Given Arsenal’s vulnerability to a high-tempo press and the team’s apparent helplessness when under pressure, you can’t help but wonder just how they are going to go about getting a result at Chelsea on Saturday.
The Blues have made intensity, hard graft, and swift attacking play their stock in trade this season and those are all ingredients which bring out the worst in the Gunners, who have shown themselves to be worryingly flimsy on a number of occasions.
In defeats to Liverpool, Manchester City, and Watford, Arsenal have been harried and pressed into submission, and similar tactics employed by Bournemouth, Paris Saint-Germain, and Tottenham have also cost us points.
It’s pretty safe to say that Chelsea will be doing exactly the same to Arsenal on Saturday and, with our challenge for the Premier League title depending on a win, it’s high time the Gunners found a way to cope. In fact, it’s imperative they do.
Chelsea are far better exponents of the press and counter-attack than Watford and, in Diego Costa, they have a striker capable of causing real problems at the back.
Given that, it is difficult not to be worried about this weekend’s encounter.
So how do Arsenal go about achieving what so few have managed this season?
The 3-0 win over Chelsea earlier in the season should provide a blueprint for how to set up (see below for glorious highlights) but it is worth remembering that Antonio Conte’s side have learned a few lessons since their drubbing in North London.
The Italian switched his side to a 3-5-2 system in the wake of their defeat to Wenger’s men and they have not looked back since.
The weaknesses of Conte’s side were laid bare by the Gunners and, to his credit, the former Juventus man recognised as much and came up with a way of playing that compliments his squad’s strengths and masks their shortcomings.
Much as Leicester City did last season, Chelsea have happened upon a system of play that almost no one has been able to live with, despite countless attempts at doing so.
The only teams to have really caused the Blues problems – at least since their switch to 3-5-2, are Liverpool, in securing a 1-1 draw, and Tottenham, with a 2-0 win earlier in the year. The key in both of those results has been matching Chelsea’s work rate and intensity.
In and of itself, that is no guarantee of success – Everton were hammered by Chelsea when Ronald Koeman attempted to match the Blues 3-5-2 system – but it is a good place to start.
Pace will be key too. Let’s not forget, the Chelsea defence is likely to include Gary Cahill and David Luiz, two men who were made to look like rank amateurs by the Gunners earlier in the season.
If Arsenal can isolate that pairing, and bypass the protection offered to them by N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, we will put ourselves in a strong position.
To that end, I think Olivier Giroud will have to drop to the bench, with Alexis Sanchez restored to the lone striker’s role. The addition of Theo Walcott and Lucas Perez will also be key, with pace and direct running into the channels important against the three-man defence. We may even see Danny Welbeck deployed in a wide position given his preference for running into wide areas.
As important as ingenuity and fluidity in attack will be work rate in defence. Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi were relentless in their marshalling of Costa at the Emirates and they must be as sharp again on Saturday.
Ditto Francis Coquelin and whoever partners him in the centre of midfield. Going up against Kante and Matic is going to be exhausting so they must be hungry for the fight from the first whistle to the last.
What’s clear is that Arsenal are going to be at their absolute best in order to get the result they need. Chelsea have scarcely had an off day to speak of since their great transformation and they won’t do so of their own accord, they must be forced into mistakes and knocked out of their stride.
Saturday’s clash is make or break for Arsenal’s season and, quite possibly, for Wenger’s future as Arsenal manager. How much he will be able to affect from up in the stands is unclear so his planning for this match must be absolutely spot on.
Anything resembling the sort of apathetic first-half performances we have seen from the Gunners in the last month or so will surely see the hosts comfortably out of sight before we are able to react.
It’s often said that pressure brings the best of a great players and great teams and the chips are very much down for Arsenal. This is their moment of reckoning and the match which likely will shape the remainder of their season.
It’ll either be the beginning of the end of their title challenge this season, or the end of the beginning. On behalf of all Gunners up and down the country, I pray it’s the latter.