One of these days, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea will finish a match against Arsenal with a full complement of players on the pitch.
This is a fixture that will always be resonant for Conte because it was against Arsenal last September that he changed his tactical vision for the club and from there, with three-at-the-back, shaped a title-winning unit. It is now in danger of becoming the fixture where he always has to think of what might be the right formation for 10 versus 11.
David Luiz’s red card is now part of a trilogy, after Pedro’s sending-off in the Community Shield and Victor Moses’s in the FA Cup final. The Brazilian showed too much of the sole of his boot slamming into Saed Kolasinac, although the impact on the outcome was limited, the dismissal leaving Chelsea short for just seven minutes at the end of a contest that was goalless but gripping, rugged at times but healthily competitive.
Arsenal, who won both of those Wembley 10-versus-11s against Chelsea, can reflect that their ruggedness, epitomised in Shkodran Mustafi’s duelling with Alvaro Morata, was a virtue, their competitiveness a feather in their cap. It meant they collected their first Premier League point at Stamford Bridge for six seasons.
They might have won all three, had Alexandre Lacazette poked in an excellent opportunity in the first half. Encouragingly, they mastered the midfield for most of the game, and they held and troubled the champions without significant influence from a pair of stars.
The futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are an enduring issue, and Arsenal will probably have to live without them after their contacts expire in June. Yesterday they more than lived with Chelsea without Ozil, out because of a knee problem, and with Sanchez only on as a second-half substitute.
“We were focussed and determined,” said Arsene Wenger, happy to end a long, losing run at the Bridge he has wearily presided over.
“With a bit more freedom,” he suggested, and less inhibition, Arsenal’s periods of swagger might have yielded a goal.
They had a handful of good first-half chances. Bellerin’s cross was met by Danny Welbeck, who directed his header just wide; another Bellerin centre, low to Lacazette, was saved.
Kolasinac – a man apparently built of enough tungsten to withstand tackles like the one that later led to Luiz’s red card - examined Courtois with a thumping drive, and Granit Xhaka tried one of those long-range bazookas which have become recognised not only as his party trick but also as either a barometer of Arsenal’s confidence or their desperation. Tick this one off as a mark of self-belief. It whistled just off target.
After those galvanising moments, Lacazette fluffed the best chance of all, skying an effort from close range, after the ball had ricocheted back to him off the post. Aaron Ramsey had planted a shot against the upright after a determined run with the ball – more scramble than slalom, but still adventurous – that made Chelsea look uncharacteristically flimsy.
“We showed we really wanted to get a result,” said Ramsey. “We are capable of competing against the best. It was we needed after Liverpool.”
The defeat at Anfield three weeks back, a thrashing, now looks less like a gloomy gauge of how ill-equipped Wenger’s side are to keep pace with the Premier League’s elite, although, after three away games so far in the league, they are still seeking their first goal outside the Emirates.
Conte has now clocked up a first goalless match at Stamford Bridge, more than a year and month into his Premier League career.
Once again, against Arsenal, he had to rethink his strategy. Replacing Pedro with the mountainous Tiemoue Bakayoko at half-time acknowledged his team were too often second best in midfield. “I tried to have more balance,” Conte said.
With 20 minutes left, both managers had introduced their potential matchwinners. Eden Hazard, who has been recuperating from ankle surgery, came on for Chelsea, Sanchez for Arsenal. Once Hazard is fully fit, the champions will threaten more than they did yesterday.
Opponents may know off by heart that Hazard’s favourite manoeuvre is to cut in from the left, and shoot, right-footed. But knowing is no insurance against prevention. Hazard did just that, evading a number of challenges to fire hard at goal with 11 minutes remaining. Petr Cech, well positioned, saved, as he had done skilfully from Pedro, one-on-one with the goalkeeper in the first half.
“It was a good, open game,” said Conte, turning his mind to another suspension – Luiz’s – to deal with. Chelsea may retain their title this season, but the Fair Play awards, after a third red card in this season’s Premier League already, may be slipping out of sight.