The week of home fixtures continues, as Chelsea welcome North London neighbors Arsenal to Stamford Bridge in a fixture that has become quite important for both clubs in terms of desire to qualify for the Champions League. Both the Gunners and the Blues are having to fight off the challenge of Tottenham and Everton for the final two spots, while both teams have had their struggles as of late.
Arsenal rebounded from their defeat to Manchester City last weekend with a gritty 1-0 win over Swansea City in their FA Cup Third Round replay, while Chelsea dropped 2 points to a Southampton side that they had thrashed 11 days prior by giving away a 2-0 halftime lead.
It’s safe to say that both sides could use all 3 points in their hunt for Europe. A win for the Blues guarantees that they continue to consolidate their 3rd position in the league and could open up an 11-point gap between them and Arsenal. Arsenal, meanwhile, are seeing themselves dig a hole, as they are currently 6 points off of Tottenham who are in 4th and a loss could be devastating. The good news is that Spurs themselves have a tricky fixture, welcoming Manchester United to White Hart Lane.
One editorial side note, I’ve started to like a new term that I heard a friend of mine on the radio here in the U.S. use on sports talk radio: reasonable facsimile. You may see it pop up on here in the five things. I like it because it describes the fact that when a player needs to be replaced for whatever reason, you expect his replacement to provide a reasonable facsimile of the player he’s replaced. If he doesn’t provide that, performances as a whole will suffer and the team will be worse off. Just a small nugget of information before I break down the Gunners; off we go.
First thing about Arsenal: They are not the same side they were last year, let alone 2 or 3 years ago.
Fact: you cannot continue to sell your best players to other sides, rivals or not, and expect to just continue on and play the way you have with the results you expect. That’s just not a logical way of thinking. Yet, Arsenal have done so and expect that they can challenge for a top-four spot in the league with no real problems. However, that’s not taking into consideration that both Everton and Tottenham have strengthened over that time, and for Spurs, the emergence of Gareth Bale has given them a star of their own.
Arsenal’s argument would be that one or two players don’t make an entire team. My argument would be that they do influence results in certain matches where sheer quality can sometimes pull points from a match where the team is otherwise playing badly. Just look at the effect Robin van Persie is having this season at United and ask yourself whether or not Arsenal miss him.
The fact is that Arsenal have sold both van Persie and Cesc Fabregas and have not found reasonable facsimiles (there’s that word) of either. Right now, three players, Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud, and Santi Cazorla were brought in to attempt to fill the void left by the aforementioned Fabregas and van Persie. While all three good players, none of them have the pedigree or the quality of the players that they replaced, and I think results are showing that. Arsenal are dropping points in situations where a van Persie, a Fabregas, or in past years, Thierry Henry, might have saved them.
I mentioned midweek that Southampton’s main flaw was their lack of organization at the back. That problem is going to reappear with Arsenal.
The main on-pitch issue with Arsenal is their lack of organization as an entire unit. It’s not that they have bad players. It’s that the lines of communication and someone to step forward and command them what to do is just not there. If you remember back to our first meeting in September, it was disorganisation on two set pieces that got us the victory. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain failed to mark David Luiz,and probably should have been anyway, but the ball went over his head and Fernando Torres volleyed home, and the second goal came from Laurent Koscielny being left in no man’s land and touching it home for the second.
That organization hasn’t improved, as evidenced by last week’s game against City. Before the sending off, City had the better of the play, but again, lack of organisation caused the dismissal of Koscielny who was forced to wrestle Edin Dzeko to the ground since no one marked him when the ball came back in. It also meant that City could have easily gone 4 or 5 up at the half if Dzeko and Carlos Tevez weren’t so wasteful, as the 10-man Gunners simply could not find any sort of structure to their play on their own.
To me, that’s what Chelsea have to wait for. The lack of a commanding presence in that side means that there’s always a good chance for something to go wrong in situations where the team needs organised. We saw that same thing against Southampton, and it resulted in a 2-0 lead from Saints inability to clear their lines and build the right shape. Let’s see what Arsenal can do.
Arsenal’s second biggest on-pitch issue is their attack. Let’s start with Santi Cazorla.
Here’s where the departures of van Persie and Fabregas hurt this Arsenal side the most. At times, chances are either not created at all, or the players charged with finishing them blindly waste the chances. Cazorla was brought in to finally attempt to fill the void of creativity left by Fabregas. The problem is that Cazorla, while a good player, is not really a great player, and he’s playing in a role that isn’t necessarily his natural role. If you’ve watched Cazorla before he arrived in England, you know that Cazorla started his career at Villarreal and joined Malaga last season. You’ll also know that in both places, he wasn’t a creative attacking midfielder, but rather a creative winger in the style of a Samir Nasri.
However, at Arsenal, he’s being asked to play behind the striker, and I think that’s where you can limit him the best. There’s a difference between a player like Juan Mata and a player like Cazorla in the way that you can sometimes mark the latter out of the game. Cazorla’s influence on the pitch has been waning, simply because I think teams have found out that he’s not the strongest player and he sometimes lacks the grittiness to deal with a holding-style midfielder nipping at him. Chelsea fans can attest that Mata has the same thing happen to him, yet finds a way through it. I don’t think Cazorla always does, and I think it actually hurts Arsenal because he’s much better when he just has to escape a fullback rather than a center back and a holding midfielder. If I’m Benitez, I get David Luiz around him quickly and hope Luiz can get in Cazorla’s head, but without getting carded.
Next, on to the problems that Arsenal have with their finishing.
The departure of van Persie hurt much more than I think any Arsenal fan could have imagined, mostly because his chosen destination was Old Trafford. However, what has been left behind is the fact that Arsene Wenger used to have replacements for his departing centre forwards somewhere in the squad. When Dennis Bergkamp left, van Persie stepped into the void to partner Henry with Henry now shouldering most of the load. When Henry left, the leadership of the front line was left to van Persie.
However, with the departure of van Persie, you’ve found that Wenger didn’t have a tailor-made replacement for him and had to dip into the market to bring in Podolski and Giroud. The interesting thing to me is that if you merged them into one player, you would essentially have a reasonable facsimile of van Persie. Both men possess some of the skills of van Persie; Podolski in his ability to create from wide areas and make runs and Giroud’s ability to offer a presence up against the back line and come deep to offer support. The problem is that neither really represents that on their own, and therein lies the problem.
Wenger, as of late, has opted to play with just one striker, whereas in the past he would partner Henry and Bergkamp, knowing that the skills of both men complimented one another. However, he also had a very stout central midfield with Patrick Vieira in the side and could afford to play with just two. Right now, he doesn’t have the personnel to do that.
The biggest concern, however, is that neither man has really converted their chances when they’ve come their way. As I mentioned that both have the skills individually to do some of the things that van Persie did, neither really possesses the finishing that he had. It’s telling then that Wenger has opted as of late to play Theo Walcott through the middle, who lacks the physical strength and the overall diversity in his game to be nothing more than a poacher as a striker. Yet, he’s asked to lead the line on his own. That should say it all.
Last point: Arsenal’s main strength is the re-emergence of Jack Wilshere.
While the play of players like Thomas Vermaelan have tailed off this season, one bright spot for Arsenal will be the emergence of Jack Wilshere as the potential leader of the Gunners’ side. Against City, for the first time, I saw Wilshere take an active role in trying to drive his team forward in that match. You could argue that if desire and determination earned you goals, Wilshere should have created enough of them to get a point just on force of will. He was fouled 7 times by City, but kept coming at them, and I think it’s a positive side for Arsenal fans that he’s starting to return to the player he was before the knee issues.
The other thing that Wilshere also has is a bit of naughtiness in his play. In his return match against United and throughout his career, really, he’s shown a willingness to mix it up with some rather meaty challenges. His biggest challenge on Sunday will be to martial a midfield without Mikel Arteta against a Chelsea side who don’t have a terribly poor midfield either. If Arsenal are to win, Wilshere will have to prove that he is a talent that is just as good as his more well-renowned foes.