the teamsheet had suggested the depth of Arteta’s task, a triple-bolt of David Luiz, Mustafi and Granit Xhaka promising all the impenetrable defensive resilience of a bead curtain. But there has been a sense of the stitching being pulled a little tighter.
Here Arteta was up on his feet repeatedly, screaming at his players for failing to track overlaps on the flanks. Arteta wants clarity, tight spaces, units playing in concert all over the pitch like men roped together on a mountain.
And steadily they marched their way back into this game. Gabriel Martinelli ran 728 meters in a dead straight line and finished beautifully. César Azpilicueta scored after a moment of defensive brain fade, only for Hector Bellerín to curl in an improbable equaliser with his left foot. Chelsea were poor at Stamford Bridge.
But Arteta will take encouragement from the point; and from the feeling, once again, of shapes being formed, of a structure struggling to assert itself, solidifying here around that David Luiz-shaped hole.