The Season So Far
Every Arsenal preview I write here begins with this paragraph on Arsenal’s inherent Arsenalness:
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.
2015-16 has seen the emergence of what looks like a Type C: a season in which every other regular title challenger is so bad, for whatever reason, that Arsenal win the league despite doing everything they normally do. Raft of injuries? Check. Bad luck? Check, although admittedly much more so in the Champions League than the Premier League. Mental fragility? Ditto, although there's plenty of time. Just past the halfway stage, Arsenal are widely and correctly seen as the favourites in a two-horse race with Manchester City.
The Season Ahead
Two inevitable maulings at the hands of a preposterously dominant Barcelona aside, there’s no reason for Arsenal fans to look at the next few months with anything other than gleeful anticipation. Serial Twitter-poll-winner Alexis Sánchez will return from injury this weekend, Mesut Özil is at his absolute peak and Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud have found their shooting boots again.
Arsène Wenger has even signed a defensive midfielder, Mohamed Elneny, which suggests that 1. Arsenal might not be as flimsy in the middle for much longer and 2. The Gunners manager may now do something about other long-term weaknesses in his team. Not that such weaknesses necessarily need to be addressed now: with Chelsea and Liverpool so bad, Man Utd and Man City so flaky and Leicester almost certain to drop off, a first title win since 2004 is definitely on the cards. Ooh to be a Gooner.
The chief criticism of Arsenal has always been that their tactics are predictable, if they’ve even had tactics at all. Chelsea fans in particular have delighted in the sight of the Gunners turning up for big games, walking straight into the opposition’s counter-attacking trap and going home with nil points. Noted Louis Van Gaal fan Paul Scholes memorably summed up Arsenal’s approach as "A few nice one-twos, nice tippy-tappy football - but don't bother running back" – more than slightly reductive, of course, but not inaccurate.
The last couple of seasons have seen Wenger’s ideas diversified. Arsenal still hog the ball – they have the second highest average possession figure and the highest pass completion rates in the division – but the tempo and intensity of their play have increased significantly and they’re far less picky about how they score. No side has created more chances with through-balls, only two teams with crosses and only two have had more headed shots. This is not a side you could accuse of "trying to walk it in".
The biggest reason for this is the change in the type of attacker they have had: Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil are not just on another level to those that have played in their positions for the last decade, they also have completely different profiles. Both are far better in direct or counter-attacking systems than the typically slow, methodical structures which led to Arsenal’s famously sterile domination.
It’s also worth crediting Olivier Giroud, a far better and more complete forward than he gets credit for, regardless of his infamous profligacy – without Giroud up front, the players behind wouldn’t be as effective and Arsenal’s tactical diversification wouldn’t have been possible.
Additionally, Arsenal are now one of the Premier League's best teams at protecting a lead, despite their recent and painfully predictable late concession at Anfield. The sight of the Gunners bedding in and defending their box, bringing on Kieran Gibbs to play as a second left-back and playing on the counter is increasingly familiar.
Their biggest strength is that they’re frighteningly good in attack. Not just in an über-talented sense, but in terms of output and efficiency too. Arsenal’s average of 15.2 total shots per game is bettered only by Man City, Liverpool and Tottenham. However, the Gunners take shots from much better positions than those teams: only 4.1 from outside the box (17 Premier League teams take more per game) compared to 7.1 for City, 7.4 for Liverpool and 7.5 for Tottenham, who lead the pack in this regard. This means that Arsenal take the most shots per game from inside the box (9.5) and from inside the six-yard box (1.5). In short: no team creates as many good chances as Arsenal.
They create these opportunities due to their almost unrivalled blend of pace and skill: Arsenal have produced the second highest number of dribbles in the league and, as previously stated, their chance creation statistics show good they are at reliably finding solutions in the final third. Against a defence as easily stretched and habitually unprotected as Chelsea’s, Arsenal’s front four, inevitably and ably supported by Aaron Ramsey, will surely enjoy themselves.
They’re also pretty good defensively, though not in any really eye-catching way: as many good teams have been in football history, Arsenal are a good team that protects itself simply by being a good team and playing well.
That’s not to say they’re without weaknesses: their midfield remains poorly configured and incapable of truly dominating games; on its off-days the attack can be horribly stodgy and narrow; the defence has a glass jaw and remains prone to individual errors at big moments. At times Arsenal will, for seemingly no reason at all, leave themselves wide open in the middle of the park or do something unfathomably stupid at the back. All of this is a mealy-mouthed way of saying "they’re still Arsenal" – they’re not as classically Arsenal as they were, but they’re still most definitely Arsenal.
In that regard, Petr Čech has been predictably decisive: his current save rate of 80.2% is the second highest in the Premier League, and the titanic Czech looks to have been worth the extra 12-15 points that John Terry anticipated. He has arguably won Arsenal three points against Newcastle and one against Stoke in January 2016 alone.
In terms of glaring weaknesses which Chelsea can and should focus on, the creaking Mathieu Flamini is utterly out of his depth at this level and Arsenal do a surprisingly good job of repeatedly leaving him exposed and overworked in the centre of the pitch. One reason for this is that Aaron Ramsey has decided he wants to be the new Steven Gerrard and now abandons his station in midfield at every single opportunity.
Arsenal will presumably play their strongest available eleven, with Alexis Sánchez a possible selection on the left with Theo Walcott shifting across to the right. Key midfielder Francis Coquelin (yes, those words really belong together) has resumed full training but it seems unlikely that he will be rushed back. It seems equally unlikely that Mohamed Elneny will be selected in such a big game so soon after arriving, so Operation Run At Flamini should be a goer for Chelsea.
As for Guus Hiddink’s team, the most logical thing to do would be to reprise the tried-and-tested sit-back-absorb-pressure-and-counter plan which has worked so many times on this ground before. Playing Arsenal at their own game is a stupid idea and will only end in disaster. Just ask Manchester United.
Arsenal are going to win easily and they’re going to love every second of it. My advice to all Chelsea fans is to avoid social media for at least the next week.