It’s understandable that there’s trepidation going into this game today after what happened at Stamford Bridge last season. It was, frankly, an embarrassment to be taken apart like that, but as both managers pointed out in the build-up to this game, it’s not as if this was the norm by any means.
A quick look at the previous few seasons show the results were 2-1 Chelsea (2013), 3-5 Arsenal (2012), 2-0 Chelsea (2010) – so even if we don’t have the best record there, it’s not as if we’ve been battered every single time. Of course there’s the issue of Arsene Wenger having never beaten a Jose Mourinho team to deal with today. He was asked why that might be at his press conference on Friday and his answer, quite reasonably, was that Chelsea have always had very good teams under Mourinho, and this season is no exception.
They look more offensively dangerous than last season having swapped Torres for an actual striker, and having managed to swindle PSG into paying £50m for Sideshow Bob, they’re a lot better at the back too. Like us, they have yet to lose a game this season, and they’ve been more convincing that us in the process. I don’t think there’s much difference in the teams they’ve faced either. Both sides have faced Man City, but also Everton and Leicester and Chelsea have four more points from those games than we do.
We know where they’re dangerous, and how, so it’s going to be a big job today trying to nullify the threat of Costa and Fabregas, as well as keeping the likes of Hazard quiet. Even without the self-destruction of last season it will provide this team with a real challenge and when you have a manager like Mourinho who will look to exploit our weaknesses as often as possible we’re going to have to be seriously sharp today.
How we line up will be interesting. I think Jack Wilshere will come back into the midfield to provide extra cover for Mathieu Flamini, which means one of Alexis, Cazorla or Oxlade-Chamberlain will miss out. It’s hard to know which one. I hope it’s not Alexis because although his ball retention is a little suspect, I think the manager needs to show some faith in his big summer signing. He gets goals, he makes assists, and you can be quite sure that he’ll make life uncomfortable for the Chelsea defence with and without the ball. I think it was a mistake not to start him against Sp*rs so I hope it’s not repeated again today.
I suspect it might be Santi Cazorla as we revert to the 4-1-4-1 which the manager said, quite explicitly, was put in place to make us more solid in the big games. They don’t really get much bigger than this. But it can’t have escaped Arsene’s notice that when we play a 4-2-3-1 we look better and more cohesive as an attacking unit and the 4-1-4-1 really didn’t work out well in Dortmund, for example. Rather than make us look more solid, it felt easy for the German side to exploit the gaps, and against a Chelsea team that’s far superior it’s going to require some serious faith in his players ability to implement that system today.
But that’s the thing with this Arsenal and this group of players. It’s not easy to a) figure out which clutch of attacking players are going to be selected and b) what formation we might use. On the one hand, it’s good that we’re no longer as predictable as we used to be, and that could work to our advantage. On the other, it’s not hard to think there’s a measure of uncertainty amongst the players too and it’ll take a few performances on top of the Galatasaray one to convince anyone that we have, finally, clicked this season.
And still the shadow of last season looms large over this on, but as I mentioned yesterday players who will be involved today, like Wilshere, Ozil, Alexis, Welbeck and Chambers carry no scars from that defeat. Mathieu Flamini spoke beforehand, saying:
We have a lot of maturity, quality and we now have more focus in the team. We have learnt from our mistakes.
That last part remains to be seen, but let’s not forget that we do have plenty of attacking talent ourselves. Welbeck and Alexis will work hard when we don’t have the ball and can hurt them with it, we know what Ozil is capable of, Oxlade-Chamberlain found his range against Sp*rs and we’ve got the pace to hurt them if we can work ourselves into those positions.
It’s going to be a massive task today, no doubt about it, and at this point I think I’d bite your hand off for a draw. We have to be solid and disciplined, losing the ball in dangerous areas is something that has burned us a few times already this season and against a Chelsea side that revel in punishing those sort of mistakes, we have to make sure we don’t make it easy for them like we did against that lot last weekend.
Most of all though, for a game on which so much rests in terms of the title race and, indeed, confidence in our own team, I think it’s a game we first just can’t afford to lose. And if we can create and take a chance, or two, then who knows?
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Now for some nervous breakfast, a stroll with the dog and off we go … until later, and come on you reds.