Happy Friday night folks. Thanks for popping in. It’s Matchday Eve of course, as we head to Stamford Bridge in the early kick-off tomorrow looking to secure back-to-back wins over Chelsea for the first time since October 2011.
Back then, we memorably beat them 5-3 away from home, having also managed a 3-1 home victory in December 2010. Don’t ask me why there were ten months between games on that occasion, because that’s a question for the fixture generator, but clinching a repeat of our consecutive wins over Chelsea would show that Wednesday night in Croatia was a mere blip and we can consider ourselves genuine title contenders this term, whilst simultaneously handing the Blues what would be a third straight Premier League defeat.
Going into the game, both sides have important players missing; Chelsea will be without the injured Thibaut Courtois and Willian, and have doubts over the fitness of Oscar, Pedro and Falcao, whilst we’re of course unable to call upon the likes of Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky. Yet, even without those expected to be absent, both teams will feel they have the requisite resources to take all three points.
In a way, Chelsea being 17th in the table on four points gives us added incentive to put pragmatism above pizzazz tomorrow. They have made their worst start to a league campaign since 1986, conceding a league-high 12 goals along the way. They need a win more than at any other time in their recent history. Which means they will be under far more pressure to perform and produce all three points than we are and that should give us an edge in my opinion.
If I were to guess, I’d say Jose Mourinho, facing the threat of losing a third league game in a row for the first time in his managerial career, will revert to what he knows best with renewed vigour – parking the bus, happily conceding possession and relying on mistakes from his opponents and moments of individual brilliance from his star men to win the match. So I hope we don’t fall into that trap and instead mirror his plan – as Rafa Benetiz did so often with success when in charge of Liverpool and we did at the start of last month in the Community Shield.
Encouragingly from that point of view, Arsene Wenger hinted at deploying a contain-and-counter strategy when he spoke at his pre-match press conference this morning. He was asked what his team had to do to be succesful at Stamford Bridge and said:
To be well organised defensively, take every opportunity to attack and play our game
Which sums it up perfectly for me. Our community shield win was based on a very deliberate defensive doggedness, epitomised by a central midfield pairing of Francis Coquelin and the hard running of Aaron Ramsey to counteract Nemanja Matic and co in their engine room.
So I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Arsene opt for a similar set-up tomorrow. That said, at Wembley, Santi Cazorla played from the left and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right, with Mesut Ozil behind Theo Walcott centrally, but we now have Alexis Sanchez available, so if Ramsey is moved back into the middle, it will be interesting to see how Arsene lines up the rest. My inclination would be to have Cazorla in the Ozil role behind the striker and ask Ozil to play from the right.
Providing Hector Bellerin with support against Eden Hazard may play an important part in the manager’s thinking too though, and would certainly be one reason to keep Ramsey stationed on the right hand side, so there’s plenty for the boss to consider when positioning his personnel.
Considering the performance against Zagreb on Wednesday night, you’d have thought our team for tomorrow is easy to predict. Petr Cech will return in goal, Bellerin at right-back, Nacho Monreal at left-back, Coquelin in front of the defence and Ramsey to either central or right midfield as discussed above.
The men to make way will almost certainly be David Ospina, Mathieu Debuchy, Kieran Gibbs, Mikel Arteta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. But the one position still seemingly up for grabs is up front after Arsene revealed he’ll make a descision tomorrow morning:
At the moment I must say that is a decision I still have to make tomorrow morning. I try to use the best solution that gives us the most efficiency offensively. Every game is different and that is why I don’t deny at all the quality of Walcott. I am very happy that he scored so many goals in so many starts. He shows as well that when he comes on, he can score as well, which he did in Zagreb.
Will Arsene prefer the physicality of Giroud or the quicksilver penetration of Walcott? Well, the fact Walcott was rested from the start in midweek and then came on as a substitute to score, would, you’d have thought, increased the likelihood of him getting the nod to begin the game at the Bridge. Plus the England man led our attack in the Community Shield win and grabbed an assist for the winning goal.
That said, if the boss concludes that Chelsea are likely to hold a deep defensive line then he may pull a surprise and give Giroud an opportunity in a big game to put his recent poor form behind him. Frankly, I’m just as undecided as Arsene says he is, although in truth, I think he’s probably made up his mind to go with in-form Theo.
Back post-game tomorrow.