This one is a day early but until this game is out of the way I really can’t think about anything else. With due respect to the previous opponents, this is the biggest game of the season so far and I’ve a feeling many of us are anxious to see how we perform.
Honestly speaking, I think anything is possible in this game, from a massive win to a disheartening loss. Those with a slightly negative slant will point to the recent results between the sides, something I don’t have to repeat, and will predict a similar outcome. The optimistic ones will hope for a repeat from the 08-09 season.
I’m not sure what to expect and that is the reason I can’t wait for this game. It will tell us so much about the team and the season ahead. I’m not hinting that a win means we will be champions or a loss would imply a disastrous season. As regular readers know, I’m more interested in the details of what happens on the pitch.
Have we ironed out the mistakes from the past? Can we prevent a team from ripping us apart on a counter attack? Can we defend set-pieces and crosses better? Can the new look defence contain Drogba? Will we have enough incisiveness to open up one of the best organized defences in Europe? Will we be clinical enough to take our chances? Will Arshavin turn up? Can Chamakh rise to the challenge? Will we make any more suicidal and stupid individual errors? Will Chelsea miss Lampard? Can we exploit the physical weakness of Ramirez?
I can go on and on but that should probably give you a good idea of why I can’t think of anything else. There are just too many possibilities and my mind is full of questions, the answers to which will only come on Sunday. I can however, write some thoughts on what might happen. On the whole my outlook is not very positive.
Firstly, I’m not convinced we’ve ironed out the problems with our system which leaves a great deal of space for the opposition to exploit. Against smaller teams we can get away with it, but when a team has as much quality as Chelsea – they can score on a quick counter, score from set-pieces, and score from distance – these weaknesses are exposed.
I expect us to struggle on the wings. Sagna and Clichy will have to play something like the best game of their lives for us to negate their threat down the flanks. Malouda and Cole form a potent partnership on the left and while Anelka or Drogba aren’t exactly wingers, they can trouble Clichy with their physical presence and speed. Ivanovic showed last year that he can be a fantastic right back and Arshavin will have a challenge at both ends.
More than anything else I’m concerned about the speed at which Chelsea move the ball from defence to attack or from one flank to the other. It’s not that our players can’t cope with their players. The issue is that often we aren’t alert enough to this quick movement and once a player is out of position it can lead to a chain reaction that sucks others out or leaves us short at the back, eventually leading to a goal scoring opportunity.
My second concern is the number of injuries we have. I know this isn’t a valid excuse but that doesn’t change the facts. I’d say the loss of Fabregas is cancelled out by that of Lampard but Walcott and Van Persie will be missed. In Nov 08 when we last won against Chelsea, interestingly at the Bridge, RvP scored two wonderful goals. Can Chamakh, who has been impressive in his own way, replicate that? Walcott would also have given us another dimension and some potency in the attack. We will miss him as much as Chelsea would have missed Malouda if he’d been injured.
Given the injury list, Arsene doesn’t have many choices for the starting eleven or many real threats on the bench. We’ll need a big effort from the eleven who go out on the pitch. If even one has an off day, it could turn a difficult game into a nightmarish one.
Finally, I’m a little worried by the mental aspect of this game. Chelsea are on a high whereas Arsenal are having to prove themselves over and over. We do a lot of good work each season but a few moments of madness put us back on square one. There was a swagger about the earlier Arsenal sides and one can see that in this Chelsea team. In contrast, the present bunch we have doesn’t look that confident.
The new defensive signings have made us much stronger at the back but there is still an air of nervousness when we are under pressure. It hasn’t been helped by the insipid performances against West Brom. The isolated defence did really well against Sunderland but if we leave the back five exposed in this game the result will be very different.
In the absence of natural leaders like Cesc and Van Persie, we’ll need someone else who can command respect and guide the team through. It will be all the more important if we concede an early goal or make a couple of silly mistakes. We’ve seen the team crumble in the past and Stamford Bridge is not a place for a visiting side that is mentally shaky.
Having dwelt on the issues that concern me, it’s only fair that I talk about some positives.
Firstly, the new central defensive pairing seems much better than what we’ve had in the recent past. Both Squillaci and Koscielny read the game well and are really composed. They also attack the balls in the box much better. They’ll have to be at their best if we are to negate Chelsea’s threat from the wings and on set-pieces. Undoubtedly, this is the biggest test for the duo. If they pass this we can look forward to the other big games with a lot more confidence.
Secondly, I’m quite happy with the form of Arshavin and Nasri. They’ve both been involved creatively and have scored quite a few as well. Nasri has 4 goals and an assist in 6 appearances while the Russian has 5 goals and 5 assists in 9 appearances. The Guardian says that Arshavin has created 3.33 scoring chances per game this season, the highest in the League.
Lastly, I feel Chelsea are defensively a little weaker than last year. It’s not a big difference but Cech has made more mistakes than Almunia or Fabianski, Ramirez isn’t exactly a physically dominant player, and Terry has had his shaky moments. If we don’t waste our set-pieces and crosses, we can cause them some problems.
That brings me to the starting eleven. I think the back five is pretty obvious now that Gibbs is injured again and Vermaelen nowhere close to being fit. Arshavin and Chamakh should also be easy picks.
The big decisions for Arsene are in the midfield. To me Diaby is the key. Is he physically fit and mentally ready? If we can have the Abou Diaby we saw in the middle and later half of last season, this game could become a challenge for the hosts. On the other hand if he is not fit or turns up like he did last weekend, we’ll have a handicap from the start.
Wenger will also have to take a call on Song. We cannot afford to have Song in an experimental role. If he plays then he has to stay deeper and do the simple things right without a lapse in concentration from kick-off till the final whistle.
Denilson was part of the team that won against United and Chelsea in Nov 08. He hasn’t done much wrong this season, apart from the penalty at Belgrade, so it would be tempting to give him a start. But can we have Denilson and Wilshere in the same team against a physically strong side like Chelsea? If we play them both then we have to leave either Song or Diaby out. This decision could depend on Wenger’s assessment of Diaby.
That would also mean that Nasri will play on the flank and not centrally in place of Cesc. I’d certainly prefer Nasri on the flank as his work rate will help us control the right flank. I’m not sure Rosicky can put in the same level of effort in tracking back and Eboue has been extremely disappointing.
Having said that, I must admit I can’t see Arsene switching Nasri to the flank. That will give us Arshavin on the left, Nasri central, and Chamakh up front. In that case I’d prefer Rosicky on the right with clear instructions to be aware of the threat of the traitor. The advantage of playing Little Mozart is that he adds to our creative threat and can deliver some fabulous crosses.
We are down to picking two midfielders from Song, Diaby, Denilson, and Wilshere. I’d love to see an in form Diaby alongside a motivated Wilshere. The two formed a good pair at the start of the season and I can see them doing well together in years to come. Will this game be remembered as the one where the two made a mark as a pair?
My preferred line-up is,
Fabianski – Sagna, Squillaci, Koscielny, Clichy – Diaby, Wilshere, Nasri – Rosciky, Chamakh, Arshavin.
That starting eleven will seriously test Diaby’s discipline. Of course, that is an attacking line-up and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you would prefer Song and Diaby in the middle with specific directions to stay close to the defence. In that case we could have Song for Wilshere or for Rosicky. In the latter selection, Nasri could move to the flank and Wilshere could play in an advanced role.
In 08-09 we dominated the games between the top four teams but lost to the smaller teams. Last year it was the exact opposite. This season we’ve already lost to West Brom at home reminding us of the season before last. Will the result at Stamford Bridge confirm that?