This is it, the time for making statements is once more upon us. You will no doubt be reading and hearing repeatedly that Jose Mourinho has outwitted Arsène for years. Nine meetings between the two clubs with the main protagonists in charge, Chelsea have emerged victorious five times with spoils shared on the other four. It makes the orator seem well-informed but as with any statistic, context is all; eight of those meetings happened during Mourinho’s first reign at Stamford Bridge, rendering them utterly irrelevant for tonight’s encounter. Perhaps more of an influence on those matches was the presence of Didier Drogba who regularly terrorised whichever defensive combination Arsenal put forward. Was that more of a problem than Mourinho’s stifling tactics? Probably a combination that and the rest of the squad being the best Chelsea have yet produced.
With the results at the weekend, Arsenal have to win to return to the top of the table. A point whilst a good result, will not achieve that end with Liverpool’s goal difference currently seven better. The media has concentrated on Arsenal going into this fixture with Mourinho and Chelsea getting off relatively lightly. Conceding six at Eastlands last weekend was an easier peg upon which to hang their coats, as opposed to thinking and wondering about why Chelsea are so erratic on their travels. They have lost three times already in the Premier League away from home, drawn twice as well; Cup competitions offer little in the way of solutions to that with Basle baffling taking six points from two Champions League meetings whilst Schalke were swept aside twice.
Perhaps a better indicator for tonight comes in the shape of the Premier League meetings against teams who finished last season in the top seven or eight places. Their record is little better than Arsenal’s; on the road, two draws and a defeat with a solitary win at home. If Arsenal have problems in the ‘big’ games, Chelsea are not blemish free. The difference is perception and that is the biggest hurdle to overcome. Much of the media backdrop is fuelled by the repeated failings to take anything from matches such as these. Perceptions often
They have the personnel to do it. Despite Abramovich’s desire for expansive football, Mourinho is a creature of habit and he has a history of reverting to type when faced with footballing sides. Expect Chelsea to be tight and hit on the break whilst smothering Arsenal’s midfield and isolating Giroud. Problematically for them, clean sheets have been at a premium in the Premier League and the cracks in the veneer are showing with previously untouchable players being dropped.
Arsenal must exploit this and in some respects Jack Wilshere’s suspension will force Arsène’s hand. Changes have to be made from Eastlands, some forced and I would expect one more to reach Wenger’s optimum of three per match. Koscielny is out, Vermaelen in to replace him. Some people have a problem with the Belgian but there is something fundamentally wrong when an international centre back is not deemed a good enough player to be a squad member at the club. We had the same with Djourou who fulfilled the criteria that many set down; an international player. Vermaelen is the same yet his value is questioned.
The only issue I think needs resolving is over the captaincy; the Belgian is a good club captain but on the pitch, I would prefer Mertesacker or Arteta. It is not that Vermaelen does not have any sense of authority, it seems the other duo have more presence. That comes, no doubt, from the lack of appearances and with Koscielny likely to be out this week, Vermaelen has the opportunity to prove his detractors wrong; if he takes it, the selection headache which follows is one I am sure the manager will like to have.
Lukas Podolski’s return offers a different variety of left-sided midfield / attack play. Big hopes are being pinned on the German’s shoulders, even his manager pointed to the goalscoring record last season and the types of games they came in. I doubt he will start tonight but it will be no surprise if he is introduced into the fray with half an hour to go. Theo Walcott’s brace in Manchester will surely keep him in the side as Arsenal will look to test the pace in Chelsea’s back four.
But Mathieu Flamini ought to be concerned following a lacklustre performance not just in Manchester. Recent outings with both he and Arteta in the side have been hit-and-miss; very good or distinctly average yet putting the trio of Özil, Cazorla and Walcott into the same XI seems very adventurous, something Wenger may not be so keen to do unless Arsenal find themselves chasing the game. My own view is that Rosicky provides the balance between the two, waspish tackles on opponents and visionary passes. There is little indication of his attacking bent being dimmed with age. It allows Ramsey to play slightly deeper, perhaps putting Chelsea on the backfoot as they miss his late arrival in support of the attack?
That would leave the line-up,
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Ramsey, Arteta, Rosicky; Walcott, Giroud, Özil
Three points is the ultimate aim, that XI is good enough to achieve it but not losing is crucial. Chelsea and City have tough games against Liverpool this week; being level or within touching distant is vital if Arsenal are to take advantage of others slips.