A lot of the build-up to today’s clash with Chelsea at the Emirates has been focussed on Diego Costa and particularly on steering clear of the Spaniard’s wind-up tactics.
Something that never ceases to amaze me about Costa is his ability to get a reaction from the opposition. Whatever you think about him, he is extraordinarily good at riling his opponent.
By now, everybody knows what he is about, everybody talks about staying cool when Costa is in town but, time and again, we see players lose their heads as he prods, provokes and confronts throughout 90 minutes.
Last season we lost two players at Stamford Bridge, and another red card reared its head in the return fixture at the Emirates. Costa was directly involved in two of those incidents. We cannot afford for that to happen again.
Arsenal need to put aside their egos, swallow whatever pride they have, and, quite simply, disregard whatever nonsense he attempts to indulge in. Of course, that is far easier said than done, but the instructions from Arsene Wenger seem to have been unequivocal.
In his weekly press conference, he said: “[You cope with Costa] by being completely cold-blooded and just focus on your game and not respond. Just try to negate his qualities and his game. You need to be committed but by respecting the rules of the game and not responding.
“I believe last year that we were a little bit unlucky at Chelsea to be down to 10 men because the red card was suspended after. In the second game we deserved the red card because we were caught on a quality run from him.”
Clearly, Costa’s hyper-aggression has been the subject of discussion and team meetings this week. The Spaniard is at his best when at his most obnoxious and so, like an ill-disciplined toddler screaming for attention, he must be disregarded and I have no doubt that is what has been impressed upon the team.
I am pretty certain that a player of Laurent Koscielny’s calibre is well capable of doing as such, as he proved under provocation at Stamford Bridge last year, but Shkodran Mustafi’s temperament is something of an unknown, so let’s hope he takes a leaf from Laurent’s book.
Hopefully, the midfield will have no need to indulge themselves with the grotesquery of Costa’s game but, should he fail to get any change from the defence, I do wonder whether he will drift towards Granit Xhaka or Francis Coquelin – players I fear will be much more susceptibly to his ‘charms’.
As to the game in a broader sense, Arsene said: “[Chelsea] have always come to the Emirates with a strong defensive solidity and to catch us on the break because they know we like to take the initiative. Conte has very strong players in transition like Hazard, like Willian, like Diego Costa and certainly, for us to stop these three players will be one of the keys of the game.”
That’s hitting the nail on the head, quite frankly. At Hull and at Nottingham Forest, Arsenal showed themselves superbly capable of defending as a unit, pressing hard, and minimising the risk of the counter attack.
Chelsea will prove a much more difficult proposition on that front, however, and exerting control over the game will provide inexorably more difficult.
There will be periods when we are on top of the game and we have to make those pay dividends. There can be no room for wastefulness.
Up top, it’s a difficult call to make. If Chelsea come and press high, I would be delighted to see Lucas Perez given the chance to turn and run at their defence, which is not running over with pace.
Should Conte decide to sit deep, however, the qualities of Perez could easily be stifled, as they were at Southampton, though that had more to do, perhaps, with the lack of support he received from midfield.
In a scenario where Chelsea sit deep, I would be tempted to start with Olivier Giroud, and give the centre backs something different to think about.
Either option up front could work but, in order to do so, the support must be spot-on. We cannot afford to isolate our striker as we did in the early stages of the season. There must be runners from midfield going beyond the lone striker, and we have to get Walcott and Bellerin to the byline and feeding in crosses.
One thing is certain, it’s going to be an interesting tactical battle.