Chelsea face their second major challenge in the last three weeks on another Super Sunday as the Blues welcome the challenge of Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Matches like this one proved critical to last season’s title race, not least because of the thrashings that Arsenal took away from home against Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea. Once again, Arsenal must be thinking that they have to come away with a result not just because of wanting to banish the demons of last season’s match, but also because a loss would mean a 9-point gap between themselves and Chelsea. Even this early in the season, a gap like that will be difficult to overcome, especially with Chelsea in such ominous form.
That form has carried Jose Mourinho’s men to the top of the Premier League this season, boasting an unbeaten record and having dropped just 2 points thus far in the season. The way they’ve been playing so far has brought early comparisons, ironically, to the Invincibles of Arsenal and the last unbeaten season in the league. However, Mourinho is quick to dismiss those early claims, though with a side with such great balance, it’s hard to see where they may stumble this season.
Interestingly, the only other unbeaten team in the Premier League this season is Arsenal, having won 2 and drawn 4 along the way, though the Gunners are far from the talk of who will win the title. Arsenal have banished some demons, coming back from 1-0 down to take a 2-1 lead at home to City, although they would end up drawing the match due to conceding a late goal from a set piece. However, the old Arsenal has shown its head, suffering a major defeat away to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League and only drawing to Tottenham just a week ago. The latter proved especially costly, as injuries to Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta has left them short of numbers in midfield.
First question, have Arsenal recovered from the psychological effects of the 6-0 beating at the hands of Chelsea last season?
Arsene Wenger himself mentioned in his press conference that the 6-0 defeat is never far from his thoughts, and how can it not be? This was Wenger’s 1,000th match in charge and the heaviest defeat that his side has suffered, even more so than the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford. In the latter match, he had a side depleted by injuries. But against Chelsea last season, he fielded a full-strength side and watched that team get taken apart with 3 goals in the first 17 minutes and reduced to 10 men. Defeats like that will linger in the players’ minds, and with both Wenger and his team wanting to set things right, there should be a hunger and a passion in the side.
But how will they respond? It was Arsenal’s away form against the big sides that has let them down in the last couple years and their inability to go away from home and get a result. With the exceptions of Calum Chambers, Danny Welbeck, and Alexis Sanchez, this team is unchanged from last year’s, and it’ll be interesting to see how they play, especially with another early kickoff scheduled.
There has been talk after the 2-2 draw to City and the way they’ve battled this season that there’s a grit and a fight in this Arsenal that wasn’t present last year. This is their chance to prove it against a manager that Wenger has never defeated at the site of one of the worst beatings that his team has ever suffered. It will tell us all we need to know about the psyche of this Arsenal side.
Welbeck and Sanchez have added a different dimension to this side.
One thing that was desperately missing from last year’s team was pace. Last season, Arsenal had a group of technical players, but only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott offered any threat of running in behind a defence with pace, and the latter missed most of the season with torn knee ligaments.
This year, the additions of Welbeck and Sanchez have added a dimension of pace and a willingness to run at and behind defenders that is sorely needed, especially away from home if you plan on counterattacking. We’ve seen Arsenal play that way more often this season, especially against Manchester City where Arsenal were able to use that pace to get past the City midfield and into the attack.
It’s also given Arsenal some semblance of continuity in attack. In Welbeck, they have a much more mobile center forward than Olivier Giroud which has allowed them to play the more fluid passing game that they’re known for in the final third. However, aside from the hat trick against Galatasaray, Welbeck’s finishing isn’t his strong suit, and his goalscoring record bears that out. What that has led to is the traditional Arsenal passing game in the final third with interchanging pieces, but most of the time, without any real cutting edge, especially given that Sanchez is the only established finisher in that Arsenal attack.
Injuries will play a major part, again, in Arsenal’s success or failure.
Arsenal like to chalk it up to bad luck, but once again, the Gunners come into a big match with notable absences due to injury. This time, injuries to Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta have left Arsenal short of numbers in midfield – so short, in fact, that Santi Cazorla played a semi-holding midfield role against Galatasaray. An injury to Mathieu Debuchy has also left Arsenal with just five senior defenders and no senior center backs in their squad.
It’s a real mystery as to why Wenger’s sides have suffered so many injuries in recent years, and it’s really hurt them in terms of depth, especially since Wenger has only recently shown an interest in making big moves in the transfer market. The injuries though, leave him right on the edge of having a major injury crisis and leave him with fewer options should he decide to try and change his pattern of play. It also makes it much easier to pick his starting 11, and that could prove vital against a manager with great tactical acumen like Jose Mourinho.
How are Diego Costa’s hamstrings?
This is a major question going into this match because of Mourinho’s declaration that Diego Costa struggles to play three matches in a week with his lingering hamstring problems and his subsequent comments that Costa will start against Arsenal after playing the full 90 minutes against Sporting CP.
Between the additions of Cesc Fabregas and Costa, Mourinho has strengthened two of the weaker areas of the side from last season – creativity and finishing – and that has played a major factor in this season, particularly the contribution of Costa.
Costa’s return of eight goals so far in the league has represented a major upgrade over the goalscoring from the trio of Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres, and Demba Ba, so it’s no surprise that Costa’s fitness is a big question. If Costa breaks down, his replacement will be Loic Remy, with Didier Drogba out due to injury, and Remy himself has proven to be a natural goalscorer.
However, Costa’s become an integral part of Chelsea’s attack and not just because of his goals. He’s also a powerful player who can threaten through his physical play and will battle with the opposition center backs, as evidenced by his battles with Vincent Kompany against City. If he has to come off injured, it will be a blow. But this time, there are options.
The question isn’t what you do to beat Arsenal. The question is, can Arsenal change the way they play?
The blueprint to beating Arsenal isn’t really in question. Managers have worked out Arsenal’s way to play, but only the big teams have had the resources and players to carry out that tactic. In recent years, managers have been able to give Arsenal just enough rope to hang themselves because they play the same way whether they’re at home or they’re away. They want to play with the ball. They want to dictate the tempo. They want to play on the attack. However, away from home, managers let them have the ball, let them come forward, and pounce on any mistake they make with ruthless efficiency. It’s how City, Liverpool, and Chelsea were able to put at least five goals past them when Arsenal travelled to face each one, and it’s why Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides have had great success. The question then becomes whether or not Wenger can or is willing to change his methods since everyone else can see it?
For this match, I’m not so sure he can. The absence of a true holding midfielder has been a problem for Arsenal, and with the absence of Ramires, Mourinho will most likely not be tempted to play John Obi Mikel alongside Nemanja Matic, and will opt to play Oscar in an advanced role and Fabregas as part of a two. Last season, Arteta was unable to cope with Chelsea’s breaks from midfield and left them vulnerable and outnumbered at the back, and it’s hard to see his replacement, Mathieu Flamini, being any more effective, unless he just kicks people.
That is the key to beating Arsenal – picking the ball off in midfield and countering quickly because they push forward in attack, even away from home. Arsenal’s way to stop another convincing Chelsea win is to play a bit more pragmatic, especially knowing that Chelsea will be doing the same. However, the question is, can a zebra change his stripes?