The Season Just Gone
As I wrote in April:
Since the construction of the Emirates Stadium, there have been two kinds of Arsenal season. The first, which we will call Type A, sees them challenge for top spot in the Premier League until February or March, when a combination of injuries, bad luck and mental fragility leads to a complete collapse and an eventual fourth-placed finish. The second, Type B, sees a combination of injuries, bad luck and mental fragility lead to a complete collapse which means they are out of the title race by October. In the second half of the season, however, they have a sustained spell of good form which suggests their eventual fourth-placed finish will become a challenge for honours in the next campaign.
Were it not for the fact that Manchester United and Manchester City have been so rancid for large parts of the season that Arsenal are about to finish second instead of fourth [note: they eventually came third], this would be the archetypal Type B season. Every key player bar Alexis Sánchez has at some point suffered serious injury and/or loss of form, they have lost games they deserved to win and their lack of strong on-field leadership has once again been a key talking point at various points in the campaign.
Despite this, they’ve had a stellar second half to the season, winning all-but two of their league games in 2015 and hopes for next season, when an injury crisis as bad as this one can’t possibly happen again (!), are high.
The Season Ahead
We’re on track for another Type B but an Arsenal win on Saturday could see this swing back into Type A territory. Either way, the Gooners who genuinely thought this was the year they mounted a serious title challenge are going to be disappointed. Too many of Arsenal’s typical problems remain and although they will win enough games to finish comfortably in the top four, they’re miles away from having the mental fortitude and tactical variation to win the league.
Everyone is familiar with Arsenal’s tactics, so there’s no need to dwell on them too much.
They play a variation of the standard 4-2-3-1 system used across Europe, with inside forwards and an abundance of creative midfielders. They routinely dominate possession and press heavily to win the ball back, and use quick passing combinations on the edge of the opposition area to break down the crowded defences they usually face. They play pretty freely in comparison to most other contemporary giants, which usually allows their talented playmakers to flourish, but sometimes leads them to get into bad positional situations.
They’re rubbish at attacking corners, presumably because Arsène Wenger considers them in some way vulgar, but Santi Cazorla’s delivery is so good that they’re pretty dangerous from attacking free-kicks. While their defence is much maligned, it’s very good indeed, until it completely cocks everything up in big games like this.
This is true of the rest of their team as well: generally speaking they’re an excellent football team and on their day they can beat anyone. However, they’re Arsenal: just when everything seems to be going perfectly, they shoot themselves in the foot.
So far this season Arsenal have produced frightening attacking numbers: they lead the Premier League with 22.4 shots per game and a huge 7.8 on target. They’re generating these chances from all angles – while they’re famed for "walking it in", they’ve had a number of attempts from distance, from set pieces, and as a result of wing play. They also lead the division in terms of dribbles per game, with their figure of 12 testament to the irrepressible talent of their flair players.
Their defensive figures are almost as good: they’re only allowing 8.6 shots on their goal per game, the second lowest figure in the Premier League, and nearly half the number Chelsea are allowing their opponents to take. Arsenal are also pressing extremely well, making 20.2 tackles per game and 19.4 interceptions – great numbers for a side that also averages 62% possession.
In short, they’re playing really, really, really well. It's also worth mentioning the fact that Alexis Sánchez will probably be up against Branislav Ivanović. Gulp.
Of course, Arsenal’s big weakness is that they’re usually playing really, really, really well, but their remarkable tendency to commit calamitous errors at inopportune moments undoes all their good work and means that their opponents in big games often have to do nothing but keep things tight and wait for Arsenal to self-destruct.
If there is reason for Chelsea to feel confident, it’s that Arsenal have struggled to structure their attacks coherently this season. Their strongest available midfield picks itself, but the inclusion of Aaron Ramsey on the right, at least nominally, often leads to them flooding the centre with bodies and taking themselves down blind alleys, making the opposition’s job considerably easier. The West Ham and Liverpool games were particularly bad for this, and Chelsea are – or were, before this season – the sort of team that thrives against an opponent that loves to play narrow.
Chelsea will probably welcome Oscar back into the starting line-up, with Pedro and Willian having joined Thibaut Courtois on the injury list. Cesc Fàbregas was much better against Maccabi Tel-Aviv on Wednesday and will probably keep his place here, although playing him in front of the defence against a team like Arsenal is a big risk. It could be that Ramires comes into the centre to partner Matić, while Oscar moves wide right and Fàbregas plays in the number ten position. Expect Branislav Ivanović to return due to his experience in games like this.
Arsenal have lost Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck to long-term cases of Arsenalitis, but by their standards they have a relatively healthy squad to choose from. The big selection headache is in defence: given the magnitude of the fixture, there’s a fair chance Per Mertesacker will come back into the defence to partner Laurent Koscielny, but Gabriel Paulista is in good form and Wenger could decide that the bigger risk is rushing Mertesacker back. Otherwise, their team picks itself.
Normally this would be a home banker, simply because Arsenal always seem to find a way to lose these games. These are not normal circumstances, however: Chelsea have been abysmal in the opening five games of the Premier League season and though Arsenal lost at home to West Ham, their numbers are extremely impressive. Whisper it, but Chelsea would probably take a draw.