For the first time this season, Chelsea head to North London to take on Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. It’s a trek that in recent years has proven to be quite successful, with the Blues having not lost in their last five visits to the Emirates in the Premier League.
For Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, it’s his first matchup against Arsene Wenger in a managerial capacity. Conte has faced the Frenchman once before when Conte was still playing for Juventus in 2002.
This match could be quite significant for both sides. Despite defeat at home to Liverpool in the opening match of the season, the Gunners have steadied the ship, winning three of their last four matches. More importantly, they’ve started to regain their scoring touch, netting eight goals in their last three matches.
Chelsea have had almost the opposite form to Arsenal, winning their first three matches of the season, before a draw away to Swansea and defeat at home to Liverpool. Concerning for the Blues is the fact that they’ve only managed one clean sheet in the league this season. The good news is that Diego Costa is back to his best, scoring five goals so far this season, and Eden Hazard has chipped in with two of his own and looks back to showing the form from the title-winning 2014-2015 season.
Which team will show more mental strength on Saturday?
In years past, this isn’t really a question that would have been hard to answer. Psychologically, Chelsea just have some sort of grip on Arsenal to where they seem to get a result, regardless of their circumstances.
In fact, even in last season’s disastrous campaign that saw Chelsea finish 10th, the Blues still managed to take all six points in their matches against the Gunners.
However, this season might be a little bit different. The gap has narrowed a bit from both sides. This season, Arsenal have shown a bit more resiliency and have shown that they have matured as a group, including the fight back to 4-3 against Liverpool after conceding three goals in the space of 14 minutes that in previous seasons would have left Arsenal on the floor.
Last season, a feature of Chelsea’s play was a bit of lethargy that at times looked as if the squad were just going through the motions, especially at the beginning and end of the season.
Tactics and personnel aside, if Conte’s arrival at Chelsea has had any effect, it has restored the team spirit and the resiliency that has been a hallmark of past Chelsea squads.
However, the remnants of last season still exist, as there are still times in a match where it looks as if the horrors of last season still linger in the minds of the players.
For the better part of an hour against Liverpool, Chelsea simply could not get close to their opponents and were thoroughly outplayed, and a similar thing happened just four days later for the first 45 minutes against Leicester City.
In the case of the latter, the Blues were able to pick themselves up and take a victory, but another sluggish start against Arsenal could prove to be very problematic given the quality that is in the Arsenal side.
Chelsea’s defence remains a huge worry.
One of the main issues from last season that does still remain is the Chelsea defence.
Over the past few years, the defence has needed a bit of a refresh, but it hasn’t quite happened yet. As a result, Chelsea’s back line has been susceptible to pace, especially since a number of defenders aren’t exactly known for their quickness.
One of the major issues is the form of Branislav Ivanovic. His performances last season were a major issue, and this season, they haven’t gotten much better. The Serbian defender has never been the quickest player, and over the past two seasons, he’s been exposed in one-on-one situations by tricky wingers who are willing to run at him. Against Arsenal, he’s likely to face a similar scenario, though his opponent is yet to be determined.
The other weakness that has become noticeable in the Chelsea defence is the general lack of awareness and structure, especially in the absence of John Terry.
Against both Leicester and Liverpool, David Luiz partnered Gary Cahill, and the absence of Terry was noticeable, particularly as Chelsea’s set piece organisation was terrible for the first goal against Liverpool and a number of Chelsea’s defenders failed to spot runners and gaps in the two goals against Leicester.
In all likelihood, Arsenal will probably look to take advantage of Chelsea’s problems at the back by playing a system that Wenger’s favoured a lot this season — Sanchez as a striker, in sort of a false nine type of role, and used Theo Walcott on the right and either Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Alex Iwobi on the left to create the movement and open up gaps.
Somehow, some way, a place needs to be found for Cesc Fabregas
Fabregas has almost become the forgotten man at Chelsea. The Spaniard has started just two times this season, both times in the EFL Cup, and his appearances in the Premier League have been limited to late appearances off the bench. His reduced role this season wouldn’t be such a concern if it wasn’t for how unbalanced the Chelsea midfield looks without him.
To this point in the season, Conte has opted for a bit more solidity in midfield by fielding a midfield three of N’Golo Kante, Nemanja Matic, and Oscar in what resembles more of a 4-5-1 than a 4-2-3-1.
Playing those three together does allow for a bit of a high-pressing game, as Kante can win the ball back as well as anyone since Claude Makelele, Matic has a physical presence, and Oscar is willing to sacrifice and do the dirty work. However, it was particularly noticeable in the Liverpool match that none of those three are comfortable controlling a match with the ball at their feet.
In that match, very rarely did you see a Chelsea midfielder giving a passing option to both the centre backs and the attackers. In fact, both Matic and Oscar played much closer to Diego Costa than they did N’Golo Kante, and the result was that chances were at a premium, as the only creativity came from Eden Hazard and Willian in the wide areas.
More telling is that David Luiz led the team in passes against Liverpool as a centre back, which shouldn’t be the case and simply highlights how little the midfield were able to have any influence on that match.
Fabregas, though, is the type of player that provides that link between defence and attack, but his talent does come with the caveat that he’s not the greatest defensive player in the world and doesn’t always show a lot of effort defensively. That’s where his inclusion gets a bit challenging because you have to sacrifice one of Matic or Oscar to get Fabregas in the team, and something will be lost.
If Fabregas plays instead of Matic, you lose the physical presence Matic can bring and also his ability to help in winning the ball back in midfield. If you play Fabregas instead of Oscar, you lose Oscar’s willingness to press the ball in tandem with Costa which has proven to be effective when those two are on the pitch together.
It’s a problem that Conte gets paid to solve, but it is a solution that should end with Fabregas on the pitch, especially in matches where you might need to control the ball, if for no other reason than to slow the game down a bit.
Could Diego Costa once again be a big concern for Arsenal’s defence?
No one can deny Diego Costa is going to play another huge part in this match against Arsenal, and that’s before you factor in that Costa’s form suggests that he’s back to his best.
One of the big problems for Arsenal lately against Chelsea has been keeping 11 men on the pitch. In the last five meetings with the Blues, the Gunners have seen a total four men sent off and were down to 10 men in each of their meetings last season.
In both matches, Costa was on hand to play the villain. At home to Arsenal last season, it was an ill-advised little flick of the boot from Gabriel Paulista that had the Brazilian defender seeing red and taking an early walk down the tunnel. Then in the match at the Emirates this spring, Per Mertesacker was sent off for hauling down Costa just as the striker was bearing down on goal for a one-on-one opportunity.
Wenger has called for his players to exercise discipline when dealing with Costa on Saturday, presumably so that he finishes with 11, but that shouldn’t be the only thing that Wenger is concerned about.
Costa has scored five goals in the league so far this season, and he’s showing the prowess in front of goal that was on display in 2014-2015 when he wasn’t injured. More importantly, after a couple incidents in the first couple of matches, Costa has curbed his temperament without curbing his hunger and desire.
If Arsenal decide that the best way to deal with Costa is to ignore his antics, then they may just be surprised if turns up and simply decides to outplay them on the day.