Arsenal v Chelsea, Premier League 2016-17: Onus is on Arsene Wenger’s Men to Harness Individual Quality

Arsenal v Chelsea kindles our interest every single time and even without Jose Mourinho, the man who ignited this particular rivalry upon his arrival in England in 2004, the 188th meeting between these two clubs is still an unmissable one.  

I, for one, believe that Mourinho’s absence is good for this fixture, even though it takes away one of the major subplots this fixture would otherwise have definitely had. Lest we forget that the current Manchester United manager was not in charge of Chelsea the last time they visited the Emirates in January 2016 too. Yet, under Guus Hiddink and aided by the psychological edge they have had over Arsenal for more than a decade now, Chelsea won in trademark fashion, beating the North Londoners 0-1.

I said psychological edge because almost every Arsenal performance barring the 2015 FA Community Shield, in which they won 1-0 against Chelsea, has typified that aspect. Wenger’s wizards have lacked character and the mentality—which every team needs, to win big games—when they have faced the Blues in recent years.

Whether Mourinho’s absence exhorts them to bring their A-game against Chelsea remains to be seen, although the Gunners will have to contend with a machiavellian ‘on the pitch’, in Diego Costa, who has successfully gotten under the skin of Arsenal’s defenders and scored a couple of goals in four appearances. Gabriel Paulista and Per Mertesacker received red cards in the league meetings between these sides last season, and Costa, undoubtedly, was the main reason why the aforementioned Arsenal centre-backs were sent off in the away and home fixtures, respectively.

So, even without Mourinho, Arsenal have a psychological battle to be won. Because you can be rest assured that Costa, the opportunist and in-form striker he is, will test the Arsenal rearguard with his antics, doggedness and skills.

Preview: Arsenal v Chelsea

Arsenal Form in All Competitions: WWDWW (most recent first)

Chelsea Form in All Competitions: WLDWW (most recent first)

Chelsea had made a good start to their 2016-17 Premier League campaign which has, however, fallen away slightly over the last couple of weekends. A 2-2 draw against Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium after the international break and a 1-2 home loss to Liverpool last weekend have put them five points behind Manchester City, the early pacesetters, on the Premier League table.

Read:

Why Manchester City Have Scope for Improvement Despite a 100% Start to Their Campaign?

Costa, with his goals, has won five points for his team so far, scoring the winning goals in Chelsea’s 2-1 home win against West Ham United on the opening weekend of the season and the 1-2 away victory over Watford. His brace against Swansea earned his team what could prove to be a valuable point after having been 2-1 down with less than 30 minutes to play.

Looking beyond Costa, however, the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian have not quite had the impact on games like they did in Chelsea’s 2014-15 Premier League title-winning campaign and Antonio Conte’s side, consequently, have not dominated any of their league fixtures apart from the routine 3-0 home win over Burnley. Their performance against Liverpool was particularly poor, even though they might have felt that they deserved at least a point for their efforts in the second 45′. Despite their hegemony over Arsenal for more than a decade now, Chelsea can ill-afford a repeat of their first-half performance against Liverpool.

From a defensive viewpoint too, Chelsea have kept just one clean sheet in five league games—which is so uncharacteristic of the Blues—thereby increasing the onus on their attackers to score at least two goals to secure all three points. If they want to beat Arsenal at the Emirates, Chelsea will have to produce an almost complete performance. But because of their recent dominance in the Arsenal v Chelsea fixture, Conte’s side might actually be upbeat even after the 1-2 home reverse against Liverpool last Friday.

Saturday’s hosts have responded well to the poor start they made to their Premier League campaign—which began with a home defeat to Liverpool and an away draw against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium on the following weekend—by registering a hat-trick of wins in the league. They were, in my opinion, fortuitous to secure all three points against Southampton, who, having played well and had chances to win the game themselves, conceded a cheap 94th-minute penalty, and basically gifted Arsenal an additional couple of points.

Arsenal, on the basis of current form, look better than Chelsea and are the more creative of the two sides. Wenger possesses more attacking options than his opposite number, subsequently giving Arsenal an edge over Chelsea in Saturday’s fixture. While they do not possess an equivalent of the clinical Costa, the Gunners more than compensate for the same with their creative and goal-scoring midfielders.

Defensively, both sides cancel each other out, in my view, and Arsenal, like Chelsea, have managed only one clean sheet in seven games across all competitions. With a potent forward line at their disposal, if Arsenal can stymie the Costa-led Chelsea attack, then the hosts will have a great chance of registering their first win in the Premier League over Chelsea since 2011, when Wenger’s men beat the Blues 3-5 at Stamford Bridge.

Managers’ Quotes

By being completely cold-blooded, just focus on the game and don’t respond. Just try to negate his qualities and his game: Wenger on Costa, the biggest threat to Arsenal on Saturday.

This is a special game for him, he’s playing very well for Chelsea and he’s very focussed and concentrated: Conte on the possibility of Cesc Fabregas, the former Arsenal skipper, starting his first Premier League game under the new manager and his first start in the league coinciding with the clash against his old club.

Team News

Wenger confirmed in his customary pre-match press conference, that Aaron Ramsey, who incurred a hamstring injury in his side’s 3-4 defeat to Liverpool on the opening day of this season, will not be playing against Chelsea and neither is he likely to play before the next international break.

Wenger was hopeful that Olivier Giroud can face Chelsea tomorrow, having recovered sooner than expected from the toe injury which saw him miss his side’s clash against Hull City last weekend.

Arsenal Probable Starting XI v Chelsea (4-3-3): Petr Cech (GK); Hector Bellerin, Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi, Nacho Monreal; Francis Coquelin, Granit Xhaka, Santiago Cazorla (C); Mesut Ozil, Lucas Perez and Alexis Sanchez.

John Terry, who suffered an ankle ligament injury in his side’s 2-2 draw at the Liberty Stadium, has yet to recover fully and consequently will miss his side’s trip to the Emirates tomorrow, Conte confirmed.

Chelsea Probable Starting XI v Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Thibaut Courtois (GK); Branislav Ivanovic (C), David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta; Cesc Fabregas, N’Golo Kante; Willian, Oscar, Eden Hazard; Diego Costa.

Closing Thoughts

Arsenal v Chelsea 2016/17 will be decided by the team who defend and handle pressure better. Both teams scored four goals in their respective third-round EFL Cup ties and won, against Nottingham Forest (Arsenal) and Leicester (Chelsea), but I do not think those results will have a bearing on this game. Tomorrow’s clash is of immense significance to both the teams who will not want to lose any further ground on the likes of Manchester City, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur, three teams who have not yet been beaten in the 2016/17 Premier League season, and so we can expect the 188th meeting between Arsenal and Chelsea to be a little cagey to start off with.