Arsenal fans should be under no illusions about today’s visit of Chelsea to the Emirates: it’s going to be tough.
A disappointing start to the season at Brentford, not helped by COVID withdrawals and injuries to key players, raised temperatures immediately and slow progress in the transfer market, particularly in terms of outgoings, has made for a less than ideal atmosphere at a time that is normally filled with excitement and anticipation.
The visit of Thomas Tuchel’s reigning European champions, flushed with Super Cup success, is unlikely to improve anyone’s mood, particularly given that we are likely to see the return of £100million man Romelu Lukaku at some stage, if not from the outset.
The one ace card Mikel Arteta’s men hold, however, is home advantage. Chelsea have yet to experience proper away crowd hostility in this fledgling season and the Gunners faithful must do all it can to make the experience unpleasant and jarring.
You need look no further than the fever pitch reached by Brentford fans last week to see the sort of impact a good atmosphere can create. Not only can it lift players five per cent and create tension in the opposition, it can also influence match officials, who are far more likely to respond to indignation from 60,000 than the feint moans of the caretaker and his dog.
The team has to play its part, of course, but we have to utilise every single per cent available to us. Moans and groans won’t do it today.
With Alex Lacazette still laid low by COVID, it seems likely we will see Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang (if he has recovered sufficiently) deployed through the middle, with Bukayo Saka on the left and Nicolas Pepe on the right. It is the most logical combination and arguably the best combination available to us.
If Auba can only make the bench, we may well see Folarin Balogun through the middle again but the sort of physical roughhousing he was subjected to at Brentford may see the manager opt for something a little different. Perhaps Gabi Martinelli or Pepe could occupy the space through the middle instead, though I think some hugely important lessons will have been learned by Flo last week.
Aside from some tinkerings up top, I don’t see the manager changing too much else. Rob Holding may find himself in contention for a berth on the left side of defence in place of Pablo Mari but I think that remains an outside chance. Despite his trevails, I expect Calum Chambers will also retain his place on the right, though frankly I think better options remains on the bench.
As we saw in the MIND series friendly earlier this month, Tuchel is likely to set his side up to counter. It is a tactic that has served him well against possession-based teams like Arsenal and the talents of Kai Havertz and Timo Werner are well suited to it. Arteta must be alive to it in a way that Pep Guardiola is not.
The latter is so wedded to his style of football that he will not be parted from it, even in the biggest games. It is that sort of stubborness that has denied him the Champions League success his chairman craves and his reaction to it is normally to spend more on better players. Arteta has no such luxury.
He must adapt his strategy in order to offset our vulnerability to the counter. You need look no further than last week against Brentford to see what happens if we don’t and it was only the host’s lack of quality that prevented them adding to their tally.
Ultimately, however, Arsenal fans can do little about the tactics. Where we can make a difference is in the intangibles column. Chelsea may have it their own way on the pitch but they can’t have it their own way in the stands. This is the first capacity crowd at the Emirates for 18 months, let them hear and feel what they have been missing.
It’s going to be tough but not impossible.