On Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th match in charge of Arsenal, he travels across London to see a familiar and bitter rival in Jose Mourinho and his league-leading Chelsea side. While 1,000 matches is nothing to sniff at, the more pressing issue at hand is a match in which Arsenal can close the gap to the league leaders and send out a warning that they may be in for more than one trophy. It’s fitting given that the Gunners have spent the last eight years in search of that elusive trophy and have changed their club strategy since that time.
Wenger’s main change was to bring in more youth players in an attempt to breed a winning culture with those players in the first team while playing a much more attractive brand of football than he had with the Invincibles and prior. You can debate whether that worked or not, but the fact is that Wenger has always held fast to a more romantic notion of football being the beautiful game. If Wenger is the ultimate romantic, Mourinho is the ultimate realist, believing in winning trophies as a sign of success no matter how pretty it is.
The clashes have continued between these two and their ideologies, leading to great comments about fears of failure and specialists in failure. Nonetheless, the two managers meet on Wenger’s special day with trophies on their mind and believing in their own perception of success via their own methods. How fitting that unless a draw happens, either Wenger will see Mourinho’s comments gain traction, or Mourinho’s unblemished home record as manager of Chelsea and his unblemished record against Wenger will fall.
But this rest of this column is all about the football on the pitch and what Chelsea need to do.
Wenger will need to be willing roll back the clock and be a pragmatist to give him his best shot at winning.
These two sides are in very different, yet somewhat similar places since their last meeting that ended 0-0. Like the last time, Arsenal are embarking on another run of massive fixtures against top-class opposition that will define their season and Chelsea enter with the stench of defeat still filling their nostrils. In both cases, this match will probably define the remainder of their league campaign with the points that are at stake.
To get the 3 points, Arsenal must continue to build on their performances against Everton, Bayern Munich, and Tottenham where they weren’t at their attacking, graceful best, but were able to grind out results. In fact, the 4-1 win over Everton looks more flattering than it was given that Everton were much the equal of the Gunners for 68 minutes. Against Bayern, they were willing to cede possession to the German club and play on the counter, but they didn’t create any real chances other than the goal, but did play well at the back. Against Spurs, they scored very early, but were pushed back and forced to defend and did so well for a 1-0 win.
To beat Chelsea, Wenger must again look to grind out a result, particularly since the Blues are so good on the counter and very good at home. As top sides have shown, if you push too far forward and don’t create chances, this Chelsea side are very dangerous on the counter. Given the injury situation and the make-up of his possible first 11, he may be better off pulling the reins back on his normal attacking approach.
Injuries. Injuries. Injuries.
The Arsenal injury list is full of players that any Arsenal fan would love to have back and allows them to lament about what might have happened if they were all fit. The bottom line is that the side is missing Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Mesut Özil, andAbou Diaby. In addition, Tomas Rosicky will face a late fitness test and may also be unavailable for the match.
Any team would struggle with those injuries, but it’s especially damaging for Arsenal given the overall lack of depth. With those injuries, there’s every possibility that young Serge Gnabry or the recently recovered loanee Kim Kallstrom could be forced into the starting 11 if Rosicky fails his fitness test and a bench comprised of at least two academy players. If Rosicky does play, the situation improves slightly, but it doesn’t give Wenger much room to change the match if things aren’t going his way. That’s a dangerous prospect when going up against Chelsea, as having to face the Blues without really being able to adjust your style is a recipe for disaster.
Injuries have taken another toll: lack of pace.
With Theo Walcott out for the season, Arsenal have been left with a problem of pace in their side, namely they don’t have much. When Walcott wasn’t playing, that disadvantage could be masked by the clever runs of Ramsey or the drive of Wilshere from midfield, but without them, it leaves them with really one option to fill that role, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
While Chamberlain has played quite well of late, it’s often been in a deeper role where he can make surging runs through the middle and defend quickly in transitions that has complemented the more intelligent, but less mobile game of Mikel Arteta. With injuries to Özil, Ramsey, and Walcott, Chamberlain will most likely find himself out in a wider area where he’s not quite as effective when running at defenders from the touchline and he has to face the likes of Branislav Ivanovic or Cesar Azpilicueta, both of whom are two of the in-form fullbacks in the league.
In addition, moving Chamberlain to a wide position means that you have to partner Arteta with Mathieu Flamini, which improves your ball-winning ability in midfield but also introduces another player who isn’t exactly a speed merchant.
If Flamini plays, he may simply exacerbate the problems at the back, problems that Tottenham failed to take advantage of, but Chelsea can.
Arsenal’s defence this season has not been their main weakness. In past seasons, you could say that they were a bit soft and you could beat them with more physical play, such as crosses into the box. That’s not so much the case this season with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny enjoying their best seasons at the club and the return of Mathieu Flamini having brought a bit of steel to that midfield that sorely needed it.
Their biggest area of improvement has been their ability to deal with crosses into the box. In past years, the Gunners have looked less than convincing against teams that launched balls towards a big, target striker for headers and on corners and set pieces that involved high balls. This season, that’s been largely eradicated due to Mertesacker’s command of the defence both in organization and in the air, and Wojciech Szczesny improving in coming for crosses. That was no more evident than last week against Spurs where despite having the bulk of possession, Arsenal were quite content to head every one of Spurs crosses out and Spurs found no other way of attack.
However, the one weakness that’s been exposed to both Liverpool and Manchester City is that neither Koscielny nor Mertesacker are great defenders one-on-one, and when run at and put under pressure, they are prone to mistakes. Mertesacker’s relative lack of speed and agility means that his ability to keep up with quick attackers is a bit lacking, especially when asked to turn or move side-to-side, and Koscielny has a tendency to go to ground to win the ball when beaten, leading to a risk of conceding penalties in the area, and he’s done so on more than one occasion.
In Chelsea, those two and the pair of Arteta and Flamini, who really aren’t particularly fleet of foot, will have to deal with three of the quickest attacking midfielders in the league. Even with Willian suspended, Andre Schürlle is definitely quick enough to fill in and has a similar work rate, and let’s not forget about Eden Hazard and Oscar. That’s the main problem in the defence for Arsenal and a way to exploit them.
Jose Mourinho must take a slightly different approach to this match than he did the first time around.
In the last meeting with Arsenal, Mourinho surprised everyone by trotting out the midfield of John Obi Mikel, Ramires, and Frank Lampard in a 4-3-3. The idea was to break up Arsenal’s attack in a similar way to what Mourinho’s Chelsea were able to do from 2005-2007 with Claude Makelele, Michael Essien, and Lampard.
However, with Ramires suspended and Willian, who played right wing in that match, also suspended, Mourinho must alter his approach. If he elects to play 4-3-3 again without Ramires, he’ll have to do so by playing three from Mikel, Lampard, Nemanja Matic, and David Luiz. While Luiz does have a bit of pace and quickness, he doesn’t quite provide the same threat as Ramires does going forward, and it doesn’t help exploit the lack of pace in the Arsenal side. Mourinho tends to also be a bit braver at home than away, so the absences will most like see a 4-2-3-1 with Lampard and Matic at the base of midfield.
Lampard returning to the midfield is key, at the very least to protect the one weakness of Matic; his close control when under pressure. Matic possesses great presence in the midfield with his balance of passing and defence, but his ability to possess the ball in tight spaces is a bit lacking, perhaps due to his size and lack of agility. If there’s one thing Lampard has done well in his career, it’s take care of the ball in close quarters. He has always shown an ability to keep control in spaces, and it’s a very underrated part of his game. If Lampard doesn’t start, I would expect Mikel to get the call for a very similar reason, and perhaps to add a bit of added defence against a team that isn’t really equipped to expose his weakness to pace.