Chelsea take on Arsenal at high noon on Sunday, with the Blues down in sixth and Arsenal flying high at the top of the league. But this is always a big rivalry match, so we sat down with Nathan Reynolds of The Short Fuse to chat about Arsenal’s season so far, the job Arteta’s doing, and what we might expect on Sunday. Be sure to check out reverse version of this Q&A, where we talk about Chelsea’s (still new) head coach, our lack of goals, and whether anyone actually cares about Aubameyang.
WAGNH: Last time we talked, back in April, the verdict was that Arsenal were progressing in the right direction under Mikel Arteta. This season, we can now all see those positive steps indeed. How did Arteta manage to get the team into this position, and what makes this season so far different from the previous ones under his management?
TSF: The biggest difference is the players, the squad. Arteta and Edu have slowly but steadily revamped the entire group. A process that I believe will be complete by the end of next summer. But if you look back at Arteta’s first match-day squad, only four of the 18 are still at Arsenal — Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Granit Xhaka, and Reiss Nelson. In their place have come the likes of Odegaard, Jesus, Saliba, Ramsdale & Martinelli. That overhaul has not only given Arteta a better squad but players that buy into his style of play. They are also quite young compared to most of the league and having gone through the learning process last season most of them appear more comfortable in the role he wants them to play.
WAGNH: We also talked at the time about Aubameyang’s departure. The last thing any one of us might have expected was to have Auba play in our next meeting anyway, and in Blue to boot, but here we are. The media narrative has focused on this reunion and its personal implications, but that’s surely overselling the angst and controversy (and also Auba’s impact so far at Chelsea). What’s your reading of the situation? Nailed on for a hat-trick, no?
TSF: To be completely honest, he wasn’t on my mind. When I drafted up the questions to send to you for our Q&A I was focused on Potter, Pulisic, etc. Maybe that is down to the fact that Arsenal hasn’t played against him yet or an increased focus on how well the Gunners are doing this year. Both sides will want to show up the other, but considering Auba never played with William Saliba I’m interested to see how their duels go.
WAGNH: Arsenal seem to have avoided the injury bug a bit better than Chelsea, despite having more settled lineups. Are the players just extra durable or are they doing something specifically to keep injuries to a minimum despite such a congested, high-pressure fixture list?
TSF: It has been a bit surprising that playing with the same players for a high number of matches hasn’t led to more injuries. The midfield was the most impacted when both Elneny and Partey were out. The attack definitely took a dip while Oleksandr Zinchenko’s been out, but there is a chance he starts on Sunday. Beyond them missing Emile Smith Rowe has been the biggest absence, but with the emergence of Fabio Vieira and Reiss Nelson that loss has been lessened.
WAGNH: Do you think Arsenal can keep up their form the rest of the season and mount an actual title challenge against Manchester City and Erling Haaland?
TSF: It seems unrealistic to imagine that Arsenal won’t get hit further by injuries, either at the club or while players are away at the World Cup. We also don’t know if or how much Arsenal will spend in the January window. Personally, the goal is still top four and getting back into the Champions League for the first time since the 2016-17 season. Until that is achieved I’m not setting my sights on the league title.
WAGNH: What can we expect on Sunday in terms of tactics and personnel? Care to offer a prediction?
TSF: I expect Arteta to go with his best XI in what will be their first time playing together in a number of weeks. Ramsdale | Zinchenko - Gabriel - Saliba - White | Xhaka - White | Martinelli - Odegaard - Saka | Jesus. After this is a League Cup tie against Brighton and a Premier League match with Wolves. All the focus will be on Sunday’s clash at Chelsea. If Zinchenko and Saka are fit enough to start, I’ll go with 2-1 to Arsenal.
Thanks again, as always, to Nathan for the chat; be sure to visit them over at The Short Fuse.