On a possibly less festive Monday Night Football, Chelsea head to Emirates to meet Arsenal with the thought topping the table for Christmas dancing in many heads. Should the Gunners win, it would see them leading the table at Christmas since 2007 when a massive lull in results in late winter would scupper their title bid. For Chelsea, the win would mean sharing the league lead on points with Liverpool, but unless the Blues can put 10 past Arsenal, they will be second to Liverpool on goal difference.
Regardless of who leads the league going into the holiday period, Arsenal and Chelsea will both want to pull out a win, if nothing more than to prove something to themselves and their title rivals. Arsenal are in the midst of a stretch of games against Everton, Napoli, Manchester City, and Chelsea, and coming into the match on Monday, they have only managed one draw in the first three matches. To style themselves as serious title contenders and avoid question marks over their ability to maintain a serious challenge, they need a victory against Chelsea to end what is their most trying period of fixtures to date.
For Chelsea, things look a little different. You could say that Jose Mourinho’s side have been wildly erratic in form, yet they may have the stuff that champions are made of because they have ground out enough points to be just 3 back of the leaders after Liverpool’s win yesterday. However, performance-wise, any observer would tell you that the team is not playing well and just might be a year too early for serious title contention. That doesn’t mean that Mourinho can’t change it, but it’s becoming apparent that the job he took in July is a much more daunting task that most realized at that moment. Victory against Arsenal could prove to be a catalyst to spark the team to life, and they’ll need it, given that Liverpool come to visit next Sunday.
This Arsenal team is just a bit different stylistically than we’ve seen from recent Arsenal sides.
Boxing promoters say that styles make fights, and this match could be very interesting because this season, both Chelsea and Arsenal are capable of approaching a game in multiple ways. That’s something that’s always been the hallmark of Jose Mourinho’s sides, but it’s not something we’ve really seen from Arsene Wenger’s teams since the Invincibles were running around Highbury.
In past years, you would go into this fixture and think that it will be Arsenal playing their pretty football with their wonderful passing and movement against Chelsea’s resilience and ability to disrupt that pattern of play, sometimes with physicality. But this season, Arsenal have shown a willingness to eschew always playing pretty for grinding out wins, no matter how ugly they may be.
The best example is their matches with Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund play a style that will always give Arsenal trouble in their basic philosophy because they play with great energy and commitment, close down at every opportunity, and have the ability to pass around you. It’s why Barcelona have trounced the Gunners in recent years in the Champions League. This time, Arsenal were willing to concede overall possession and keep a solid shape, looking for the counter, and it worked.
That’s not something you would have seen from Arsenal over the past few years, and maybe it’s a realisation from Wenger that you can’t always win pretty. Regardless, it makes things interesting for this match because you assume that they’ll come out and play at home, but they have shown an ability to defend if you’re on top.
However, you do wonder if squad depth is starting to affect that mentality.
That willingness to adapt the style has worked for Arsenal, but over the last few matches; against Napoli and against Manchester City; two things have become apparent, yet different in both matches.
Against Napoli, there was a little bit of that lack of sharpness to their play. The passing was sloppy overall. They failed to really create any chances. And Napoli were able to dictate play for long periods of time. This was their third game in a week, and they had just played almost the same exact starting 11 three days earlier against Everton.
Three days later gainst Manchester City, the sharpness was there, but the physical ability wasn’t quite there. Again, Wenger played almost the exact same 11 that he played against Napoli in the Champions League, and I think it showed. The openness of the game helped Arsenal create chances, but many times, the old Arsenal that could be bullied around physically began to creep in, and City just ruthlessly and tirelessly ran Arsenal into the ground. By the end of the first half, you could start to notice that one or two legs for Arsenal were starting to tire, and that was evidenced by the 4 goals conceded in the second half.
Wenger tends to not rotate much, particularly because he doesn’t really have the same quality as the teams he’s competing with or the benefit of no Europe, as is the case with Liverpool. It’s beginning to show in his team, and don’t think that Mourinho hasn’t noticed the ease in which City counterattacked with pace and physicality in the midfield in that win. With nine days off, it will be interesting to see if Arsenal look a bit more fresh with that time off.
The absence of Jack Wilshere hurts, but mainly because of his replacement.
Wilshere earned himself a two-match ban by essentially telling the fans who was “number 1” at the Etihad last week. Having been knocked out of the League Cup earlier by Chelsea, it means that Wilshere’s ban will be served tomorrow against Chelsea and Thursday against West Ham. The latter won’t be as much of a concern for Arsenal, but Monday’s might, particularly because it means that either Mikel Arteta comes in to play alongside Mathieu Flamini or Aaron Ramsey comes deeper with Santi Cazorla likely to play with Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott.
Neither scenario is particular enticing, simply because of Wilshere’s willingness to, in a very Wayne Rooney like way, charge about the pitch and make challenges, sometimes to his own physical detriment. He is the one midfielder who can play deep with pace, and against sides like Chelsea who employ quick players behind a striker, that is vital in covering the ground and protecting the back four.
Against City, he was played in a wide role, and Ramsey and Flamini failed to really deal the pace and power of Fernandinho and Yaya Toure and also protect the back four from the quickness and skill of Samir Nasri and David Silva. Against the Blues, it won’t get any easier with Frank Lampard and Ramires likely to man the two deeper spots and three from Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Oscar, Willian, and Andre Schurrle who will play in front.
With Wilshere out and the injury to Laurent Koscielny, there is a bit of a lack of pace through that middle, and it should be an area that an in-form Chelsea can exploit in a similar fashion to City last week.
Koscielny’s injury may be the killer blow for the Gunners.
Koscielny was stretchered off at City with what looked like a serious knee injury, but turned out to be a deep laceration. The likelihood is that Thomas Vermaelan steps in for Koscielny to partner Per Mertesacker in central defence, and that should be a prospect that should have the Chelsea attack ready to pounce.
That’s a major disruption, particularly because the Koscielny/Mertesacker partnership has been so good. They complement each other well because Mertesacker isn’t the fleetest of foot and Koscielny is good at sweeping up behind, despite his penchant for conceding penalties with ill-timed sliding challenges in the box. It’s given Arsenal much-needed stability in an area where it’s been lacking in previous seasons, but Koscielny’s injury brings the least stable of the current centre backs into the fold.
Vermaelan hasn’t had a good season for the Gunners since his first season with Arsenal. Injuries plagued him in 2010-2011, costing him matches, and since his return to fitness, his form has been woeful and erratic, which we all know the latter is not a great trait for a defender. While Fernando Torres hasn’t necessarily been in great form himself, Oscar and Hazard when playing together have a great combination of movement, which shouldn’t be surprising based on how well Oscar plays with Neymar for Brazil. Combined with their potential problems in the holding midfield roles, the central defence will have to have a good game, particularly because Bakary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs will attack forward and leave space behind that must be covered.
And lastly, Arsenal’s greatest weakness: near post corners.
This was something that first started popping up early in the season, but has become something of a mystery as to why it hasn’t been addressed or exploited more. Against West Brom in their draw at The Hawthorns, Claudio Yacob made a deep run from the top of the 18-yard box to the near post on a corner, nobody followed him, and he nodded home a free header. No one paid notice until Robin van Persie repeated the trick in their win over Arsenal, making a similar near post run from the top of the box and nodding past Wojciech Szczesny. Last week against City, Martin Demichelis made another similar run, only this time, he flicked the ball to the far post and no one followed Sergio Aguero who volleyed it home.
This is something that’s really interesting because it’s three goals that were conceded on a very similar type of set piece. In all three instances, the three players started in a similar position in a crowd, made a near post run, and the defenders were late to react. It all goes back to zonal vs. man marking on set pieces, and it appears that Arsenal do the former, mostly because they looked dumbfounded as to who made the mistake on all three occasions. But I’m not willing to overlook this as just an anomaly because it has happened three times on eerily similar setups.
This becomes interesting for Chelsea because we might have two of the best attackers on set pieces when attacking the near post via deep runs in Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry. Ivanovic has a slew of goals from that position, including the one that won the Europa League last year, and Terry has made a living out of scoring goals on near post corners.
It may be insignificant to this match, but it is something interesting that I noticed when looking at Arsenal’s tendencies.