As if not having a derby that grabbed worldwide attention last weekend was enough, English football fans will face another derby of sorts this coming round. While, it might not generate the hype of the Manchester Derby, Chelsea versus Arsenal is still a big game. In fact, it’s big for both clubs as they are teams are coming off a very different run of form, and questions are being asked.
Can Arsenal continue their resurgence and beat a “Big Six” team? Will Chelsea bounce back after their one-nil loss to QPR and get their title challenge back on track? How will these two teams face off against each other? Both are attacked-mind teams, basing their play on possession and finding the killer pass; both aim to entertain and score, and both play a similar 4-3-3 formations. Will both stick with their values and go out and bombard each other’s goals in order to win?
Under Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea has been reinvented. Since the days of Mourinho, Chelsea has always had his DNA imprinted on the team. Employing his players in a 4-3-3, but a 4-5-1 without the ball, Mourinho’s team sat deep and played on the counter. Direct balls were pumped up forward to the bullish Didier Drogba, with speedy wingers Damien Duff or Arjen Robben feeding over the loose balls. Managers who have succeeded Mourinho have always struggled to change the team’s style of play.
But Villas-Boas has succeeded where previous managers have failed. His Chelsea team focus more on keeping possession and building play from the back. More so, as noted in this Zonal Marking’s article on Villas-Boas’ Chelsea, his team press forward more, closing down opponents in their own half. Able to incorporate new players, notably Fernando Torres, Daniel Sturridge and Juan Mata — players of immense skill with the ball at their feet — Villas-Boas’ has slowly implemented his style of play on the team. Impressively, others have followed suit.
Has it worked? Chelsea are third in the EPL trailing Manchester City by only six points. They could easily have been only three points behind had it not been for some unlucky decisions in the match against QPR. More impressively, with only nine men, they still dominated the game in possession and came close to getting the equaliser. The performance showed guts and determination; a willingness to never give up, regardless of the circumstances. Even when they haven’t peaked they still managed to sweep pass their opponents, most notably games against Swansea (4-1), Bolton (5-1) and Everton (3-1).
Arsenal, on the other hand, have been getting the results the hard way. Arsene Wenger’s boys are known for being the most entertaining team of the league. However, after their well publicised summer of discontent and terrible start, they having been grinding out victories – minus the tiki-taka style.
The Gunners have won seven of their past eight games, winning by two goals or more on three occasions (Stoke 3-1; Bolton 3-0; Shrewsbury Town 3-1). The other victories have been grinded out by one goal margins. Is this a good thing for Arsenal? Yes. It’s the three points that matter at the end of the day. Arsenal have, recently, never been known for grinding out victories, so the latest resurgence has shown that they have that belief and confidence to do to what it takes to win.
This is impressive considering Wenger has had to reshape the squad with new players. Mikel Arteta and Gervinho have grown into their roles, but more importantly Per Mertesacker has added grunt and height in the defence. However, the defense still remains Arsenal’s key weakness. They have only kept two clean sheets in the last eight matches, against Marseille (1-0) and Bolton (3-0) and five clean sheets this season. The goals they have conceded have been in typical Arsenal fashion: lapses of concentration and poor marking at set-pieces.
Arsenal’s run has coincided with captain Robin van Persie’s blistering form. Seven goals in nine Premier League matches this season has proven this, especially in the last two matches (Sunderland and Stoke) where he scored twice to see the Gunners through to victory. He is Arsenal’s talisman this season. With Walcott struggling to find his feet, Arshavin blowing hot and cold and Chamakh losing all ability to score, Arsenal will need van Persie to be at his best against Chelsea.
But how will they line up against each other? Expect Villas-Boas to stick to his 4-3-3 formation, with Torres expected to start at the tip of the forward three. The loss of Drogba will hurt as his scoring record against Arsenal (13 goals in 14 matches) is sensational and the Gunners have never been able to cope with him. Sturridge will be shifted to the right for support; with Mata coming in on the left. It won’t be a surprise if Villas-Boas throws in Romelu Lukaku during the game, as his strength will be a problem for the Gunners’ backline. Obi Mikel will anchor the midfield with both Frank Lampard and Raul Meireles supporting him. John Terry, along with David Luiz, Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa to add both steel and drive from the backline.
For Arsenal, the problem lies in defense. Vermaelen is fully fit, but the question is whether Wenger would play him. Historically, Wenger rushes players back when there’s a big game. He’ll probably start at right back, with Mertesacker and Koscielny in the centre and Andre Santos on the left. Wenger will continue with his 4-3-3 line up, or 4-5-1 without the ball pushing his wingers – Gervinho and Walcott for their speed – out wide to cover Chelsea’s overlapping full-backs. But the battle will be for midfield: Song is a starter and will do the ‘Makelele role’ with Ramsey and Arteta providing the creative spark and the duties of retaining possession. Expect Arshavin and possibly Park to come in if the Gunners need to find that goal.
The theory is that with both sides’ desire to play attacking football, this should be fascinating spectacle. Hopefully Villas-Boas and Wenger remain true to their beliefs and play their game. If Chelsea press high and bombard Arsenal, they’ll go on to win. If the Gunners can remain tight at the back, there is a chance they can be victorious. Chelsea versus Arsenal have had some classics over the years. Hopefully there is another epic battle in store this weekend.
Chelsea Line up (4-3-3): Cech; Bosingwa, Terry, Luiz, Cole; Lampard, Obi Mikel, Meireles; Sturridge, Torres, Mata
Arsenal Line up (4-3-3): Szczesny; Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Santos; Ramsey, Song, Arteta; Walcott, Van Persie, Gervinho