Once again, as we roll towards the end of winter, Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes are teetering on the brink of oblivion. Table toppers Chelsea, who host the Gunners at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, could nudge them off the edge.
The unravelling of their league campaign has been all too familiar for Arsenal supporters. Throughout this term there have been signs this is a more robust and significantly cuter Gunners team than those that have come up short since 2004 in pursuit of the Premier League crown. However, perennial negative trends are beginning to rear their head.
In the 2-1 surrender to Watford in midweek there was a complacency at the Emirates Stadium in the opening stages and the Hornets struck twice in quick succession in the first period. Arsenal could only halve the deficit and subsequently, strenuous postmortems have followed.
Chelsea could land a mortal blow to their London rivals’ title bid with a win on Saturday lunchtime and perhaps to the rest of the chasing pack too. The Blues weren’t at their best in a midweek draw with Liverpool, yet defended gamely throughout the contest and would have won it had it not have been for Simon Mignolet’s late penalty save from Diego Costa.
Antonio Conte’s side, as such, extended their lead at the summit of the table to nine points, with just 15 games remaining in the 2016-17 season. If they can overcome Arsenal, that’ll be one of the most challenging hurdles cleared on their way to being crowned as champions.
Arsenal undoubtedly possess the quality to respond here, although their temperament and cohesion will be given a rigorous examination. Here’s a look at how they could halt this Blues juggernaut and potentially haul themselves back into what’s currently a one-horse title race.
It seems peculiar to say of a team romping clear at the top of the table, but there have been some small signs that Chelsea are slowing down.
Of course, the incredible standards set in the team’s 13-game winning streak were never going to last for the duration of the season, but in their defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, narrow 2-0 win at home to Hull City and the tie at Anfield, the Blues haven’t slotted into the same devastating groove which has taken them to the top.
Conte will want a little more from his forward players against Arsenal. Willian, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa were unable to link up to any effect in the final third against Liverpool and were only really enlivened once Pedro was introduced late on. A snarling Costa, in particular, should be relishing the chance to go up against the Gunners’ brittle back four.
Encouragingly for Conte, while some attacking spark has fizzled away, his team are still rock solid defensively. N’Golo Kante was omnipotent in his midfield play at Anfield, while David Luiz, as well as scoring stunning opportunistic free-kicks, is emerging as the heir apparent to John Terry at the heart of the defense.
The structure of the Chelsea team seems tailor made to give Arsenal problems too. Not only are they well suited to different situations, there’s a physicality running through their spine, lined with the kind of industry the Gunners have struggled to cope with as of late.
The 3-0 loss to Arsenal at the Emirates earlier in the campaign was the trigger for Conte changing to his 3-4-3 setup. Since then, Chelsea have taken 46 points from a possible 51 in the Premier League. This contest is a chance to show their city rivals how far they’ve come.
Hysteria seems to follow Arsenal. When they’re winning and entertaining, those tied to the club won’t put a ceiling on what they can achieve. But when they suffer a defeat, especially an unexpected one like against Watford, panic quickly sets in.
The truth, naturally, is somewhere in between. Overall, it’s been a decent season for Arsenal in terms of their points return; according to Opta, they’ve only had more points at this stage of a campaign three times in their last 11 seasons. There’s little they can do about the blistering pace being set by their upcoming opponents.
Nevertheless, angst is understandable. As aforementioned, it’s 13 years since Arsenal were crowned as champions of England. Given the talent and depth at his disposal in that time, there’s no doubting Arsene Wenger should have done more.
Most gallingly, these players and this manager are not learning from the throng of errors that have blemishes charges in the past. Concentration is lost at key times, crucial players recoil on the big stage and at vital moments in matches, their game management leaves a lot to be desired.
Improvements will be needed in all of those areas if they’re to avoid defeat at Stamford Bridge. In away games at Everton and Manchester City recently, the Gunners crumbled under pressure on the road and there’ll be similar duress placed upon them on Saturday. If they begin in the same sluggish manner as against Watford, Chelsea will grind the visitors into the ground.
Arsenal haven’t scored at the Bridge since 2013 and haven’t picked up three points there since 2011, when Robin van Persie bagged a stunning hat-trick in a memorable 5-3 win. You sense they’ll require a similar virtuoso display from a star attacker here if further anarchy is to be avoided.
Key Battle – N’Golo Kante vs. Mesut Ozil
Against Liverpool, Kante turned in one of the standout individual performances in the Premier League in 2016-17, underscoring his importance to this Blues setup.
The diminutive Frenchman clattered into an incredible 16 tackles during a pulsating match at Anfield, winning 14. His energy and defensive awareness helped stem the influence of Liverpool’s attacking talent and offered his team a platform from which they were able to prevent relentless pressure being applied.
Looking to escape his attentions will be Mesut Ozil, a player who needs a big performance in a big game. Fairly or otherwise, the German international has a reputation for failing to turn up in these tough trips on the road. After a strong start to the season, his form has suffered recently too, failing to find the net in the last six matches.
If Arsenal are to unpick a Chelsea defense that’s conceded just seven goals in their last 17 games, Ozil needs to get on the ball in dangerous areas and use his expert vision to pull those in blue out of position; he’ll need accept that occasionally, he’s going to get clattered too. But shrugging off Kante is not something too many have done since the ex-Leicester City man arrived in England.
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