For the second time this season, rival managers Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger will resume their long-running feud, as Chelsea and Arsenal meet at Stamford Bridge in Saturday’s lunchtime kickoff. The two teams met earlier in the season in the Community Shield where Arsenal defeated the Blues and Wenger could boast his first victory over a Jose Mourinho side in his managerial career. The big story, though, in the aftermath was an absent handshake between the managers, once more stirring up a feud that has seen Wenger shove Mourinho on the touchline last season and the Portuguese boss refer to his opposite number as a “voyeur” and a “specialist in failure” during their running battle.
The influence of the manager is always present before and during the match, but the actual match will be contested between the players on the pitch, and in that regard, this match is quite important for both teams.
In recent years, you could argue that Arsenal as a team have suffered a bit of an inferiority complex when coming up against Chelsea. Their last Premier League win was back in 2011 in a 5-3 match punctuated by a Robin van Persie hat trick, although they did win in the Community Shield this season. Stamford Bridge in particular hasn’t been a happy place for the Gunners in recent seasons, with Chelsea winning 2-0 last season with Arsenal playing well, and the 6-0 defeat in Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th match. It’s these matches that title contenders are judged on, and Arsenal will look to show that they can threaten Manchester City and that they are the most likely to do so.
For Chelsea, to call the start to this season a nightmare would be a bit of an understatement. The Blues have just 4 points from their first 5 matches, conceding 12 goals. This marks the worst start for Chelsea since 1986 when they earned just 3 points from their first 5 matches. While the goals conceded highlights how poor the Chelsea defence has been, a number of big players have underperformed this season. Eden Hazard has looked a shell of the Player of the Year that he was last year, Diego Costa hasn’t had much luck in front of goal, Cesc Fabregas has had little impact in creating chances, and Nemanja Matic has been chasing shadows. Mourinho made four changes midweek against Maccabi Tel-Aviv, and the side he put out went on to win 4-0. Chances are Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, and Matic will be restored to the starting 11, but they will be under pressure to perform.
If there is a big match where both sides really could use a win and not a draw, this would be it.
Arsenal had a very interesting midweek. A trip to Croatia to face Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League awaited them, and Arsene Wenger responded by making a number of changes, presumably in order to keep a fresh squad for the early kickoff after such a long trip. The gamble backfired. A 2-1 defeat at the Maksimir Stadium saw Olivier Giroud sent off in the first half and a poor defensive performance from an Arsenal side that should have won comfortably. That performance was in stark contrast to their performance last week against Stoke City where they comfortably beat the Potters and looked nearly unbeatable.
In contrast, Chelsea haven’t just been dropping points left and right, but the performances on the pitch have been pretty terrible. Like Arsenal, Chelsea made a few changes to the squad, but not so much to rest players but to get a response from the players. While the scoreline read 4-0, the performance of the side definitely improved, but more importantly, it appeared that some of the confidence began to come back to a squad that seemed to have collectively felt as if nothing could go right.
Now these two teams meet on Saturday, and even though it’s just the 6th match of the season, a win for either side is pivotal. Defeat for Arsenal will raise serious questions about Wenger’s judgment in rotating his squad midweek, the depth of the squad, and their collective mentality as far as challenging for the title. Defeat for Chelsea will heap more pressure on Mourinho’s side as they continue to flounder in the league and dig a bigger and bigger hole that they’ll need to climb out of.
Given all this, the match will probably go one of two ways. Either both sides will see a chance to get an all-important win and provide an entertaining match, or both sides will play not to lose and produce a match that won’t appeal to many neutrals.
The curious case of the Arsenal strike force.
The main question as far as squad selection for Arsenal will be who starts up front. Despite cries for Wenger to spend money and bring in a striker, Arsenal failed to sign one, and are now left with Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, and an injured Danny Welbeck. This has been a problem so far this season for the Gunners, as they lead the league in chances created, but are near the bottom of the league in goals scored.
Against Chelsea, it will be a big call as to who to start against a Chelsea defence that has looked a little shaky. The one thing that Wenger may look at is Walcott’s ineffectiveness against this Chelsea side in the Community Shield earlier this season. While on the surface Walcott’s pace would seem to be a real problem for a Chelsea defence that isn’t blessed with pace, against the Blues this season, he had very little impact on the match, mostly due to a lack of service. Walcott thrives on ball’s played behind the defence, but against Chelsea, those runs were either not found or passing angles not present, and he was subbed off on 66 minutes for Giroud.
Giroud, on the other hand, has shown some really good movement against Chelsea and has been effective, although he hasn’t scored goals. Giroud’s importance is a bit underrated because he provides that focal point in attack. He’s very good at linking play as a focal striker, and that allows the collection of number 10s that Arsenal have at their disposal to move around and play their passes without the opposition center backs stepping out. Giroud’s main problem is his lack of clinical finishing. He can score a goal, but he’ll frustrate you by missing three or four chances that you’d expect him to score.
My gut instinct is that Walcott starts, feeling that his pace will expose a weak Chelsea defence. The problem with starting Walcott, though, especially if you don’t play counterattack away from home, is that he doesn’t provide an out ball if you’re under pressure. How much they’ll be under pressure is a point of debate, but you’d expect that with Walcott, the play gets a bit more predictable.
Run at Francis Coquelin whenever you get a chance.
One of the main reasons that is cited for Arsenal’s recent renaissance is the emergence of Coquelin as the holding midfielder that supporters and critics have been crying out for Arsenal to employ since the departure of Gilberto Silva. While Coquelin has been good in that role, he’s still rather inexperienced in his position and he sometimes gets caught in positions where he has to foul. In fact, watching Arsenal recently, Coquelin gives away a lot of fouls in the middle of the pitch whenever a counterattack leaves him vulnerable, sometimes getting booked and sometimes getting away with it. It’s the one area of his game that he needs to improve on, and if Hazard is on form, it’s one area that Chelsea could put Arsenal in real trouble, especially after Mikel Arteta’s performance in Zagreb.
It’s not like he always gets support. Wenger’s midfield tends to isolate him a bit because of the number of attacking midfield playmakers that Wenger deploys. His preferred midfield most likely will consist of Santi Cazorla alongside Coquelin, with Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, and Alexis Sanchez behind the striker. It’s not a group that screams “defensive wizards,” but they have been able to do a job. They must not leave Coquelin on his own, though, especially against a Chelsea team that are effective on the counter when on form.
Which Chelsea players, if any, retain their places from midweek?
Midweek against Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Chelsea needed a result if not just for confidence, but for one or two squad players to put some pressure on their more established counterparts.
The signs against Maccabi Tel-Aviv were quite good for the debutants in the Blues squad. Ruben Loftus-Cheek got his first start of the season in midfield alongside Fabregas, and he put in a very impressive performance. Granted, it was against a weak side, but his composure on the ball and his reading of the game was quite good and gave you glimpses of why Mourinho rates him so highly.
Baba Rahman started at left back, pushing Cesar Azpilicueta to his natural right back position, and showed the energy and running that he showed in his time in Germany. However, he did show that he has a bit to learn in terms of reading the game, as he was caught out on the counter a few times, but he showed that he’s a competent left back.
I don’t know that either of those two actually start against Arsenal. The major impact of the inclusion of Baba on Wednesday was that Azpilicueta came to the right back spot and showed a pressing and energy that’s sorely lacking when Ivanovic starts. However, Baba’s still rather inexperienced in this back line, and it would be something if he started. Loftus-Cheek, I think, has the best chance to start, but not over Nemanja Matic. Injuries to Willian and Pedro means that Mourinho has a choice of starting Ramires in a wide right position, where he was ineffective against Manchester City, or placing Oscar wide right and playing more of a 4-3-3. If any surprises are sprung, it might be seeing Loftus-Cheek start in midfield alongside Matic with Ramires missing out.
However, the one player that must start is Oscar. I’ve said it before in this column, but Oscar is the most underrated player in this Chelsea side. He’s not flashy, but he simply ties everything together in a neat little package by filling gaps and linking play. To see his importance, just watch Diego Costa’s goal against Maccabi. Fabregas’ ball comes in to Costa perfectly, but only because Oscar makes a brilliant run in front of the center backs to pull them away. The pass is dropped right in that gap Oscar makes.