03 October 2014

Match Preview: Chelsea v. Arsenal, Stamford Bridge, Oct 5 9.05am (EST)

The opponent
Cesc, just looking plain wrong in blue, faces Arsenal
from the comfort of his new home stadium
(Credit: Ben Sutherland)
After a week of slagging Sam for putting in a subpar effort into writing the match preview for the North London Derby, I decided that I would write this week’s match preview for the Chelsea game. One of the things that I criticized Sam for was not taking the piss out of Spurs more. I had a million jokes about them! Well, over the course of the day, I’ve realized that writing about Chelsea is going to be a lot harder than it looks. Whereas I find Spurs to be comical and unthreatening, I respect Chelsea as a competitor. While I want to make jokes about them, I found my approach to Chelsea a lot more serious than I wanted it to be. The following is that seriousness, anxiety, and hopefully, some humor.

Part of that feeling or approach is tied with how I view this game. Chelsea are off to the hot start, sitting atop the table. This match against them presents an opportunity for Arsenal to close the gap and to get a much needed win over a rival for a top four spot and possibly a league championship. It presents an opportunity to gain some confidence and some belief to perform at a higher level against other big opponents. Arsenal’s struggles against the top clubs in recent years, especially on the road, has been well documented and it would be nice to see that change this year. It’s also because I hate Chelsea.

When you look at these two clubs, you see that they’re philosophically juxtaposed opposite one another. Arsenal has built itself off of its own resources, while Chelsea has emerged from the pocket of a Russian oil baron. Arsene Wenger is the idealistic, long-time Arsenal manager, Jose Mourinho is the pragmatist on his second tour of duty in the revolving door that is Chelsea manager. Arsenal is multicultural and cosmopolitan, Chelsea harbors a racist club captain. These are just a few examples but there are lines in the sand that are clearly drawn here. I respect Chelsea for having a good team, but I hate the way that they do business and their values.

A captain is said to reflect the values of a club. John Terry is not a good person, unless you think sleeping with your teammate’s girlfriend or being a racist a good thing, which would lead me to question whether you’re a good person. At times, he’s been a caricature (see: wanker), especially when he’s accepted a trophy in full kit after not playing in the game. And in spite of this, I think that he may be a really good leader. There have been few constants in a Chelsea side that has experienced considerable success over the last decade and Terry has been one of them. I do think that he may be one of the weaknesses in their XI, which I will get to later.

Terry is a bad dude, but Chelsea just had to get more detestable, so the club added Diego Costa in the Summer. Whereas Fernando Torres provided moments of comedy from being so out of form or genuinely terrible, Costa is a fiery striker that is just as likely to head in a goal as he is to head butt one of your team’s players. Just as Mathieu Flamini is good for a yellow card from a bad challenge in just about every game, Costa is good to get into a conflict with the other team. He’s good, real good, but he’s a dick.

The transfer that really expanded Chelsea’s lead in the hateability index was their move for Cesc Fabregas. The former Gunner was offered to Arsenal, but Arsene Wenger declined on using the club’s first buyback option. Wenger was quoted as saying “we already have Özil.” Given that Özil has played mostly on the left wing to start this season, Wenger must have seen Fabregas’s performance out there for Barcelona and said “no thanks.” In turn, Fabregas joined Chelsea, a club he said he’d never play for, to play under a manager, Mourinho, who he said he’d never play for. While there is still a Cult of Cesc, expect him to be public enemy number one.

Don’t expect Fabregas to suck for Chelsea either. The former Arsenal skipper has been magnificent thus far, scoring a goal and assisting 7 in 8 starts for the West London club. Yeah, it’s five games into the season, but Fabregas is probably the leading candidate for player of the year right now. The way he’s played thus far is why Arsenal fans loved him and wanted him back. I would imagine angst among the fans will rise if Fabregas has any effect on the score line, which he probably will.

The rest of the lot seem okay. I mean, Eden Hazard seems like a bit of a mercenary, having picked to go to Chelsea after they won the Champions League and always having his name linked with other clubs. Oscar is a bit dramatic. Ramires makes some really bad challenges. Ivanovic got into a spat with Özil last year. That’s about it. I like Schürrle and his air guitar celebration. I like Willian’s humungous afro. I like and respect Gary Cahill’s and Thibaut Courtois’s abilities.

Upon review of last year’s games, which I hadn’t watched before, I was not surprised to see a pattern in Arsenal’s undoing. Concession of possession (I’m a rhymesmith) in the midfield that led to scoring opportunities for Chelsea. While the first game ended 0-0, Arsenal did give the ball away cheaply a few times that led to Chelsea chances, including a “Fat” Frank Lampard volley off the crossbar off a pinpoint chip pass from Eden Hazard.  In the second game, all of the goals came on the counter (the penalty came off a counter chance) and there were numerous more. I hear a lot about Arsenal needing more steel in midfield to stand up to the counter in these types of games, but in reality, the problem is holding onto the ball, not taking it away.

If you don’t give the ball away, your opponent can’t counter. This was a problem against Liverpool at Anfield too (sorry to stir bad memories). Often, the man in possession would find himself without support and pressed. Trying to do too much by himself, opponents would win possession and look to counter. I distinctly remember this happening with Özil against Liverpool. With space and often numbers, these counters would turn into high quality chances. It’s important to limit these.

As a result, I’m not sure how much value playing Flamini has. While no one will question his toughness, he doesn’t bring much else to the table. He can’t pass and he’s vulnerable to concede possession (see last week’s Derby). I would much rather take a chance with Jack Wilshere or (less so) Abou Diaby. Wilshere can make the tackles and pass. It would be a matter of him keeping place.

That’s the only real change I would make from midweek. Having Santi centrally instead of on the flanks is a better option. Santi’s passing and long range shooting are his strengths, but he lacks the pace or dynamism to play on the flanks. In the middle, he can help link up play between the defense and attack and help increase the tempo by moving the ball, instead of trying to move with the ball. I could see Santi being replaced by Wilshere, but I hope Wenger does not move Santi out to the wing in place of Chamberlain.

The attacking foursome should stay the same. While Chelsea will prove to be a much tougher test than Galatasaray, you have got to feel that the front four of Özil, Sanchez, Welbeck, and Ox gives Arsenal the best chance to win. The combination of intelligent runs, inquisitive passing, and pace should keep Chelsea under constant pressure if Arsenal can keep possession. I don’t think you can insert any other player who is currently healthy as good as those four when it comes to what I mentioned above.

I do think that Arsenal can score goals against Chelsea. I think that John Terry is a guy that can be exploited with pace. Theo Walcott has had success in the past and turned him sideways. I would like to see Alexis, Ox, and even Welbeck try to put pressure on the Chelsea skipper. On the other hand, I have a lot of respect for Gary Cahill, who I would consider the best English defender right now. He seems to be the type of player that covers for others, but surprisingly, doesn’t get the attention that a Vincent Kompany does (No, I'm not saying he's as good).

Expect Chelsea to foul a lot. That’s their thing right? Whether with Mikel, Ramires, or whoever. It always seems like those guys get away with more fouls than they should. Expect Matic to be the guy you hate the most Sunday. But these guys will remind you why you hate Chelsea. As Pellegrini said recently, they play like Stoke. I guess with better players.

Up front, Chelsea is lethal. Fabregas is the conductor, but anyone can score. Costa has been the main guy so far and Hazard carried the team last year. The Chambers vs Hazard match up could be a lot of trouble for the Arsenal. You’d have to imagine that Koscielny will have to track Costa. Chelsea is so deep that when you factor in Oscar, Willian and/or Schürrle, you know you’re in trouble. At least the sense of doom is not far.

Arsenal seem to suffer in big games. The mentality is not the same. The whole mentality of going out and playing the Arsenal way seems to go out of the window in these clashes. Often times, it seems like the players are overwhelmed by the moment. It’s too big for them. It’s shown up in the record. Arsenal’s record against the Top 5 away from the Emirates in the last 5 seasons? Won one, drawn three, lost sixteen. Sixteen.

This is a clash of the only unbeaten, but Arsenal figure to have a lot more holes. Do they have the strength, the shape, the maturity to keep up with Chelsea? That’s something we’ll find out on Sunday, but until then, you’ve got to figure Chelsea takes this.

Prediction: Chelsea 2, Arsenal 1

Expected Chelsea Line Up: Courtois, Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry (c), Azpilicueta, Matic, Oscar, Fabregas, Hazard, Willian, Costa

Expected Arsenal Line Up: Szczesny, Chambers, Mertesacker (c), Koscielny, Gibbs, Flamini, Wilshere, Chamberlain, Özil, Sanchez, Welbeck

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