Sunday’s meeting of Arsenal at Chelsea at the Emirates is a clash between the top two, but rarely can that have meant so little. Chelsea leads the table by 10 points and, if it beats Arsenal, will wrap up the title with victory at Leicester on Wednesday. Even if it doesn’t manage that, Chelsea will seal its fifth league title and its third under Jose Mourinho sooner rather than later. Sunday is about pride as much as anything and, perhaps, scoring psychological points ahead of next season.
It might not have the intensity of some Arsenal-Chelsea games of recent memory, but there will still be an edge: the antipathy between Mourinho and Arsene Wenger assures that. They have been sniping on and off for a decade now, matters coming to an unexpected physical head at Stamford Bridge in October when Wenger shoved Mouinho, who took great delight in pointing out that the incident occurred in his technical area: Wenger was the trespasser.
How that incident was interpreted probably depends on the color of your London affiliation: was this Wenger finally cracking under the strain, or was it him at last showing signs of aggression and hitting back at the upstart from the south? The truth is it was silly, unbecoming and great fun, but beyond that it seems significant that Mourinho continues to snipe at Wenger. As he showed in his consolatory words for Manuel Pellegrini last week, once he perceives a threat to have diminished, he calls off the attack. Mourinho taking pops at Wenger is good news for Arsenal fans because it means he still sees them as a credible challenger.
Sunday’s game may give an indication of just how credible. Since Arsenal beat Chelsea 5-3 away in October 2011 and dealt a fatal blow to Andre Villas-Boas’s reign at Chelsea, Arsenal hasn’t beaten Chelsea in six attempts, a run that includes the 6-0 humbling at Stamford Bridge last season. It wasn’t quite such a thrashing earlier this season, but Chelsea’s 2-0 win was convincing enough, with the midfield trio of Nemanja Matic, former Gunner Cesc Fabregas and Oscar dominating Mathieu Flamini, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere to the extent that Arsenal didn’t manage a single shot on target.
Arsenal, it still felt then, was incapable of change: Wenger sent his side out to play in the one way Arsenal could, which tended to overwhelm those in mid-table and below (except Stoke) but was itself overrun by better teams. Since then, though, Wenger has taken a different approch. At Manchester City, his team sat deep and, inspired by Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, resisted superbly to come away with a 2-0 win.
More intriguing, and probably more relevant to Sunday, is a new-found capacity to press. Pressing was always the single biggest factor in which Arsenal fell behind the elite; as countless Champions League exits showed, it didn’t have either the energy or the organization of a Barcelona or a Bayern Munich. Recently, though, most notably in the 4-1 win over Liverpool at the Emirates earlier this month, Arsenal has shown signs of improvement.
For the first quarter of an hour of that game, Arsenal dominated Liverpool to the extent that it could barely get out of its own half. Chelsea’s defenders are unlikely to panic in quite the same way, and whatever the composition of its midfield (does Kurt Zouma retain his place after shutting out Marouane Fellaini so successfully last week?), it surely won’t fail to offer itself in quite the same way Lucas and Joe Allen did. Nonetheless, if Arsenal can win the ball back quickly and high up the pitch, the center of Chelsea’s defense has proved time after time that it is susceptible to players running at it with pace, as both Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck could.
The likelihood is that Chelsea will protect its center backs by sitting deep and waiting for mistakes, as it did at the Emirates last season when it played out a stultifying goalless draw, but it does have major concerns at the other end of the pitch. Diego Costa is definitely out with his hamstrung injury, while Loic Remy is struggling with a calf strain and Didier Drogba was forced to pull out of a charity game this week because of an ankle injury.
Remy and Drogba are both doubts, which would mean either a debut for the 17-year-old forward Dominic Solanke, or an attacking midfielder operating at center forward.
But that’s a minor detail; of more significance in terms of next season is how effective Arsenal’s pressing can be in terms of driving Chelsea back. If it can achieve that, then perhaps Arsenal really can be a force again.