Arsenal visit Chelsea this Sunday in one of the marquee games of the Premier League season to date. It is the champions-in-waiting against the always-in-waiting, the successful pragmatists against the avowed idealists.
Last season the game finished 6-0 to the Blues, crystallising everything we thought we knew about the two teams.
“Last year was a horrendous day,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger told reporters on Friday, per the Daily Mail. “We never forget it, but we have an opportunity to put it right.
“We are hugely determined and hungry to do that and I am confident we will take the chance to do it.”
Wenger may be confident, but the odds do not appear to be in his favour. Going into this season, the obvious advantages Chelsea have over their London rivals are three-fold. First, they have Jose Mourinho as their manager, a man whose willingness to sacrifice the more artistic elements of the game in pursuit of victory makes him very different to the less flexible Wenger. Second, they have Diego Costa, the most prolific striker in the league this season.
And third and most significantly, in the contest of this particular match, they now have Cesc Fabregas.
Arsenal, of course, had first option to sign their former star when he was made available for transfer by Barcelona this summer. They declined, with Wenger instead opting to keep faith with his existing players.
Chelsea duly stepped in, adding a new dimension to their midfield play, even if the player himself expressed some initial anguish about becoming something of a pariah at the club where he enjoyed his formative years. Wenger, however, has no regrets. Per the Daily Star, he said:
No because when [Fabregas] left we signed [Mesut] Ozil to bring in an attacking player.
We have Cazorla, Wilshere, Ramsey, and Chamberlain. They are all attacking players. We were not in need of buy attacking players.
It makes sense if you look at the balance of the team. I think that is a decision which is easy to understand.
Wenger’s comments contain a certain amount of logic, even if it does inadvertently put a lot of pressure on Ozil’s shoulders. Along with raising the question of whether Arsenal would have even signed the German if they had known Fabregas was soon to be available, by making Ozil-Cesc a “one-or-the-other” proposition, it heightens the scrutiny on the World Cup winner’s performances.
Especially in a head-to-head battle with Fabregas.
Ozil has not been in great form this season, of course, and it is not impossible he will not even play against Chelsea this weekend (with his questionable defensive efforts, leaving him out would seem to be the Mourinho-approved approach).
There appears little doubt Fabregas will play, the Spaniard tasked with giving the Blues a tempo and control of games that they lacked at certain key points last season, a deficiency that arguably cost the Blues the title. This season, however, no such missing pieces seem present.
Wenger’s decision to decline to sign Fabregas was almost admirable in the way the head overruled the heart. But it still ended up expanding the gap between these two teams on paper—something that could well be underlined at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Week 7 Fixtures
All games 3 p.m. BST (10 a.m. ET) unless otherwise stated.
Hull City vs. Crystal Palace
Leicester City vs. Burnley
Liverpool vs. West Bromwich Albion
Sunderland vs. Stoke City
Swansea City vs. Newcastle United
Aston Villa vs. Manchester City (5:30 p.m.)
Manchester United vs. Everton (12 p.m.)
Chelsea vs. Arsenal (2:05 p.m.)
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Southampton (2:05 p.m.)
West Ham United vs. Queens Park Rangers (4:15 p.m.)
1. What to watch out for this weekend
European hangover effect: Part II
This weekend gives us another chance to monitor the “European hangover effect,” following the second round of continental fixtures.
Following the first round of European games only one English team, Arsenal, returned to domestic action with a win (Manchester City and Chelsea drew with each other). Spurs, Liverpool and Everton all lost games most would have expected them to win—it will be interesting to see if a similar pattern repeats itself this time around. It would certainly seem to give Man Utd (who face Everton) and Southampton (who meet Tottenham) a particular advantage.
Saints galvanised by promotions
This week Nathaniel Clyne became the latest Southampton player to earn a call-up to the England squad (longtime readers—hello to the three of you—will remember we tipped exactly this outcome last week). Considering the club’s recent track record, is it any wonder they have started the season so well?
While Ronald Koeman has brought in a core of foreign players since arriving at the club, all the English talents know that the rewards are there if they catch the eye with their performances. Fraser Forster will surely be the next to push his case to be England’s No. 1, while James Ward-Prowse and Jay Rodriguez (once they return from injury) will be similarly motivated.
All these international calls are reward for a club that does things the right way, but also a motivational tool for their players going forward. This might be in evidence against Spurs.
One day you’re the cock of the walk…
Alan Pardew and Newcastle visit Swansea on Saturday, with the coach under severe pressure after the Magpies’ abject start to the season. Pardew’s opposite number Garry Monk, in contrast, is revelling in the plaudits after an encouraging first handful of games. Once upon a time Pardew was in that situation; Monk is inexperienced in managerial terms, but he would be wise to speak to Pardew afterwards about how quickly the wind can change direction in this industry.
Some wonder how Pardew is still in a job. Once he is gone, however, who else is there for Newcastle fans to direct their ire at other than owner Mike Ashley? Therein perhaps lies the answer...
Benteke back with a vengeance
This weekend could see the return of Christian Benteke from long-term injury, the star man available again for an Aston Villa team that has started the season very brightly. Still only 23, the Belgian has had his fair share of injury problems in his fledgling career. It will be interesting to see if he returns with the impact Villa fans all hope for, or whether his fitness problems have robbed him of some of the pace and physicality much of his game is based on.
2. Video of the week
We might just turn this section over to Stan Collymore every week.
3. Player to watch
The criticism already seems to be growing around the mercurial Italian. After Wednesday’s Champions League defeat to Basel, captain Steven Gerrard described his team as “soft” (a barely veiled criticism of the team's new, mostly foreign signings), while manager Brendan Rodgers basically acknowledged that Balotelli was as good as they could do at the end of the transfer window, per The Guardian. Hardly glowing endorsements of Balotelli, who was also savaged on Sky Sports by former Reds player Graeme Souness for his performance in that Basel defeat—his comments passed on by the Mirror.
For now, however, Rodgers has little choice but to persist with Balotelli—at least until Daniel Sturridge is fully fit again. The ex-City striker seems to have done everything he can to try and endear himself to Liverpool fans off the pitch (with his Liver bird hairstyle and Reds-themed Instagram posts), but on the pitch his performances have been left wanting (both in terms of work rate and, most critically, goalscoring).
With Sturridge regaining fitness rapidly, Sunday’s game against West Brom might be Balotelli's last chance for a while to start in a Premier League game. The Baggies have defended well so far this season, and look a better team under Alan Irvine than many expected. But Liverpool will still expect victory, and fans will expect more from Balotelli. If he delivers, it will silence the critics for a while. If he doesn’t, the inquisition will start in earnest.
4. Game of the weekend
Manchester United vs. Everton
Another genuine test for Louis van Gaal and United, even if the fact Everton have trudged back from a long midweek trip to Russia surely gives the home side a sizeable advantage this time around.
Roberto Martinez twice got the upper hand over David Moyes last season—the 1-0 win at Old Trafford coming courtesy of Bryan Oviedo—underlining the growing assertions that Moyes was not the right man for arguably the biggest job in English football. He was soon dismissed, of course, with Van Gaal now in charge of getting the United juggernaut pointing back in the right direction.
Everton have been unusually porous at the back so far this season, which should play into the hands of United and their array of attacking players—even with Wayne Rooney suspended. But the Toffees' fluid, balanced attacking style (along with the brute force Romelu Lukaku can also offer) seems a poor match-up for a United defence that remains very much in flux, lacking in organisation and balance at this point in time.
This is the biggest test of the season so far for United, with games against Chelsea and Manchester City now very much on the horizon. Beating Everton would certainly help Van Gaal separate himself from the memories of Moyes, and give some much-needed confidence ahead of those bigger tests.