As Branislav Ivanovic was ravaged at right-back and shot-shy N’Golo Kante popped hopeful long-distance punts on goal, it was clear Chelsea was out of ideas in last week’s blockbuster loss to Liverpool.
The 2-1 home defeat was the first time Antonio Conte’s ranks underwent a thorough examination this season after a fine start, and they’re set to go under the microscope once again in Saturday’s trip to Arsenal.
The Gunners’ professor Arsene Wenger, who has stood on the English touchlines in his long coat for 20 years now, is likely to return to his tried and tested formula against the London rival – pass it around a lot, hopefully with the big bang that has yielded eight goals in Arsenal’s last two tests.
The Blues, however, will likely turn much of its attacking emphasis to a man who looks like he belongs to an age before chemistry and physics existed: Diego Costa.
Injuries and suspensions
The host could offer a first domestic start this season for Olivier Giroud, who faces a late fitness test and has presumably been working his way back into Wenger’s good books after being sent off in his previous jaunt at Paris Saint-Germain in September.
Saturday’s short excursion to N5 will come too soon for John Terry’s ankle issue, leaving leadership duties to Ivanovic or Gary Cahill. Kurt Zouma is still some way off enhancing Conte’s defensive options.
Arsenal starting XI: Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Xhaka, Cazorla; Walcott, Ozil, Sanchez; Giroud
Chelsea starting XI: Courtois; Ivanovic, Cahill, David Luiz, Azpilicueta; Kante, Matic; Willian, Oscar, Hazard; Costa
What to watch
Leicester City forward Shinji Okazaki’s first goal in Tuesday’s League Cup third-round meeting with Chelsea was an absolute mess. David Luiz looked to be on his way out of the stadium to try nearby Melton Mowbray’s famous pork pies, Cesar Azpilicueta displayed horrific touch, Cahill delegated woefully, and Asmir Begovic waved around like someone trying to alert a driver who’s left their bag on the car roof.
And, ultimately, it came courtesy of a lumped ball into the Blues’ box – something Arsenal should try to rehash for Chelsea’s visit.
Alex Iwobi could lose his place as a result, shunting Alexis Sanchez from a role resembling a false nine to the flank where he can expose Ivanovic’s lack of pace and turn circles akin to Jupiter’s orbit around the sun. The other side of the advanced trio should be Theo Walcott, a player regularly trusted by Wenger, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could push for a shock league recall after a fine preseason and lively second half at Nottingham Forest in midweek.
With extra deliveries coming from the flanks, a physical presence would be beneficial up top. Enter Giroud – the oft-criticised forward due to inconsistency that blights his game, but one of the deadliest finishers and aerial assaulters in Europe when he’s on song.
Obviously, given Wenger’s stubbornness and the fact that Arsenal has hit form lately, there’s a chance there won’t be an inclusion as ballsy as Giroud, nor as obvious as Granit Xhaka following two luscious long-range finishes in two appearances from the Swiss.
For Chelsea, Kante can’t be seen shooting from far out again. The Frenchman is the heated atom in the lineup, barging into opponents, winning the ball, and then playing it onto someone who’s more thoughtful and gifted with the leather spheroid. He has to be strictly in that pocket between the centre of midfield and centre-backs, a duty made more vital against an Arsenal side that thrives on ball retention.
There’s added responsibility on the shoulders of the deep-lying midfielder when a wandering David Luiz and weathering Cahill are behind him, too. The organisational skills of Terry – the skipper who’s set to miss his third match – will be a huge miss. Chelsea still has plenty of reliance on the 35-year-old.
Chelsea was in disarray last term but still won six points from Arsenal, continuing a trait which has seen the Blues keep clean sheets against its London rival since January 2013 and not lose a tie since October 2011 in competitive action.
Therefore, the Gunners, hosting at Emirates Stadium, will be seeking belated revenge, and points to support their top-four case (or maybe more) in Saturday’s clash.