Results from the last couple of rounds of League fixtures has meant that the congestion at the top now includes the first place with Arsenal’s lead wiped out. The Gunners could still achieve a two point lead at the summit but for that they’ll have to do something no Wenger side has done – beat a Mourinho team.
We know that success at this level demands consistency. And Arsenal have reliably picked up points throughout the year as they’re still top of the League for the calendar year and if we consider the last 38 League games played. However, as discussed before the Man City game, the Gunners have also been consistently underwhelming in the big games. It’s now 10 points from 11 games against the other six teams that are generally in the reckoning for European places.
One of the joys of football is that you see different ways of achieving success as clubs battle their own sets of problems in unique ways. While we should never lose touch of Arsenal’s troubles, it’s important to keep in mind that other teams have worries of their own. Chelsea, for instance, are yet to win a League game away to a side in the top 10. They’ve drawn two (Spurs, United) and lost three (Everton, Newcastle, Stoke). It seems uncharacteristic for a Mourinho side but reminds us that the path to consistency is fraught with many traps.
The task is to beat them all in a manner better than the rest. That’s the reason we can safely say the table doesn’t lie. At the end of a gruelling season the team that consistently meets various challenges will be crowned champions and that title is usually well-deserved.
Both teams have a chance to conquer some of their demons in this fixture and the prize could be a place at the top of the table. A draw won’t help either side but will minimize the damage. For some managers that could affect the way they approach the game.
Arsenal strong run has been built on a foundation of conservative football. Defend as a team, don’t concede sloppy goals, and the superior offensive quality will generally shine through at some stage. It works in most games but not so much against the big teams. The reason seems pretty clear to me.
Top sides have better attacking units which means Arsenal have to work harder in defence. Small lapses in concentration or judgement don’t always go unpunished in such games. And if the opponents score first it changes the entire dynamic of the contest.
Similarly, the offensive superiority that Arsenal have over smaller teams – often referred to as decisive quality in the final third – is not that clear a strength against teams with better defences. As a result the Gunners have to take more risks in attacks be it in terms of committing more bodies forward, or taking individuals on in risky areas, or attempting low percentage ambitious passes because the obvious ones aren’t on, and so on. All of this has a direct impact on defensive stability because the two are inextricably linked.
Unlike many, I wasn’t surprised by the fact that Arsenal conceded six goals against Man City. Once the team went into the game with an offensive mindset, Szczesny’s goal was always going to take a pounding. The analysis of that game is still pending and there are some very interesting observations to make but given the way my days are going I don’t want to make any promises.
Coming back to the game at hand, I don’t think Arsenal can afford the gung-ho attitude. You might recall the discussion that United won against the Gunners by relying on their tactical memory. Chelsea can do the same if the hosts are too adventurous. Counter-attacking suits Mourinho and he has players with pace and trickery that thrive in open spaces.
Hopefully, Arteta will be back in the starting eleven and that should lead to a greater semblance of order in the Arsenal ranks from a tactical point of view. Wenger’s side have to control the ball and the spaces. It’s ok to pass it around at the back and sideways as long as threatening transitions are avoided. Trying too hard to create against a strong opponent often results in quality chances at the undesired end.
Chelsea aren’t as stable defensively as previous Mourinho sides. Arsenal will get chances if they are patient and defensively stable. They have to prevent the opponents from getting to the attacking third and the Arsenal penalty box in the first 15-20 minutes because that can easily set the pattern for the rest of the game. It will also make the players nervous and affect the quality of their technical game.
It’s hard work but the wins against German sides offer the template to follow. Avoiding individual mistakes is very important but so is having the right shape so that layers of defensive players cover for each other’s errors. No game played at this level is devoid of errors from any team. The key is in controlling the extent of damage at one end and maximizing it at the other.
Thus far, Ramsey and Özil have been Arsenal’s most decisive players. Walcott can join them although he is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Theo’s presence makes Arsenal weaker in defence, relatively speaking, but it generates excellent offensive potential. Again, it’ll be a matter of controlling which aspect dominates.
Most players have had a good rest. Wenger should be able to select a very strong team, although he’ll have to keep an eye on the congested fixture list during the holiday period.
We might see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.
The full-backs in such a line-up will have extra defensive responsibilities against the wingers that Chelsea have. They have to be prepared to defend vast spaces on their own as Walcott and Cazorla drift into central areas in search of offensive openings. As a result their forward bursts must be intelligently timed. It’s an area where the Gunners have struggled to find optimal solutions and remains a weakness of sorts.
Considering the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, the Gunners certainly seem to have an opportunity to improve their dismal record against Mourinho’s sides. But Chelsea would be equally confident about their chances. They have broken past the Arsenal defences and know where the gaps will exist. It’s that tactical memory thing again. Wenger doesn’t make major chances to his approach and familiarity is a tool that works well for opponents with quality in attack.