Arsenal fans returned to the Emirates yesterday like an adult approaching a 1,000-piece puzzle they’d hastily unwrapped at Christmas but not got round to tackling yet.
They had no expectation of seeing the whole picture any time soon and little hope of the blue sky taking shape; they just wanted to see that the corner pieces had been identified among a baffling pile of upturned cardboard shapes.
In the end, however, it felt uncomfortably familiar as their team dominated, went ahead and then threw it all away to leave Chelsea as the club feeling they are getting somewhere.
The first half seemed to suggest a few building blocks were being put in place for Arsenal — a performance of fizzing energy, passion, and no little organisation that gave a glimpse of what Mikel Arteta has planned for them.
But Chelsea’s two late goals after the break to take three points showed the same problem that has dogged Arsenal for a decade — defensive fragility and lack of leadership — hasn’t even been considered yet.
It’s a huge frustration for Gunners fans because manager Arteta had given them an ounce of hope with his first game, a 1-1 draw at Bournemouth that at any other stage in Arsenal’s history would have seemed like points dropped — but in these perilous days felt like progress.
The increased levels of effort, endeavour, and passion in that fixture suggested Arteta had aroused something in his recruits, something that had been badly missing for a long time.
So, what fans wanted to see against Chelsea was evidence that things were changing — that the puzzle, which has been left untouched for far too long, was starting to be solved.
Sadly, it looks like finding the answer is going to be far more difficult.
Arteta received a positive reception from fans who used to cheer him as a cultured midfielder on this turf; and the question was could he turn positive words in his first two press conferences into signs that he has the coaching ability to tackle Arsenal’s deep-lying problems?
So far, supporters have been unanimous in agreeing he has said all the right things.
He praised the attitude of his players at Bournemouth, focusing on the positives rather than the obvious downfalls, and talked about the importance of reconnecting with Arsenal’s long-suffering fans.
Just as importantly, he laid down new laws for the way he wants things done in future and spoke about his ‘non-negotiables’, which include passion, effort and energy.
Later, in a tweet, he sought to simplify Arsenal’s style ahead of a training session, saying: “We will work on only four things: ball, team-mate, opponent, space.”
A game against Chelsea is a big opportunity to practise all those skills — and a poignant one, too.
There have been one or two memorable highlights against the west London side, of course, but the rivalry over the last 15 years has felt mostly painful, especially in the days when Jose Mourinho’s Blues used to arrive in north London and bully their way to victory. How many times have we seen the headline ‘Men against Boys’ in relation to this fixture?
There’s an irony to that now, considering Chelsea arrived at the Emirates with a string of their own young players on show, whilst Arsenal have relied on the experience of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, and David Luiz to save their skin in recent weeks.
So, yes, this game meant a lot in terms of getting fans back onside and buying into the Arteta project.
After all, Arsenal fans remember only too well this year’s Europa League final in Baku, which Chelsea won 4-1 against the Gunners and which summed up the way previous manager Unai Emery had successfully patched up his team’s problems without actually solving them.
Arteta knows he cannot do the same; he has to oversee more intensive surgery.
But it seems he is still willing to build his new side around Mesut Ozil, once again chosen to start despite being a divisive figure under unconvinced Emery.
He has also stuck with the much lampooned Luiz, but how long for?
Ozil sent over the corner from which Aubameyang scored an early opener but Chelsea’s two goals in four minutes that sealed a 2-1 victory brought all Arsenal’s old nightmares back to life.
Any injury to Calum Chambers didn’t help but the new Arsenal with a new manager felt pretty much the same.
This puzzle won’t be completed for a long, long time.