One of the underrated perks of your team playing so well that they’re winning games with almost boringly consummate ease, is that when you’ve just started your final year of university and you have no free time to blog, you really don’t have anything to say anyway. Nothing other than the obvious, ‘aren’t we doing well, still’? Fortunately however, there’s always time to blog about the Arsenal on a Friday Night. Sunday afternoon’s contest will pit together two sides who’ve enjoyed wholly different starts to the campaign in terms of success. It’s hard to remember the last time we approached an Arsenal game where victory seemed so likely.
The Gunner’s 4-1 defeat of Galatasaray on Wednesday marked the 18 year anniversary of Arsene Wenger at the club. The debate over whether or not the Frenchman is still the right man to take Arsenal forwards has become an increasingly boring one over recent years, with the same old arguments on either side being repeatedly hashed out. Ultimately, what it must come down to is whether or not he can prevent the same problems which have hindered his club year after year from continuing to happen in the future – and it doesn’t look promising.
Defenders of Wenger’s work at the London club have always been able to point to the fact that he’s always had relatively little money to spend compared to his main title rivals, but that’s an argument carrying less and less weight by the year. This summer Arsenal broke their record net transfer spend in a single window by spending over £80m. And upon inspection of their business, it’s hard to see exactly where the £80m worth of improvement is coming from in their squad. Alexis Sanchez is a fine player but he only improves what was already the strongest area of the team. Calum Chambers is obviously hugely talented but is equally inexperienced; Danny Welbeck could eventually become an inspired signing also but his lack of experience as a centre forward is still clear in his poor decision making at times. Mathieu Debuchy and David Ospina are good players also but hardly improvements on the players they’ve replaced/come to compete with.
Where the real sense of frustration must lie with Arsenal fans though, over this summer’s transfers, isn’t over who the club signed, but rather who they didn’t sign. To have spent so much money and not addressed the obvious needs at centre half and in defensive midfield is mind-boggling. And now Wenger will bring his team to south west London this weekend with the same old problems that have hindered them against Mourinho’s sides for the past 10 years. Last season they were blown away before the game was even 20 minutes old, as they were utterly unable to cope with our pressing in midfield and our direct running on the counter attack. And with an out-of sorts Mathieu Flamini the only real protection their back four will be given on Sunday, it’s hard to see how those issues won’t be fatal once again.
Games between these two sides will always be interested encounters but the absence of both Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey really does leave the Gunners at a severe disadvantage, for the reason mentioned above. Last week Arsenal left so much space for Tottenham to counter-attack into time after time and it seems impossible that Flamini will be able to cover all of that space on his own, with Jack Wilshere invariably contributing so little in terms of tackles/interceptions in midfield, despite often saving his best form for big games. The absence of Debuchy means Chambers will have the frightening task of marking Eden Hazard on the left wing. Elsewhere Wenger will have the choice of either using Santi Cazorla out on the left (which may leave the middle of the pitch worryingly light) or else using him in a midfield three and putting Ozil on the left, which would leave Branislav Ivanovic virtually free to make as many attacking runs from right back as he likes. Upfront Danny Welbeck is coming off a hat-trick performance but will likely not find so much space to work with, as he did on Wednesday.
For Chelsea, Cesar Azpilicueta remains first left back for league matches and he’ll surely be tasked with marking Alexis out of the game. Nemanja Matic is in wonderful form at the moment and together with Cesc Fabregas, perhaps makes up the best central midfield partnership in Europe right now. Willian will surely play, but Andre Schurrle, who was excellent in this game last year may have thrown away his place with a poor performance in Portugal this week. The rest of the team are all sure starters.
Once again the main talking point from a Chelsea point of view leading into the game centres on the fitness of Diego Costa. To be honest I think Mourinho has been handling the situation poorly with his comments in the press. If he was genuinely putting the player at a heightened risk of injury by playing him in the Champions League this week, especially with an important league fixture upcoming, then that seems like a reckless decision to me. I have a suspicion he may have been deliberately overstating the extent of Costa’s injury to try and dissuade the Spanish national team from calling him up next week but even so, the comments he made last week about not bothering to manage the injury because Spain won’t anyway. just seemed to me rather cold, on a human level. I wouldn’t be surprised if the player and the manager have had a less than cordial disagreement over his rehabilitation – things just don’t seem quite right either way.
The idea that the forward has been performing this well whilst not fully fit has me impatient to see just how well he can play when he’s fully recovered; I have a niggling doubt that we’re going to have to wait a frustratingly long time for that to be the case however.
My favourite Arsenal related stat from last season remains by a distance, that in 34 of their 38 games, they conceded just 21 goals. But in their other four matches, away to the sides who finished in the top five, they conceded a further 20! Their poor form away to the big sides stretches back five years, in which time they’ve recorded only a single victory (against Andre Villas-Boas’ Chelsea). Both physically, and mentally this group of players comes across as weak compared to other top sides in the division, as well as to the other great Arsenal teams of the Premier League era. So they sincerely better hope that they’ve learned their lessons from last season, because the side Wenger’s men are about to face are considerably better than the one that battered them 6-0 just a few months ago – that’s surely the fact that would worry me most as an away fan on Sunday.