It is only September yet already so many matches feel season defining for Arsenal. In their last Premier League clash at home to Bournemouth, they needed to win to avoid their worst start to a campaign for 35 years. Now they take on Chelsea in a similar boom-or-bust situation: win and they lay down a genuine marker, lose and their title hopes are probably already over.
But the Gunners have struggled enormously on their travels over the past two seasons. In their last 13 matches away to last season’s top six, they have not won a single match, losing eight times – including five on the bounce. Stamford Bridge has proved to be a particularly unhappy hunting ground, having not won in west London since Andre Villas-Boas was in charge.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, Antonio Conte is not AVB, and since that win they have shipped 15 goals in their subsequent five league visits, or three per game. After making such a lethargic start to the new campaign, they feel ill-equipped to change that record on Sunday. But there are some steps Arsene Wenger can take if he is prepared to be a little less stubborn.
It was this fixture last season, back in February, that helped convince Wenger that moving to a back three was the way forward, after they were completely unable to deal with and react to Chelsea’s shape. Results improved as the season reached its crescendo, but performances did not, even though the back three was considered by many, Wenger included, to be a turning point.
But while the formation acts as a platform for the strengths of Chelsea and Tottenham to shine, it only serves to expose Arsenal’s weaknesses. They do not have the ball-playing centre-backs that Spurs have, orchestrating from deep, or the devastating full-backs that Chelsea possesses. Getting the balance right between attack and defence has also been a struggle.
Shots conceded per game | Premier League 2017/18Chelsea10.80Arsenal10.50Tottenham10.00Manchester United8.80Liverpool8.50Manchester City7.30
Often it ends up looking more like a back five, as Jose Mourinho jested this week, which leaves them lacking options in attack and removes the numerical advantage in midfield. On top of that, they are less well drilled in the system, are required to use players out of position, and if they defend marginally better it is only thanks to the extra defender, rather than any systematic transformation. Reverting to a back four solves many of those issues, as it did in the second half of their come-from-behind win over Koln.
For a long time during Wenger’s reign he was defined by his stubbornness in big matches, refusing to tailor his tactics to nullify certain opposition strengths, as Mourinho would do, and instead asking his team to play his way, the Arsenal way. He is less inclined to do that now, though the idea of going fully defensive, and setting up only to grind out a draw, is still almost completely alien.
But if he was prepared to borrow Conte’s back three, he might consider borrowing the Italian’s approach to big matches too, especially away from home. Against Tottenham earlier this season, for example, he parked his defence deep – Marcos Alonso scored twice but actually did very little of his usual marauding – and countered on the vast Wembley turf. Chelsea recorded their third lowest possession in Premier League history, but they got three points.
Arsenal should consider a similar approach at Stamford Bridge, where they cannot allow Chelsea’s plethora of attacking weapons the time and space they thrive in. Whether by accident or design they did exactly that in the FA Cup final, albeit against 10 men, with Per Mertesacker thriving at the base of the back three. The Gunners will have to be alert on set-pieces too, from which Chelsea are prolific.
Mesut Ozil has not been especially bad this season, but, as is his custom, he is hardly living up to his world-class billing either. After a rare summer off, he was meant to be sharp and raring to go, but he has yet to score or assist despite playing every minute of the campaign so far – though admittedly has created a league-high 15 chances.
He has become an incredibly easy scapegoat, especially in big games such as the upcoming match against Chelsea. His languid style often betrays his work rate, but on his last visit to Stamford Bridge he allowed Nemanja Matic to wander past him, provoking the ire of Alan Shearer, while Gary Neville highlighted his lack of tracking back in the four-goal drubbing at Anfield in August.
Most key passes in Europe's top five leagues 2017/18Neymar (PSG)22Malcom (Bordeaux)17Benjamin Bourigeaud (Rennes)17Alejandro Gomez (Atalanta)16Mesut Ozil (Arsenal)15Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Man Utd)15
In total, he has won just 16 per cent of his matches against the top six since joining Arsenal just over four years ago, scoring just five times in 31 games. He was supposed to bridge the gap to the top, but instead seems to be the embodiment of the mediocrity that has seeped into the club.
Against Chelsea he could be a major weak link. Ozil will do little to halt the forward surges of Marcos Alonso, with Wenger largely absolving him of defensive duties, and it makes sense to put Aaron Ramsey there instead. Even though the Welshman does not like playing on the right, it would stifle Alonso, allow a more combative central midfield duo and take Ozil out of a spotlight he often withers in.