Things have changed since we blew by the Blues on 24 September and this match will be played at their place instead of ours. Still, as Gooners grasp for straws of hope, we should not forget how our most recent meeting turned out.
Back then, Antonio Conte’s group were still reeling from the woeful end to Jose Mourinho’s 2nd stint at Stamford Bridge. Early season results had done little to suggest that Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea–despite its steroid driven economics–was ready to rise up from mid-table mediocrity.
After that fine day, however, Conte switched things up in a big way, notably going to a formation that featured three central defenders and a pair of wingbacks. Out went stalwarts like John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and, further upfield, guys like Oscar and former Gunner Cesc Fabregas. In came pacier players like Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso (as wingbacks) and freer roles for a front three that has featured Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, Pedro and Willian, all anchored by a group of central players including Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta in the deeper roles and a pairing of Nemanja Matic and a guy we wanted, N’golo Kante, just ahead. Last season’s woeful showing means that Chelsea have no European distractions. Playing fewer games has allowed the main group to stay fit and fresh, the result being a run of 13 matches without dropping a single point. Finally, with a 2-nil loss at Spurs, and, most recently, a 1-1 draw at Liverpool, their momentum has been dented. Nonetheless, they still hold a commanding nine point lead in the league table.
In the same intervening period Arsenal have struggled. A home draw to Middlesborough might have been seen as a one off but it was soon followed by poor performances and a series of draws against Spurs, Manchester United and a pair against Paris St. Germain in the Champions League. A slow start at Ludogorets, also in the Champions League, was rescued with late heroics by Mesut Ozil, but then leads–and matches–were lost at Everton and Manchester City. Instead of keeping pace with Chelsea we fell back. Over the festive period and carrying into the new year the slow starts returned. Wins were rescued vs West Bromwich Albion and Burnley in league play–and at Preston North End in the FA Cup–but shipping three goals at Bournemouth netted us only a draw despite a massive fightback. This past Tuesday it finally caught up to us with a home loss to a team well down the table; Going two goals down to Watford proved one goal too many and all three points were gone.
Luckily, the other top teams (except Manchester City) all drew but it was still a killer blow. Instead of winning and coming into this one only six points down, the margin is nine. Moreover, we approach it with our confidence shattered and all the criticisms of manager Arsene Wenger’s team fully resuscitated. Yesterday was Ground Hog Day here in the States and that feeling of “here we go again” (as per the Bill Murray film of the same name) cannot be escaped.
So, how to get back on track and get a result at Stamford Bridge? We cannot quite play the same line-up as we did so successfully back in September. The lynchpin of our midfield, Santi Cazorla, is likely out for the season after an ankle injury and a pair of surgeries. So too are a slew of would-be replacements including Granit Xhaka (suspended), Mohamed Elneny (still with his Egyptian team who are playing in the final of the African Cup of Nations) and Aaron Ramsey (injured). Francis Coquelin, who went off early in the September match, is just back from an injury of his own and even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain faces a late fitness test. The Ox looked quite commanding in a deep midfield position a week ago in the FA Cup match at Southampton, so, if he’s passed fit, he’ll likely be the guy who steps into the Cazorla role, much as he did on Tuesday when Ramsey hobbled off.
Also facing a late test will be center forward Olivier Giroud, a player who divides opinion as much as any other Gunner. In the September match he was only given a bench seat and a few minutes as a substitute with the match already well in hand. Should he be dropped again for this one? Many Gooners believe we are a better attacking team with Alexis Sanchez at the center forward spot despite big Ollie’s fine goal-scoring record. Theo Walcott–who scored one in the September match–is fit again and had a hat trick at Southampton. So too is Danny Welbeck who scored the first two goals in that game. Then there’s Lucas Perez, a player many would like to see finally given a start against a big rival. We don’t lack for options up front.
Because he was able to soldier on while Giroud was subbed at halftime vs Watford, I believe that the Ox will play but that Wenger will opt to play the other ten available guys who won so convincingly in the earlier match. As such, here’s my best guess at his line-up:
Substitutes: Ospina, Gabriel, Gibbs, Maitland-Niles, Lucas, Welbeck, Giroud
Such a line-up represents three changes from the squad that started vs Watford on Tuesday. It may not be enough change for some supporters, while it could also be too much for others. Some (see previous post) believe we’re strongest with Giroud up top and would prefer a more attacking approach with guys like Lucas and Welbeck in the mix from the start. Other Gooners want even more radical changes like benching Ozil (who often appears a very frustrated figure in many of our disappointing matches) or starting some of the youngsters (Maitland-Niles or Jeff Reine-Adelaide) who did so well at Southampton. New formations with different personnel have been mooted. In the end, of course, Wenger picks the team and must get his men to play well enough to get the result. Nine points back could be cut to six and our season could get a much needed infusion of oxygen; anything less does not bear consideration.
Go on then…