This match should provide an indicator of where we’re at as a squad. Despite having not lost since the opening day of the season, the Watford match was the only one where we looked convincing. We struggled to create chances in the 0-0 draw at champions Leicester, won late at home against a struggling Southampton side courtesy of a controversial last minute penalty, were played off the park in Paris and owed our draw to poor finishing from Edinson Cavani and endured a nervy few second half minutes last weekend against Hull when we allowed them back into the game despite being 2-0 up with a man advantage.
There are certainly positives to draw from those results. Traditionally we haven’t been great at scraping out results when we’re not at our best and we showed some strong character in each of those matches. However it’s difficult to imagine us getting anything from Chelsea if we don’t improve the level of performance. We haven’t beaten Chelsea in the league since the thrilling 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge when they were coached by Andre Villas-Boas and we haven’t scored in our last six league meetings.
Like Arsenal, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea have only looked really convincing in one match this season, their 3-0 win over Burnley. In their first two matches, 2-1 wins over West Ham and Watford, they required late winners from Diego Costa. The combative striker was extremely fortunate to have escaped a sending off in both matches prior to getting the winners. Their luck with officials seemed to run out in a 2-2 draw against Swansea. Leroy Fer went through the back of Gary Cahill and ended up scoring to put Swansea in the lead. Costa would again provide the heroics with a late equalizer. Last Friday Conte’s side was made to look toothless and rigid against a dynamic Liverpool side in a 2-1 home defeat to Jurgen Klopp’s charges.
The Blues will be desperate to avoid going three league matches without a win and falling further behind pace setters Manchester City. Does the added motivation of getting the season back on track after a mini-run of poor results win out over the dip in confidence brought about by poor form?
Antonio Conte has started games with a 4-3-3 formation so far this season. David Luiz started alongside Gary Hill in the center of defense against Liverpool with John Terry sidelined with an ankle injury. The Chelsea captain could regain fitness in time to start this weekend however. Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic will almost certainly take up the fullback positions. N’Golo Kante shields the back four at the base of midfield with Nemanja Matic in a slightly more advanced shuttling role to his left and Oscar to his right. Eden Hazard will be on the left wing, Willian on the right wing. The in-form Costa will be up top.
Ball winning midfielders
With a midfield trio of Kante, Matic and Oscar, Chelsea have three players whose strongest qualities are their tackling ability and willingness to contribute energy defensively. British commentators this season have lazily suggested Oscar has just developed a defensive work rate under Conte, that attitude coming solely on the basis that he’s Brazilian and played in advanced positions throughout his career, mainly as a #10 at Chelsea but also in a wider role at times with Brazil. However, his energy in pressing the opposition and winning the ball back high up the pitch has always been one of his biggest attributes. During the first half of the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons Jose Mourinho heaped praise on the Brazilian for the energy he displayed pressing high up the pitch. He fell off in the second half of those seasons, likely due in large part to the fact he hadn’t had a summer break in years after being involved with the Brazil 2012 Olympic team, the 2013 Confederations Cup team and the 2014 World Cup team, but his playing style has always involved defensive discipline and hard work. He currently leads all Chelsea players with an average of 3.6 tackles per game, a touch more than even Kante at 3.4.
Chelsea defend with a midfield block of five with Oscar dropping in alongside Matic and Kante rather than defending higher up the pitch with Costa as he tended to do under Mourinho. Against three mobile and physical center midfielders we’ll need to move the ball quickly and find gaps between their back four and midfield bank of five. Liverpool had success when their two wide attackers Coutinho and Sadio Mane tucked inside from the channels in the space between the Chelsea fullbacks and Kante. This movement forced Chelsea into difficult decisions defensively. If the fullbacks drifted inside to pick up Mane and Coutinho it left too much space in the channels for the Liverpool fullbacks to overlap into (image 1).
If Cahill or David Luiz stepped forward to pick them up it left a gap in the Chelsea back four and space for Liverpool to run into behind the Chelsea defense (image 2).
If the center midfielders dropped off to get tight to them Chelsea would have been defending too deep and allowing Liverpool’s three center midfielders Henderson, Lallana and Wijnaldum too much time and space on the ball (image 3).
If they did nothing it allowed opportunities for Mane and Coutinho to receive passes between the lines and run at the back four where both are quite dangerous (image 4).
If we can similarly force Chelsea's fullbacks into deciding whether to drift inside to track our wide attackers towards the center of the pitch and open the channels to overlapping fullbacks or to stay put and leave space between the lines we should enjoy some success.
The ball-winning capabilities of Chelsea’s midfield three mean we’ll have to be really diligent in possession in midfield. If we allow them to make interceptions or win tackles off us cheaply it’ll create counter-attacking opportunities for them. In Willian and Hazard the Blues have two players that are excellent in transition. There are few players better at dribbling past opposition defenders in space than Hazard and after enduring a poor campaign last season he is getting back to his best. He has completed more successful dribbles than any player in the Premier League with 4.8 per game and has already found the net twice after scoring just 4 in the league last season. On the opposite channel Willian has completed 4.3 key passes per game, tied with Dimitri Payet for most in the league. I've included Alexis's successful take ons and key pass stats in the graphic below for comparison.
In Diego Costa they have a striker returning to form and capable of putting away chances created by Hazard and Willian. He’s averaging a goal per game and isn’t a player we’ve particularly enjoyed playing in the past(insert Squawka comparison here). Few Arsenal fans will forget our two meetings last season when he got Gabriel sent off in September and forced Mertesacker into a last ditch tackle in January that resulted in a red card. We went on to lose both of those matches. Maintaining our discipline will therefore be key. You can count on Costa to look to wind us up into doing something stupid. Mertesacker and Gabriel are of course out through injury this time around but I worry about Mustafi in what I believe will be his first meeting against Costa (he arrived in Spain at Valencia just as Costa was leaving Atletico Madrid for Chelsea). Mustafi has only been sent off twice in his career and hopefully Wenger will be reminding the players this week of the importance of keeping 11 men on the pitch.
Following the draw at Swansea and defeat to Liverpool some Chelsea fans are suggesting Conte doesn’t have the midfield balance right. I’ve seen some suggest Matic should be playing at the base of midfield, with Kante in more of the box-to-box role and either Oscar or Cesc Fabregas in the #10 role. Swapping Kante and Matic is an interesting one because when you look at their statistics both have performed quite well in the roles given to them by Conte. Kante has the highest pass success rate of any player in the league at 94.1% and has done fine circulating possession in an Arteta-like role when Chelsea have the ball. Matic already has two assists in the more advanced box-to-box role.
However, I can see where Chelsea fans are coming from. Their midfield did look a bit static and toothless against Liverpool. In Matic, Kante and Oscar they have three active, disciplined players but none offer a consistently expansive range of passing. Fabregas certainly does (and can offer a goal threat as well as he scored two in the League Cup Tuesday) and Conte has options for getting him on the pitch. I think the issue Conte sees with the Spanish midfielder is that his presence in the squad compromises the really strong spine he likes from his sides.
At Juventus he was happy playing Andrea Pirlo in a regista deep lying creator role because he was playing with three brilliant center backs behind him and two extremely physical, athletic ball winners either side of him in Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal. At Chelsea he’s playing with only two center backs so replacing one of the current center midfielders with the much slower, less physical Fabregas means compromising some defensive solidity.
I’m curious if the signing of David Luiz means Conte may at some point in the near future switch to the 3-5-2 he preferred at Juventus. This shape would more easily allow for Fabregas’s inclusion in the starting eleven. He could then operate in his best deep lying creator position with two of Kante, Oscar or Matic in the box-to-box roles. Alternatively if Conte felt he was needed higher up the pitch they could flip the triangle and play two of Kante, Matic or Oscar as a double pivot with Fabregas higher up the pitch in a #10 role.
I don’t envision Conte throwing his side out in a 3-5-2 for the first time in a game of this magnitude but you never know.
Conte not afraid to change approach
Conte is celebrated for his tactical acumen- his performance with an underwhelming group of Italian players in the Euros this summer was as impressive a display as any player- and has shown early this season he isn’t afraid to alter his approach in-game when chasing a result. In both the Watford and West Ham games his side scored game winners after bringing on Michy Batshuayi and switching to a more direct 4-4-2 with crosses coming into the box from the channels.
Batshuayi provided a cushioned headed knock down from a 50 yard Matic long ball for Costa to collect and shoot past Adrian for the winner against West Ham. The following weekend he provided the leveler against Watford before fellow second half substitute Fabregas played a perfectly weighted through ball to Costa for the winner.
Where Wenger is reluctant to make anything but like-for-like substitutions, Conte takes a more proactive approach in looking to influence the game from the technical area. It was strange then that against Liverpool he waited until the 84th minute before making a triple change that included Victor Moses for Willian, who I thought had been Chelsea’s best player up to that point. Wenger will have to be alert to any in-game changes Conte makes over the course of the 90 minutes and react to those changes with moves of our own if necessary.
Chelsea don’t have the quickest defense, especially if they go with a Terry-Cahill combo at center back and leave David Luiz on the bench. If Wenger does anticipate a Terry-Cahill partnership it might be a decent game to give Lucas Perez the nod at striker. He offers more pace and mobility than Giroud and Cahill and Terry are generally pretty comfortable against physical, less pacey strikers like Giroud.
I’d definitely like to see Wenger play Alexis on the left. Ivanovic has struggled mightily defending 1 v. 1 in the channels over the last two seasons against quicker players. There are few players that aren’t quicker than the Serbian right back these days- Alexis should have his way if we get him in space to run at Ivanovic.
(Update: Conte has announced Terry has not regained fitness and will not play tomorrow)