Premier League Preview: D-Day for Chelsea and Arsenal, Mourinho and Wenger

Alex DunnFeatured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2015

Jose Mourinho: If looks could kill, there would have been a murder at Chelsea this week.
Jose Mourinho: If looks could kill, there would have been a murder at Chelsea this week.Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

What a difference a day makes. Jazz singer Dinah Washington was right. Twenty-four little hours really can bring sun and flowers, where there used to be rain. Just ask Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.

On Tuesday, with eyes narrowed like a pit bull weighing up a postman’s calf, Mourinho met BBC reporter Ben Smith’s line of questioning regarding “third-season syndrome” with a barbed “click Google, instead of making stupid questions” response.

Given he also fielded enquiries as to whether his new, short haircut reflected his mood, it’s a wonder the press conference was concluded with everyone unharmed. Who knew Sigmund Freud wrote about football these days, for Heat magazine, too?

Cut to Wednesday evening, as Chelsea recorded English football’s solitary positive Champions League result. A visibly more relaxed Mourinho was genial to the point of being charismatic. It's a trait he used to radiate with the regularity a salesman dons a suit, but one he keeps hung up for special occasions these days.

Having picked up more unwanted records this past few weeks than in his previous career combined, exuberance in victory was of the contagious variety.

"I forgot the feeling. For so long we don't win a game, so good, a good feeling," he beamed, via BT Sport.

"I am a fantastic manager when I win matches and I am a fantastic manager when I lose matches."

A 4-0 defeat of Maccabi Tel Aviv was more Chelsea easing around the corner with caution rather than turning it completely, but it was progress nonetheless.

The acid test will come on Saturday lunchtime, though, as Arsenal make the short trip from north to west London. A fourth defeat of the season could leave Chelsea trailing Manchester City by as many as 14 points come Saturday evening.

 

Chelsea vs. Arsenal, Saturday at 12:45 p.m. BST

Over in Zagreb, it was a case of back to the drawing board for Arsenal. Mourinho left Stamford Bridge in midweek replete with the holler of those present chanting his name. Arsene Wenger boarded a plane back to London from Croatia with only the sound of no hands clapping, and his own troubled thoughts, for company.

Publicly, Wenger will make all the right noises and claim Saturday's game—against a manager he dislikes and has beaten just once in 14 attempts, spread over 11 years—has come at just the right time. In private, let's just say we wouldn't like to be the cat in chez Wenger this week.

ZAGREB, CROATIA - SEPTEMBER 16:  Olivier Giroud of Arsenal walks off after being shown the red card by referee Ovidiu Hategan during the UEFA Champions League Group F match between Dinamo Zagreb and Arsenal at Maksimir Stadium on September 16, 2015 in Zag
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Arsenal and Chelsea both started their European campaigns with more regulars missing than an episode of Cheers without Sam, Diane, Cliff, Carla, Coach, Frasier, Woody et al. Come full-time, most Arsenal supporters would have preferred to have given Norm a start over Olivier Giroud up front.

The six players who came in for Chelsea gave Mourinho plenty to ponder. As did Arsenal’s replacements, but perhaps not quite in the same way.

Baba Rahman’s debut at left-back for Chelsea showed enterprise if the occasional moment of defensive uncertainty, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s rangy athleticism and ability to move the ball quickly embodied everything the champions have lacked in a sluggish, to the point of being slovenly, start to the season. With a pass-completion rate of 93 per cent, via WhoScored.com, the 19-year-old was the least profligate of any player on the pitch.

An assist and goal will help Cesc Fabregas, as a lovely hooked volley (off a Cesc pass) may embolden Diego Costa, but with Eden Hazard’s penalty still travelling, the Belgian continues to wear the haunted look of a player bereft of confidence.

The return of the underrated Oscar at No. 10 was a further fillip for Chelsea, especially given both Willian and Pedro Rodriguez will miss Saturday's game through injury.

Mourinho will almost certainly reinstate John Terry at centre-half, what’s less clear is whether Nemanja Matic and Branislav Ivanovic retain their manager’s unreserved backing. The latter has been roasted so often this season he may take to the field lightly seasoned with a slice of lemon wedged between his cheeks if selected.

The previous statement may be removed before publication for contravening the "banter ban," allegedly introduced at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground, as gleefully reported by the Guardian

On a reported rift between himself and his captain, as speculated by Steven Gerrard on BT Sport (via the Telegraph), Mourinho delivered a firm rebuttal.  

"The pundits get big money not to say easy things. They have to be geniuses in their analysis or they don't deserve the money they get,” he meowed in the Telegraph

Of all people, it had to be Giroud who was red-carded in Zagreb. Through no real fault of his own (notwithstanding Wednesday’s dismissal), Giroud has become the poster boy for all Arsenal frustrations.

A physical manifestation of years of Wenger penny-pinching come to life, like a French Frankenstein, he’s perennially judged on what he does badly rather than what he does well. He’s certainly not the only one, but as a symbol of being good but not quite good enough, it’s Giroud who has been cast as the ultimate empty vessel. Jack Wilshere is a willing deckhand.

As bloggers the world over demand to know why Wenger didn’t sign Karim Benzema as his replacement, akin to asking why I’m writing this column instead of George Plimpton, it’s as though the Real Madrid man spent the summer traipsing round London like Dick Whittington with only a pair of boots to his name and a dream to play for Arsenal.

That said, Wenger being the only manager of any club in any of Europe’s top five leagues not to have signed an outfield player over the summer is taking his managerial oeuvre to a level beyond comprehension.

In a week in which Mourinho conceded he has no experience of building a dynasty at a football club, the limitations in Arsenal's squad, as highlighted by an anaemic display in Europe, raise further questions as to the direction Wenger is taking his football club in a 19th year in the capital.

If Theo Walcott doesn't start against Chelsea, more than a few "In Wenger We Trust" banners may be sporting one less "T" the following week.

 

10 and Counting for North East Clubs: Newcastle United vs. Watford, Saturday at 3 p.m. BST

A winless start to the season masked with a thumbs-up gesture. That should work.
A winless start to the season masked with a thumbs-up gesture. That should work.Scott Heppell/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Even dyed-in-the-wool Newcastle United and Sunderland supporters weren't expecting caviar-and-champagne football, but what has transpired to date will disappoint even those who went into the season with expectations on the Larry David side of pessimistic. Neither side has tasted victory from the 10 games they have endured between them.

To say it's been pretty, pretty, pretty bad would be generous. Steve McClaren conceded Newcastle's defeat at West Ham United on Monday night took his side "two or three steps back," via the Daily Mail. Given Newcastle's starting point going into the game, having taken two points from a possible 12, quite where they will be at for Saturday's visit of Watford is anyone's guess.

Only Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal have conceded fewer goals than Quique Sanchez Flores' miserly Watford side, and on the back of a first win of the season against Swansea City last time out, they'll hardly be cowed by a trip north.

With Newcastle having not scored since the opening day (six hours and counting), new signings Florian Thauvin and Georginio Wijnaldum yet to acclimatise to the pace of English football and Papiss Cisse to be dropped for a poor attitude, according to the Daily Mail, it may get worse before it gets better at St. James' Park.

Newcastle fans will take consolation from the fact Sunderland are just as bad, but few will relish the trip to the Stadium of Light on October 25. A sixth straight defeat to the old enemy after a summer of significant investment would not be well received—neither in the stands nor the boardroom. 

 

Bournemouth vs. Sunderland, Saturday at 3 p.m. BST

Six games into a new season seems a little premature to be talking of "six-pointers," yet Sunderland's 350-mile sojourn to Bournemouth will have been marked as "must-win" by those Black Cats fans who haven't forlornly scribbled "won't win" next to each fixture already.

Dick Advocaat's bullish handling of Ellis Short, the club’s owner, was rewarded with the 11th-hour permanent acquisition of Fabio Borini from Liverpool, along with loan deals for Ola Toivonen and DeAndre Yedlin from Rennes and Tottenham Hotspur respectively.

It will take time for them to find their feet, but there is now at least a little depth to the shallowest of player pools. The Dutchman has warned it could be December before Sunderland click into gear, as reported by the Sunderland Echo, but for now, he retains the full faith of the club's supporters. Even if his wife still has the hump.

With a winless run that stretches back eight Premier League matches, Advocaat will be desperate not to extend that sequence to double figures. With a trip to Manchester United up next in the league, sandwiched between is a League Cup game with Manchester City, the game at Dean Court may represent Sunderland's best chance of stopping the rot.

We'll gloss over the fact Sunderland have won just one of their last 13 away matches in the league, conceding at least two goals in each of the last three, and we'll instead point to a much-improved display in defeat against Tottenham as cause for optimism. Quiet optimism, mind. After all, it's the hope that kills you.