Arsenal have an injury crisis – of course they do. They always do.
At least Jack Wilshere came off the bench against Galatasaray on Wednesday, suggesting his ankle injury isn’t too serious, but otherwise the midfield is bereft: no Aaron Ramsey and no Mikel Arteta, which means an out-of-sorts Mathieu Flamini will take the holding role by default, presumably with Wilshere alongside him. With both Nacho Monreal and Mathieu Debuchy injured, Arsenal are also down to their last four fit front-line defenders. A red card – and Kieran Gibbs was wrongly red-carded in this fixture last year – or an injury could cause chaos. Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott are both still unavailable, but Yaya Sanogo is apparently on the mend. Beyond the ongoing concerns over Diego Costa’s hamstring, Chelsea’s only absentees are Didier Drogba and Ramires, nether of whom were likely to have been in the starting line-up on Sunday anyway.
The game at the Emirates last season was the first after Jose Mourinho had vowed to return Chelsea to basics, and the result was a sterile 0-0 draw. At Stamford Bridge, meanwhile, Arsenal reached their nadir, destroyed by Chelsea’s quick running and hammered 6-0. Arsenal’s defensive record last season was actually fairly good – 41 goals conceded in 38 league games; this issue was that 20 of those goals game in the four away games against the other teams who finished in the top five. The message was clear: when they were on top and could dominate possession, Arsenal were fine; when they had to track runners and actually defend, they were exposed.
It wasn’t just last season: Arsenal have lost 16 and drawn three of their 20 games against the eventual top five over the past five seasons. For all the tinkering at the front end of the team, there’s little reason to believe anything has changed this season.
What we know is that there will be a back four, and that Flamini will operate just in front of them. We can be pretty sure as well that Danny Welbeck, after his hat-trick against Galatasaray will be at centre-forward. The other five positions are less clear-cut.
Arsene Wenger could opt for a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. Wilshere will probably play, whether alongside Flamini in a 4-2-3-1, or to Flamini’s right with another player – probably Santi Cazorla although there may be a case for Tomas Rosicky – to his left. If it’s a 4-2-3-1, Mesut Ozil will play centrally, where he has been at his best this season, with Alexis Sanchez to one side and either Cazorla or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlian to the other. If a 4-3-3, then Alexis would presumably take the right flank and Ozil the left. Given how Branislav Ivanovic tore past Lukas Podolski again and again in the first quarter of the game last season – before the Germany international was sacrificed after Gibbs’s red card – it would seem an enormous risk to place somebody so disinclined to defensive work as Ozil up against a right-back as attacking as Ivanovic. For that reason, a 4-2-3-1 seems most likely.
CHELSEA’S PACE ON THE BREAK
Five of Chelsea’s six goals at Stamford Bridge last season came from transitions, winning the ball with an interception – something Alex Ferguson highlighted as being key to undoing a Wenger side in his autobiography. Other than away at Manchester City, Mourinho has tended to set his side up to take the game to opponents this season, but it may be that he sits another holding player – Mikel John Obi presumably – alongside Nemanja Matic rather than playing a 4-3-3. That would serve both to restrict the space available to Ozil, if he plays centrally, and to draw Arsenal forward so Chelsea can use Eden Hazard and either Andre Schurrle or Willian to hit the space behind the Arsenal full-backs.
Welbeck has deservedly been praised for his performance against Galatasaray on Wednesday, not only scoring a hat-trick, but managing to do a passable impression of Thierry Henry in scoring his second. The bad news for Arsenal, though, is that that, beyond building confidence, that game is almost entirely irrelevant to Sunday’s fixture. Chelsea will not allow them such time on the ball, and they certainly won’t give Welbeck that sort of space to attack behind their back four.
Chelsea are flying and seem to take a particular relish in beating Arsenal at home while Arsenal, for all that they are unbeaten in the league, showed their vulnerability against fast-paced aggressive sides in the Champions League defeat to Borussia Dortmund.
It’s hard to see anything other than a relatively comfortable Chelsea victory. Home goals over 2.5 at 3.15 looks appealing, or, for something a little safer, Chelsea to win handicapping them with a 1-0 start for Arsenal is 2.67.
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