Chelsea’s visit to the Emirates at this juncture in the season seems to have set up a clash of two teams with relatively similar styles but moving in opposite directions in terms of their tactical approach.
In the recent past, the Blues used to be a side that relied on a solid defensive shape, a hard working midfield, and a physically dominant striker. This often allowed them to get the better of a more proactive and technically-oriented Arsenal side that tended to be vulnerable against quick counter-attacks or balls in the air.
The summer signings have made Chelsea a more technical side that now seems to rely more on fluidity, ball control, and combination play in the attacking areas even in the big games, although we have limited evidence of this.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have worked very hard on their defensive shape and so far this season have relied more on counter-attacks than dynamic football, particularly against stronger opponents. The likes of Southampton and Coventry aside, the Gunners haven’t seriously troubled other defences through their possession football in open play. But the new-found solidity at the back has ensured most results haven’t been disappointing.
Of course, both teams have enough players who can circulate the ball and either side is capable of defending resolutely but the primary approach of both teams seems to be changing, at least in the short term.
With that in mind it will be interesting to see how this game pans out. It was easier for Arsenal to rely on the counter-attacking style in away games at Anfield and the Etihad stadium but will they adopt a similar approach at home? Wenger has repeatedly mentioned the importance of home form over the course of the season as it enables a side to gain an advantage over direct rivals while demonstrating consistency. In that regard the onus will be on the Gunners. A draw away to City can be deemed respectable but points dropped at home are almost always a cause for concern.
Interestingly, the similarities between the sides is not limited to their playing philosophy. Both have central strikers who are proving to be inconsistent at best. It’s also likely that the teams will line up with a direct attacking threat on one flank and a more balancing, technical, hard working player on the other. Bulk of the combination play could come from the left side of both teams whereas the right has more orthodox wing play. That said, we might also see the tricky players on either side drifting to the right in certain phases of the game.
Chelsea pose a potent attacking threat with multiple ways of hurting the opposition. Apart from the fluidity discussed above, they continue to offer a challenge from crosses – mainly with their full backs charging forward in an intelligent manner, and through shots from distance. The fleet-footed nature of some of their players also increases the likelihood of winning penalties (set-pieces in general) and that’s something Arsenal have to be cautious against as they’ve already given away a sloppy one against Montpellier, could easily have conceded a second in that game, and one to Aguero in the game against City.
Individual mistakes like lapses in concentration, a rush-of-blood tackle, indifferent tracking, or casual positioning are more likely to be punished by such an opponent. Di Matteo also seems like a manager who will pay close attention to the weak spots in Arsenal’s zonal marking on set-pieces.
At the other end the Gunners will create some chances. Chelsea no longer seem impenetrable as their efforts to change their style of play has made their defensive structure somewhat porous. The likes of Hazard, Oscar, ad Mata do work hard when called upon but aren’t as consistent or meticulous at the back as some of their predecessors were.
Podolski likes to drift into the middle and that could, at least for few but vital moments, give the Gunners a numerical advantage in the central areas. Quick, accurate interchanges coupled with well-timed runs during such moments can open Chelsea up. The German could also get scoring opportunities in the inside channel or central areas if he spots the openings when they appear. Obviously, a team like Chelsea will not leave gaping holes throughout the game as Coventry or Southampton did so timing and opportunism will be the essential qualities.
Wenger’s choice on the right will also have a major bearing on this game. He could retain Ramsey on the flank to provide the extra technical quality that helps in ball circulation but that could create a congestion in the centre if both wide players start drifting in. One way out of that would be to have Gervinho drifting to the right and Podolski driving further forward when he comes through the middle. But such a choice on the right could be deemed a more defensive approach.
Oxlade-Chamberlain or Walcott (or Gervinho if Giroud starts down the middle) will provide a more positive outlet on the flank albeit at the cost of consistency and passing angles as they’ll lose the ball more often and see a lot less of it. Ashley Cole has the ability to move up the pitch rather quickly and Chelsea are adept at switching flanks so a winger on Arsenal’s right flank could open the game up for both sides.
As ever it’s tough to get inside Wenger’s head but I’ll be very surprised if we see many changes from the side that started against City.
Vermaelen is likely to come back. Mertesacker deserves to retain his place as he’s been consistent and effective at the back but Arsene could go with Koscielny if he want to hold a relatively high line instead of having a high line that tends to drop back when possession is lost.
Mannone – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Diaby – Ramsey, Gervinho, Podolski.
Mannone has not been confident against some high balls into the box as his judgment has been erroneous. Di Matteo and his staff must have spotted that. Chelsea don’t really have great physical presence in the box through their attacking players so it will be interesting to see if they can challenge him on that front from open play (set-plays will obviously a test).
Jenkinson had a fairly solid outing against City but to an extent Mancini made his job easier by picking Sinclair. Hazard will pose a bigger threat and leaving the young full-back alone in a one-v-one against such a tricky player will hurt Arsenal. Mertesacker, Arteta, and the wide player on the right will also have to provide cover from time to time based on the positions of play. This could be particularly vital if Chelsea overload that flank.
On the whole this has all the makings of an entertaining encounter that will be much more open than the drab 0-0 between the sides at the Emirates last season but it won’t be quite as frenetic as the goal-fest at the Bridge. As is common in games between such sides, one that makes fewer errors and/or takes its chances will take the points.Follow @goonerdesi