Emirates Stadium, London
September 29, 2012; 12:45 GMT
Perhaps the most mouth-watering London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea in years will take place at The Emirates this weekend. The uniqueness of this fixture can be summed up in a solitary word; change. Ever since era of The Invincibles got over, it’s fair to say that Arsenal, for all their efficient financial management of the club, have lived under the shadow of their West London rivals, at least as far as success is concerned. In this time, The Gunners have been battered and bruised on their way to defeat at the hands of physically superior, mechanically efficient and direct Chelsea sides, powered by monstrous performances from none other than Didier Drobga. However, this season, a lot has changed.
Didier Drogba has left Stamford Bridge, not before seeing his illustrious career culminate in a Champions League win, and with him has left the style of play, and kind of players, that were a trademark of Chelsea till 2012. It’s not that Arsenal didn’t win against The Blues, they in fact registered a famous 3-5 victory at Stamford Bridge last season in what was a catastrophic performance by the home side, but by then, the change at Chelsea had already started to take shape under Villas-Boas. The Chelsea of today aspire to play in what many would term as the Arsenal way. Any team blessed with the presence of players as talented as Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar can’t really do anything but that. However, the team is far from a finished article; they are still adapting to play together, to play in a certain way and are committing mistakes. Moreover, it’s predominantly a young team.
Arsenal, on the other hand, aren’t the inexperienced, defensively frail yet offensively exciting side anymore. Despite losing players of the caliber of Fabregas, Nasri, Song, and most recently van Persie amongst others, Arsene Wenger’s men, not boys, have begin the season full of spirit, brimming with confidence and showing defensive fortitude missing from the Arsenal of previous seasons. Maybe it’s Steve Bould, who seems to have inculcated some palpable steel to not just the defence but also to the team on the whole, or it’s the presence of Giroud, Podolski, in addition to Mertesacker and Vermaelen, players who are strong in the air and are good headers of the ball, but if the early season impressions are to go by, Arsenal don’t concede that easily, Arsenal don’t crumble at the slightest of pressure.
Arsenal are more Chelsea-esque but in a good way, while Chelsea are moving towards a playing style instilled in Arsenal by Wenger by persevering for years; both want to establish a balance between the two worlds, yet neither is there as of today. And, this is why the derby this weekend can potentially be the most fascinating one between the two clubs in recent memory.
Team News and Tactical Brief
Finally, Wilshere and Frimpong are back and they will both get games against West Brom U-21 in midweek, but are still not fit enough to start in the Premier League. Rosicky and Sagna are still into rigorous training; they have started doing light drills. Vermaelen had a viral last weekend; he seems to have recovered and will come back straight into the side. So, Wenger will be fairly happy with the medical staff at Arsenal.
Szczęsny still hasn’t recovered from injury, so Mannone will start in goal. With the kind of form of Mertesacker is in, Koscielny will have to sit out. Gibbs and Jenkinson, who were both rested for the league cup game, will complete the back-line.
Arteta, new sensation Cazorla and Diaby didn’t play in midweek, so they will be fresh for the game. Podolski and Gervinho are certain to start as well, after their recent exploits. But that lost slot on the team is completely up for grabs. Any one of Ramsey (who impressed against City), Oxlade-Chamberlain, Giroud (who opened his scoring against Coventry, but missed a penalty), Arshavin (man of the match from previous game) and of course, Theo Walcott, who scored a brace and made a point or two to a lot of people, can start against Chelsea. Arsene Wenger may go with Walcott, more because of the desire shown by the player than for any other thing.
Arsenal have, this season, sacrificed symmetry for balance on the flanks. The fullbacks and wide forwards complement each other on either side, thus helping the team maintain balance on the pitch. The more attack-minded Gibbs has the tactically aware, defensively hard-working Podolski ahead of him who tracks back and covers for the Englishman, allowing the full-back to venture further forward with confidence. On the other side, Jenkinson mostly remains in his own half to cover for the defensive weakness of the right forward in front of him (Walcott, etc), who seldom track back. Furthermore, Arsenal don’t defend higher up the pitch now; a strategy that’s helped Vermaelen and Mertesacker form a fairly solid looking defensive partnership at the heart of the Arsenal defence.
Chelsea tend to attack through the centre, with their attackers often interchanging positions to escape their markers, so the role of both the centre-backs and even the deeper midfielders – Arteta and Diaby – will be very crucial on Saturday. They’d have to keep a very close eye on the movement of Hazard and Mata.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-1-2-1): Mannone; Jenkinson, Varmaelen, Mertesacker, Gibbs; Arteta, Diaby; Cazorla; Podolski, Walcott; Gervinho
Roberto di Matteo is still without the services of Daniel Sturridge, who’s still out with injury that has kept him out of action since the game against Juventus. Marko Marin has finally made his debut after regaining fitness, and is expected to make the bench against Arsenal. The manager had rested Cech, Ivanovic, Luiz, Cole, Mikel, Lampard, Hazard and Oscar for the midweek game against Wolves, so most, if not all, of them are likely to start on Saturday.
The back-line will consist of Cech, Ivanovic, Luiz, Cole and Terry. The Chelsea captain can still play despite being banned by the FA for four games, as the decision will only come into effect once either the window for Terry to appeal expires and he doesn’t appeal or when a verdict is reached, if the defender does appeal. Fernando Torres will start as the central forward in a 4-2-3-1 formation; the manager doesn’t really have a choice here. The selection and roles assigned to players deployed between the defence and Torres is fairly interesting.
Di Matteo will line up his men with the threat posed by the opposition clearly in the agenda. Irrespective of who out of Walcott or Chamberlain starts on the right, they have pace in them to hurt Chelsea. Di Matteo is expected to start Ramires on the right wing for this game, despite the Brazilian not being in the best of forms this season. What may further prompt him into this selection is the erratic form shown by first choice right-back, Ivanovic, who appears far more interested in getting into goal scoring position than defending. Ramires’ pace and energy can help shore up the right flank. Similarly, Hazard may be preferred to Mata on the left, because the Belgian is better defensively than the latter; an aspect that can help the Blues in tackling the combined threat posed by Podolski and Gibbs. Oscar may start in the centre behind Torres, to serve a dual purpose; in addition to his attributes in the final third, he will be expected to remain close to Arteta and nullify his passing from the back.
A double-pivot of Lampard and Mikel, although being fairly average this season, is likely to feature at the Emirates, with Mikel especially expected to keep perhaps the most influential player in the Arsenal ranks – Santi Cazorla – in check.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry, Cole; Mikel, Lampard; Hazard, Oscar, Ramires; Torres
- Chelsea have kept a clean sheet in their last 3 matches in the Premier League
- Chelsea have won 5 of their last 6 matches in the Premier League
- Gervinho and Podolski lead the Arsenal goal-scoring charts with two goals-a-piece
- Cazorla has a overall pass completion percentage of 90.7 this season
Player To Watch Out For
Abou Diaby (Arsenal)
The single most important reason why Arsenal haven’t missed Alex Song this season is the form of Abou Diaby. That Diaby is a talented footballer was always known, but so marred had been his career because of injury, his performances have come as a surprise for everyone. His driving runs, passing, ability to control the tempo of the game, and the position where he’ll feature on Saturday make him an important player for Arsenal. Chelsea like to link-up through the centre, interchange positions in the third band, and look for defence-splitting balls towards the forward (s). Diaby will have to be at the top of his game and support his defenders, thereby nullifying the treat posed by the likes of Hazard, Oscar and Mata, whoever plays.
Arsenal 2-2 Chelsea
It’s a clash between two teams who, this season, have begun their journey towards the other end of the footballing spectrum, as far as defence and attack are concerned, with the goal to settle somewhere in between and establish the perfect balance. However, both are at the start of their collective mission and neither can confidently claim to have fully inculcated the best attributes of their opposition. A draw appears to be the most likely result, but this being a derby after all has the potential to surprise the viewers. Who has adapted more may determine the final outcome on Saturday.