Two wins in the next two matches – the path that’s laid in front of Chelsea can’t be much clearer. The first of those two matches is late Sunday afternoon at the Emirates Stadium, as Chelsea take on Arsenal. With the Gunners sitting second in the table, 10 points behind Chelsea, a victory on Sunday means that the Blues can mathematically clinch the title on Wednesday against Leicester City. However, for all intents and purposes, the title race effectively ended last Saturday when Manchester United traveled to Stamford Bridge and left with no points after a 1-0 defeat, though you could argue it was over before the start of that match. Regardless, Arsenal will want a victory in this match, if for no other reasons than to keep their slim title hopes alive and also to give them a platform to build upon for next season.
As it stands, Arsene Wenger’s men are the form team in Europe right now, having won 9 straight with their last loss coming in a disastrous match at the Emirates against Monaco in the Champions League. More importantly, if you look back through their fixtures, Arsenal’s last draw was back on December 21 in a 2-2 draw to Liverpool at Anfield. Since that time, they’ve lost just 3 matches – Southampton, Tottenham, and Monaco – and have won every other match, including victories away from home over both Manchester City and Manchester United. It’s fair then to say that confidence is high in North London, and the Gunners will look to carry that confidence against a team and a manager that has been a bit of a thorn in their side. In 12 meetings, Arsene Wenger has never masterminded a victory over a Jose Mourinho-led team.
For Chelsea, it hasn’t been pretty, but it’s been effective at the tail end of the season. The style that was prevalent in the first half of the season has been swapped out for substance, but the results have still remained. The Blues have lost just twice this season, and although the last four matches haven’t been pretty, they’ve all resulted in 3 points each, and it’s put Chelsea in a commanding lead at the top of the table.
Jose Mourinho vs. Arsene Wenger – what nonsense…or is it?
12 matches played – 7 wins, 5 draws. That’s Jose Mourinho’s record against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal sides. It’s a statistic that can’t be ignored. Sure, you can downplay that record and say that history means nothing and Sunday’s match will be different, but the fact is that when it comes to Mourinho vs. Wenger, Wenger often ends up on the short end of the stick. For all this talk about momentum and form and everything in between, the Mourinho/Wenger battle often comes down to the difference in how both men view the game.
Most of Arsenal’s big matches, not just against Chelsea, have followed a very similar pattern. Arsenal keep possession well, opponents sit back and defend. Arsenal become frustrated that they can’t break their opponents down, so they start taking chances and committing more men forward. Arsenal make one mistake, opponents quickly counter and generate chances. That’s been the recipe for Jose Mourinho and other managers who have come up against Wenger’s Arsenal teams.
That notion changed a bit when they took a bit more of a counterattacking approach against both Manchester United and Manchester City and came away with wins in both matches. It was hailed as a masterstroke, a turning point in the philosophy of Arsenal, and a symbol of lessons learned and a way forward. However, this match against Chelsea will show whether those lessons have taken root or if they were just an aberration.
The big difference between facing Chelsea and facing United and City is that against City and United, Arsenal were away from home and, to use a boxing term, didn’t have to make the fight. Because both Manchester sides tend to prefer a possession-based game, there was no pressure for Arsenal to come out and try to beat either team at football, particularly against City who are simply better at that style. Against Chelsea, however, Arsenal are at home and are going to have to attack a Chelsea side that will most likely play on the counter if they want to win or provide entertainment, and that’s the real question. Will the romantic in Arsene Wenger allow himself to not get carried away with providing entertaining football and show that he’s learned that a draw is sometimes enough? That will go a long way to prove where Arsenal are heading in the future.
Olivier Giroud – the silent assassin.
Despite missing a significant amount of time this season with injury, Olivier Giroud has once again hit 18 goals in a season for Arsenal. He might just be the most unheralded member of that Arsenal attack, but he also might be one of the most dangerous.
When you watch Giroud, nothing really stands out about him. He links up play well. He’s able to hold the ball up. He can score with both his feet and his head. But what makes Giroud so dangerous is that he has a tendency to ghost in and out of the play off the ball, but yet attack space with runs, and find himself with scoring chances. It’s something that gets lost in the Arsenal attack when he’s not there and Danny Welbeck starts, but it is something that makes a huge difference to how Arsenal play.
With Giroud in the middle, Arsenal not only have that focal point for their attack, but they also have a player who reads their first-time balls. It’s not just the normal one-touch passes that they play around the box that he is able to read, but it’s also the early crosses played into the box where Giroud has an uncanny knack to make the front-post run and convert.
However, the downside to Giroud is that he’s not the most clinical with the chances he receives. He will get you a goal, but you may have to create three, four, or more chances for him to get it. Against a team like Chelsea who don’t allow many chances, that becomes problem. If Giroud isn’t scoring, someone else will obviously have to do so.
Test Francis Coquelin and see if he really is their answer in midfield.
Francis Coquelin has been a bit of a revelation this season for Arsenal. This was a player who was recalled from a season-long loan move due to injuries and ineffectiveness and has provided that bit of steel and combative play to a midfield that desperately needed it. In fact, he’s also been helped a bit by Arsenal finding the right balance in midfield, deploying Santi Cazorla in the deeper role next to him to play the passes, while pushing Aaron Ramsey out to the right to accommodate Mesut Ozil behind the striker. It’s a system that’s worked well, in part because Ramsey and Cazorla’s willingness to close down and press the ball has offered a bit of protection, especially since Mesut Ozil isn’t well-known for his ability to track back.
Against Chelsea, though, that combination could cause Arsenal a bit of a problem if Cazorla, Ozil, and Ramsey can’t deal with the tenacity of Chelsea’s midfield. In the past, much larger, more physical Chelsea midfielders have often overrun Arsenal’s smaller midfielders. While Chelsea’s midfield no longer possess players with the power of a Michael Essien or a Michael Ballack, the likes of Oscar, Willian, Ramires, and Eden Hazard have shown a willingness to play a physical game if needed, and that’s where Coquelin comes in.
For Arsenal to have success, Coquelin must be Arsenal’s version of Nemanja Matic and read the game well enough to stop Chelsea on the counterattack. He’s going to have to read every Chelsea counterattack and break it up, particularly if Arsenal decide to commit men forward in the attack. If Coquelin has a bad day or gets too isolated, Chelsea could have an absolute field day with the quality they have on the break. One way or another, Arsenal will find out whether they have their long-term answer at that position.
The biggest mismatch on Sunday – Chelsea’s attacking set-pieces against Arsenal’s defence.
If there’s one area in this match that Arsenal have to be extremely concerned about, it’s how to defend set pieces. If David Ospina starts and Per Mertesacker isn’t fit to play, the tallest member of that Arsenal team will be Laurent Koscielny at 6’1”. That’s including all 11 players, as David Ospina himself is only 6’0”. That’s a big problem when you consider that on every set piece, Chelsea will trot forward Nemanja Matic, John Terry, Gary Cahill, and Branislav Ivanovic who are all very good at attacking set pieces and are also no shorter than 6’1”. Even the shortest member of that foursome, Ivanovic, might be the best leaper of them all.
Regardless of what happens in open play, Arsenal are going to have to be wary of how many set pieces they concede against a side that brings that much size and with a goalkeeper who is a solid shot-stopper, but not the most commanding on high balls into the area.
Oh, and that’s not even bringing up Didier Drogba, the great tormentor of Arsenal, who may start in place of Diego Costa.