So it’s Bash The Ash on Sunday; an easy target, thoroughly deserving of stick, baiting over. Well no, not quite. We all knew that Cole was not the brightest bulb in the box – the extracts from his book left you in no doubt about that. But his lack of intelligence plumbed new depths this week when, according to The Guardian,
the defender was Arsenal’s PFA representative while at the club – but “appeared to have no knowledge of the fact”
And that is according to the Barrister who represented him at the FA hearings. Marvellous stuff. Jens Lehmann meanwhile has criticised Cole and his ilk for publishing books when they have nothing to impart. The sales for his book are poor to be polite, something that was always going to happen since the majority of the “juicy” bits were serialised but also going to a new club is not known to boost sales added to the fact that the style of writing was something that my six year old son would be ashamed of. Cole is suffering the same fate as most footballers these days: they write their books when barely out of nappies in footballing terms and tell us nothing new because they all live tabloid lifestyles that removed the mystique long ago. And I for one do not feel sorry for him – setting himself up as the poor man’s Jordan and Peter Andre is not much of a target in life. Lehmann on the other hand is nearing the end of the road and may or may not write a book. He is sufficiently “eccentric” on the pitch and intelligent for a book to be worth reading.
Anyway back to the match. The absence of Toure is a blow when combined with the continued absence of William Gallas, depriving the defence of much needed experience at the heart. Senderos must battle his own personal demons as well as Drogba, the memories still fresh of last season’s torrid time in the Community Shield and Premiership last August. Yet he should have nothing to fear; he had a good World Cup, marking Henry and Shevchenko well in their matches against France and Ukraine, as well as performing well in the Champions League, all post his Drogba-drubbing.
The tactics that Wenger employs in this game will be crucial. If he fights fire with fire and tries to outmuscle Chelsea in midfield then Arsenal will lose, the match over in all probability by halftime. There is not sufficient muscle to compete on equal terms with Essien and Makelele whilst Ballack and Lampard can equally outfight most of the Arsenal midfield. But it is that quartet who could prove Chelsea’s undoing. There is a conspicuous lack of width; employing wide men would stretch them across the pitch, putting what is a World Class midfield ill-at-ease by forcing them into uncommon field positions. Should they not track back, the fullbacks would be exposed. Whilst Cole is an accomplished left back, he still has some defensive weaknesses. On the right, Ferreira is prone to lapses whilst Geremi is not the paciest player in that position. With that in mind, I would like Arsenal to line up:
Lehmann; Eboue, Senderos, Djourou, Clichy; Walcott, Fabregas, Baptista, Gilberto, van Persie; Adebayour
With that midfield, I would expect Walcott and van Persie to push on to the full backs, allowing Baptista to arrive late with Terry occupied by Adebayour. This would mean the Brazilian being picked up by Carvalho, who I have to say I am not impressed by. He is a reasonable centre-half make no mistake but is he World Class? No, he and Ferreira are the weak links of their defence and should be exposed if selected. It may be that Bouhlarouz is selected at right back but he is a right sided centre-half and can be exposed by pace; certainly he picks up his fair share of bookings and an early one would put him on the back foot. In goal, Hilario could deputise for Cech with Cudicini doubtful. Whilst you do not expect many opportunities, facing the second and third choice keepers is less daunting for a forward than the first choice.
However, I do not expect Arsene to take my advice – he has not previously so why start now? – and I would not be surprised to see Flamini in ahead of Baptista and Hleb / Ljungberg ahead of Walcott. This would be a mistake. Whilst Flamini can tackle, he is not in my opinion strong enough in the tackle nor consistent enough to warrant a starting place in midfield. The inclusion of either Freddie or Hleb would not surprise on the grounds of experience but neither has the pace to bother Cole on the outside and if forced inside they will merely create a logjam in the centre of the pitch.
It is a match I have no expectation of a positive result from; I would be “over the moon, Brian” with a point, probably in the local ICU if we won. The build-up to the match is similar to that of the visit to Old Trafford, indifferent form and performances but there are two crucial differences. Firstly, Chelsea are a more solid proposition than United. They are capable of sitting back and soaking up pressure, strangling the life from midfield and then scoring late goals. If you can get past the obvious distaste for their business practices and disdain for the game generally, you cannot fail to admire the consistency they have shown over the past two seasons. It is not a style of play that I for one appreciate but you have to say that they are good at it and effective. It is an interesting contrast in styles, creative and flowing from Arsenal, calculated from Chelsea. At present, one is highly effective, the other splutteringly good. Michael Ballack has observed (with more than a hint of truth) that he prefers the Chelsea way because it wins things. He has not been in the country long enough to realise that until two seasons ago, the Chelsea way did not win anything, a different Arsenal sweeping aside all-comers with a flowing style containing a hint of pragmatism. The comparison with his Bayer Leverkusen days and Arsenal is not entirely convincing. Leverkusen came from nowhere and disappeared there pretty rapidly when their 2001 side went their separate ways. Arsenal have been at the top for a decade under Wenger and will remain there as the team grows.
The second difference is that Chelsea must win to close the gap on United to six points with a game in hand. They are therefore more motivated than United were, the season not old enough when we visited Old Trafford for the result to make an overall difference to the season at that stage. However to go into Christmas six or more points behind the leaders would put Chelsea under considerable pressure. A third one springs to mind as I write this: Tomas Rosicky. At Old Trafford, his interpassing with Fabregas was at times sublime but that had more to do with the space available on the day, something that will be at a premium for this afternoon’s match.
As I mentioned earlier, I do not expect us to gain anything from this game. It has been a long time since I have expected a defeat, purely from a footballing point of view Chelsea are ahead of Arsenal at this point of that there is little doubt. That they possess a more experienced squad is not open to question. My prediction is a two goal difference between the two teams. A win for them keeps the pressure on United. A win for Arsenal sends an equally ominous warning; second is not out of the question but more importantly in the short term, the race for third is hotting up with two or three teams hitting form. Three points for the visitors means that there is one team for the others to watch and be wary of.