In what is undoubtedly the heavy-weight clash of the weekend’s Premier League action, Arsenal entertain Chelsea with both sides desperate to secure all three points. Wenger’s side have been boosted with the positive news that Alexis and Özil could well be in contention and as such, must surely go into the game as favourites. However, The Blues are unbeaten in Hiddink’s second spell so far and have demonstrated a terrific fighting spirit to rescue adverse situations in the past few weeks. Ahead of Sunday’s match-up, we had two of our followers pen their thoughts.
The hosts: Arsenal
My name is Dan Zeqiri, a lifelong Arsenal supporter with the prawn sandwiches and bottles of red wine to prove it. @ZeqiriDan on Twitter.
Injuries to key players have severely hampered Arsenal’s fluency in the last two to three months, yet as we speak they sit top of the Premier League on goal difference. Performances have not been particularly impressive but The Gunners have suffered just one defeat in their last nine league matches and notched up five wins in that time. The fact that no other title challenger has established a run of consecutive wins has aided Arsenal through this difficult period. Without Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez, January always looked like being a testing month for Arsenal with matches away at Liverpool and Stoke followed by Sunday’s home clash against Chelsea. Arsenal have emerged from those two exacting trips undefeated, but only managed a pair of draws. A win against Chelsea would represent a respectable return of five points from nine; any less however, and Arsenal will feel they have fallen behind schedule.
Manager approval rating – 8/10
No matter what sort of state Arsenal are in, evaluations of Arsene Wenger remain a divisive activity among the Arsenal fan base. Any fair minded supporter agrees that the manager has done so much for Arsenal Football Club, and in this respect it seems wrong to give the man less than 10/10. However, it is also fair to say that despite a volume of fantastic work it remains to be seen whether or not Wenger is capable of winning the biggest trophies again. Some supporters think he will do so imminently, while some believe it is beyond him.
I belong more or less to the first camp. Wenger has rediscovered a pragmatic edge to his management over the past two years; look to the way he culled popular players such as Wojciech Szczesny and Lukas Podolski in favour of upgrades in the form of Petr Cech and Alexis Sanchez. Lazy pundits refer to Arsenal as a ‘possession’ team which to a large extent they are, but with more pace upfront in recent times, Arsenal are more flexible tactically than many people imagine. Wenger knows he has seen more sunsets as Arsenal manager than he is going to see, and perhaps this has prompted this slight change in style. Aware of the passing of time, Wenger now possesses some of the impatience of his younger days. Arsenal also acted swiftly to bring in Mohamed Elneny in the transfer window, which ought to satisfy a few of the naysayers.
Predicted Starting Line Up
The back four and goalkeeper pick themselves. Gabriel is highly thought of, but remains unpolished so Per Mertesacker is likely to continue alongside Laurent Koscienly in central defence. He may not be the perfect centre half, but Mertesacker brings organisational skill and a calmness to Arsenal’s defending that is not always evident until he is absent.
Injuries dictate that Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey are Arsenal’s most likely midfield pairing in their preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. New signing Elneny hasn’t played a competitive match in a month, so I very much doubt that Arsene Wenger will hand him his debut in a game of this stature. Next Saturday’s FA Cup tie at home to Burnley seems a far more suitable baptism. Gooners will be hoping that the Egyptian settles quickly, because the Ramsey-Flamini midfield axis hasn’t been at all convincing for the most part. In the eyes of many supporters, Ramsey is Arsenal’s most complete central midfielder but his very particular skill set demands the right midfield partner for him in order for the team to find a balance.
Ramsey’s strengths are his engine and the forward runs he makes without the ball, often beyond the centre forward. This can leave his partner Flamini exposed to a counter attacking situation, as he is left with the width of the field to defend in front of the back four. This would cause any holding midfield player an issue, but especially Flamini who is not the most mobile. This wasn’t so much of an problem away at Stoke because, in the absence of Mesut Özil at No.10, Arsenal switched from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-1-4-1 with Ramsey and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain forming a midfield triangle with Flamini. This made Arsenal a touch more solid; they kept a clean sheet after conceding seven goals in their previous two away games.
The Ramsey-Flamini partnership is also without a natural ball player who is comfortable receiving the ball from the centre backs and playing out of opposition pressure; Santi Cazorla does this so well. Arsenal’s ball retention has suffered and they appear quite scratchy in possession when pressed. Özil is expected to return from a minor foot injury on Sunday, but don’t be surprised to see him play a touch deeper than normal in an attempt to solve the conundrums mentioned above.
How the front three will shape up depends on whether Alexis Sanchez makes it back following a hamstring problem. My gut feeling is that he will be fit, but only for the substitute’s bench as a ‘Break In Case of Emergency’ option. Arsene Wenger has preferred Theo Walcott as his centre forward against the best teams (see Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich). Walcott hasn’t played there for a while though, and with Olivier Giroud in fine goalscoring form, I think Wenger will stick with the Frenchman for reasons of continuity. The hard working Joel Campbell will get the nod over the enigmatic Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the wide right berth. Campbell has established himself as an auxiliary creative force for Arsenal; he possesses clever vision and an eye for a reverse pass in the last third of the pitch.
Player to Watch: Theo Walcott
Walcott has been playing from the left flank in recent times and to be quite frank, has been extremely poor for the most part. He is looking increasingly unsuitable to playing as a wideman; he doesn’t have the especially good technique in tight spaces, his first touch can be erratic and he cuts an awkward figure when involved in combination play.
Despite all this, he remains capable of scoring against any opponent, home or away, at any time. If we accept all of Walcott’s undoubted limitations, he remains a massive goal threat as demonstrated by his splendid opener at home to Manchester City last month. Walcott also has an impressive goalscoring record against Chelsea with five goals against the Blues so far in his career. The former Southampton youngster started through the middle in both of Arsenal’s meetings with Chelsea this season. I expect him to play the majority of his football as a central striker once Alexis Sanchez returns to play on the left.
Most Feared Opposition Player: Willian
Doubts remain as to whether Eden Hazard will be fit and available, so I’ve chosen Willian who has been Chelsea’s best performer this season. Though nominally a winger, Willian is also very adept at finding space on the inside and this could pose Arsenal some problems from a defensive perspective. As we have discussed, Aaron Ramsey’s game is principally about running forward and this could leave Flamini with a lot of ground to cover. How Arsenal find a balance this area of the pitch will be crucial. If they don’t get it right, then Willian is the perfect player to exploit the gaps between Arsenal’s back four and midfield. The Brazilian also offers fantastic delivery from set pieces, speed on the counter attack and is very responsible defensively.
Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea
When two teams appear evenly matched (and despite the league table, I don’t think there’s too much between Arsenal and Chelsea), it is always worth considering which team needs to win the game more. I just think that Arsenal are more desperate for the points than Chelsea, and that might see them over the line. Arsenal are pushing for the title, and though Hiddink’s men are paying lip service to the prospect of finishing in the top four, I think they’re aware that it’s probably beyond them. Arsenal’s need to win brings its own pressure, but if they want to win the league then that’s something they have to cope with.
Chelsea’s recent hold over Arsenal has also been based upon defensive solidity (they haven’t scored in their last two visits to the Emirates). This is a quality that the Stamford Bridge outfit have lacked for most of the season. They have conceded five goals in their last two Premier League matches, at home to West Bromwich Albion and Everton.