Symbolic or Real–It’s Always a Big One
Sunday at 4pm the two top teams in the English Premier League face each other in a late season showdown. Unfortunately–and in spite of 8 Arsenal league wins on the trot–a series of recent 1-nil wins from our South London rivals means that the gap in points between the two teams (10) is too large. No matter what happens in this match, Chelsea will win the league. In fact, if they can beat us in this one, Chelsea could actually seal the league title at Leicester City on Wednesday.
Still, much feels at stake, especially for Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger. It’s been a(nother) difficult season, but the team has finally found continuity and form. A win against Chelsea would represent–in front of our never fully convinced home fans–that these qualities are real and that Arsenal have (finally) built a squad which might pose true problems for the richer clubs–the “Oiler-Garchs,” as I like to call them–at least in seasons ahead.
Jose Mourinho, now in the 2nd season of his 2nd stint as manager at Chelsea, has shown what he brings to the task. Relentless cynicism and negativity masked in a cult of personality are the hallmarks of the self-proclaimed “Special One.” Such qualities provide a measure of side-show entertainment but otherwise tend to crush the life out of football. When combined with a team assembled with owner Roman Abramovich’s seemingly endless supply of money, they do win football matches and, especially if you can appreciate defensive control of matches, they must be respected. It can be a bit much, however. Between the preening manager and the cynicism of players who go to ground with amazing ease–but pop back up to join the crowd of teammates surrounding referees–and then still cannot beat 10 man Paris St. Germain–it’s not the best advert for the English game. Nonetheless, Mourinho will add to his (all important) trophy tally. The league title (and the league cup) is special but the return of Mourinho’s dour brand of football and put-the-spotlight-on-me approach to media-relations appears even less glossy (if that is possible) than in his first time around. It’s funny, but even though he is winning, it seems only a matter of time before his owner–and other “supporters” of the South London club–tire of him again.
This is why this match has great symbolic meaning. Much has been made of the fact that a Wenger team has never beaten a Mourinho coached Chelsea squad. This match, Wenger’s 13th attempt, is a chance to end that narrative, and, ideally, begin a new one. Many put Mourinho’s dominance down to tactics (or Wenger’s lack of them) and I would suspect a tight (and fairly negative) match from both managers, with a draw being far from a bad outcome for either. Still, winning it with a measure of attacking style might lay the groundwork for a real divide between London’s best teams.
I may be overstating things, or at least looking at this match through red (and white) tinted glasses, but I believe that Arsenal are the better club, with the better manager and the better (less cynical, more positive) approach to what could be the “beautiful game,” you know, that thing call football, at least when it’s not being played by a Mourinho managed team. Good vs evil then, and the path forward to rekindling a potentially great rivalry in the immediate future of English football, is (perhaps) what’s really at stake.
That’s probably taking things just a bit too far. Even more ironic is that much of the recent solidity at Arsenal has emerged through a more defensive approach and, I suspect, most Gooners would be happy with similar tactics vs Chelsea in this one. Still, given that it’s a 10 point gap (and a 9 point gap looking over our shoulder worrying about our Champions League top 4 position) there could be a little leeway to go for the win and use our (nearly) fully fit squad with a measure of attacking swagger. Let’s play stingy at the back, but let’s also give a bit of leash to guys like Alexis, Giroud, Ozil, Santi and Ramsey (or Theo and Welbs) and give it a go.
With the talent they bring, stopping Chelsea–even if they’re mostly hoping to hit us in transition–is never easy. Arsene’s Arsenal have always been replete with attackers of our own, but this season, with a few tweaks at the back, we’ve also found real stopping power. Although he hasn’t convinced everybody, since taking over as our #1 keeper, Colombian David Ospina has played 15 matches and won 13 of them, keeping 8 clean sheets. This exceptional run of form has been aided by a fully fit Laurent Koscielny and the emergence of a truly defensive-minded midfielder in Francis Coquelin. The January purchase of Brazilian defender Gabriel Paulista has also meant that we don’t need to fret so much over Koscielny’s tender Achilles tendons or worry about playing full-backs Nacho Monreal or Mathieu Debuchy in central positions if Kos or Per Mertesacker take a knock. Nacho’s matches at CB, while very nervy for Gooners, have helped him become a more complete defender which, in turn, seems to have allowed his offence to flourish. When we look back on this season, I think the penalty he won at Manchester City and the goal he scored at Manchester United will be real highlights. Meanwhile, at the other fullback position, young Hector Bellerin, in for Debuchy after the shoulder injury suffered vs Stoke City, has been equally impressive and a real credit to Arsenal’s youth recruitment and development. We might not have expected these players to be so critical to our defensive resurgence, but depth in the squad and (real) competition for places has yielded pleasant surprises.
Even if our recent fine form is based on this defensive platform, I fully expect this match to be won in midfield, especially given that Chelsea forwards Diego Costa and Didier Drogba are both doubts due to fitness concerns while third choice Loic Remy is definitely out. These injuries will surely allow Mourinho to put all pressure on Arsenal. If these guys don’t play how can Chelsea be expected to win? If they do play, they will be playing hurt. It’s also an excuse for ceding possession and playing for a nil-nil. I won’t be surprised if the Moo-man sets out defensive minded players like both Nemanja Matic and Ramires (or even John Obi Mikel). Wenger will counter by keeping Coquelin in intercepting positions and simplifying his passing responsibilities and also continue with Santi Cazorla as his ball controlling counterpart in a deeper lying role, more or less alongside Le Coq. If goals are to be had then, the real battle will likely be amongst the more creative types: Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Alexis Sanchez working off the imposing presence of center forward Olivier Giroud for Arsenal, and Oscar (or Willian), Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas doing likewise for Chelsea–alongside whichever CF bravely trots out for his manager–cue the heraldic music and salutes from whichever tougher-than-nails British pundit is doing the commentary…
Cue also the endless discussion of Fabregas’ return to the Emirates and the greeting he receives from the home support. On this subject, Wenger, as always, has chosen his words very carefully. While calling for Arsenal supporters to show Cesc the respect he deserves, Wenger has also hinted that the media-driven transfer saga last summer was much more of a done deal than many believed. At that time, media outlets (including angry bloggers) were keen to portray Wenger as “rejecting” Cesc’s return given that Arsenal had, quite cannily, placed a buy-back (or sell-on) clause in his transfer agreement when our Captain had been sold to Barcelona. So much is clouded in hearsay and innuendo (dependent on who the observer likes more: Cesc or Wenger) so we may never know the exact details of how Cesc’s transfer to Chelsea (or the earlier move to Barca) actually went down. Wenger is at least hinting at the heart of the matter–that Arsenal were never prepared to transfer whatever monies might have been made (or saved) in the deal directly into Cesc’s bank account. The rationale about already having Ozil, whose form had not overwhelmed in his first season, along with the likes of Cazorla and Ramsey – and younger guys like Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain- as central midfielders, severely irked many a Gooner aching for Cesc’s return. The real reason Arsenal didn’t “fight” harder (instigate a bidding war with Chelsea) is, however, more likely to be found in the 5 year, 33 million Euro contract Chelsea gave the soon to be 28 year old, which would have been amongst the largest at the club. Players move on, and indeed Cesc has. So, I would have to agree with Wenger: let’s give Cesc the respect he deserves as he returns to the club that made him. Please insert the emoticon of your choice; smile, wink or frown as necessary.
Instead of buying Cesc from Barca (and putting him on top money) Arsenal did just that with Alexis Sanchez. With 14 goals and 8 assists it’s hard to argue that it was not the better choice. In fact, many are stumping for Alexis to win PFA player of the year given that he more or less carried Arsenal through the autumn as we missed all those players through injury. Instead that award will likely go to Eden Hazard (on very similar stats, 13 goals and 8 assists in the league) and their match-up will be another one the pundits will pore over in dissecting the match. But for the gap in points between their respective clubs, it is tempting to give the nod to Alexis as his totals might be even higher if he were the offense-only player Hazard appears to be. In fact, his relentless work rate, including tracking back and helping with defending and possession play, in addition to making him a real crowd favorite, has been a key element in the Arsenal resurgence in 2015. Now that his goal scoring touch is back, he’s showing the full range of his talents and may be especially keen to show why he is the choice of many as the outstanding player in the league. Still, just as it would be unwise for our defenders to focus only on Hazard, Chelsea would be well warned against doing likewise with Alexis.
Which leads us to the predicted team. With the exception of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who may be done for the season with a groin injury, and Per Mertesacker, who had to be subbed out of the FA Cup semifinal with an ankle knock and hasn’t been in training, this Arsenal team is nearing full fitness up and down the squad. Some players who are coming back from long term injuries, namely, Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby, are probably not ready for a match of this sort. A big question will be who starts at right back. Mathieu Debuchy looked completely spent (and not at his best) against Reading, but he did survive the full 120 minutes. Hector Bellerin was dropped for that one on rumors of an ankle injury. My hunch is that he will only make the bench in favor of the more experienced Frenchman or may be left out entirely in favour of the more versatile Calum Chambers. Debuchy’s experience could be the deciding factor if Mertesacker cannot play. Gabriel may be faster than the big German, and he’s shown a willingness to give a smart foul when trailing a play, but his inexperience will surely be targeted by whichever Chelsea attacker gets the start up top. Otherwise, I think, the team picks itself, reverting to the group which dismantled Liverpool and won the more cautious battle at Burnley.
(Subs: Szczesny, Gibbs, Chambers, Flamini, Wilshere, Walcott, Welbeck)
Wow, it seems incredible that my 18 is leaving out players who have contributed as much as Bellerin or have as much experience and quality as Rosicky, Mertesacker and Arteta. As always, what (TF) do I know? The manager may well have other ideas up his sleeve, as surely other Gooners must.
No matter who starts (and who makes the bench and comes in as a sub), I believe Arsenal have the talent and quality to beat Chelsea in this match. We will not win the league title this year, but beating the champions–as they stumble and grind their way towards it–would be a very nice marker to lay down for next year’s race. If we can beat Aston Villa in the FA cup final, we would also have another chance to face Mou and his Money-Men in the Community Shield in early August in our final preseason match. It may be more symbolic than truly meaningful, but this is a(nother) pressure laden situation and a fine opportunity for this Arsenal team to show that progress has been made and better things lay upon our doorstep.