After years of feeling like two distinctly different teams, Chelsea and Arsenal finally have something in common. Chelsea, usually known for their brutal efficiency, against Arsenal, serial underachievers and progenitors of a style that was starting to become their downfall; whenever they faced each other, it always seemed much more than just a match between two title and city rivals – a battle between two ideologues even; foreign investment vs self-sustenance; results vs aesthetics; pragmatism vs romanticism.
This time, though, both sides can confide in what makes them similar and that should make for an intriguing match-up at The Emirates. Both teams pass it well and are filled with exciting, technical midfielders but what’s ominous about Arsenal is that they are doing it better than they have in a long time. Santi Cazorla’s the key; he glides across the final third with freedom, not playing as a playmaker, but as a second-striker, making him harder to mark. He has stoked up a fantastic partnership with Lukas Podolski on the left and two have often combined for Arsenal’s best moments. They play in a curious front four which is without a defined striker; Gervinho has assumed that role most recently and the aim is to get the Ivorian or Podolski through with runs between the full-back and the centre-back. Even when Olivier Giroud plays, his role has been most effective when acting as a decoy rather than a focal point. It’s hoped he can add that part to his game over time although it might have to be far quicker than Arsene Wenger envisaged. He initially had pencilled in Lukas Podolski to play as the number 9 when he signed over the summer but has since had to revise those plans.
Behind them, Mikel Arteta acts as the reference for Arsenal’s passing game but this season, there’s a whole lot more reason for his importance to the side than just giving continuity in possession. Because it’s his positional play which has probably made the biggest difference. Much has been made of the Steve Bould influence and it’s true that the extra work done on the training ground on the team’s defensive shape and discipline has been immeasurable. But Arsenal’s problem in recent seasons has as much been the synchronicity between the midfield and defence; shots outside the box and runners beyond were too readily relinquished to the opposition. We even saw that as recent as in pre-season and Mikel Arteta was not playing in the role he is now. As such, Neil Banfield deserves much of the credit too. Indeed, Steve Bould went out of his way to praise his colleague after the win against Montpelier in which he took charge of.
While Arsenal look more of a cohesive unit than Chelsea, both are still very much works in progress. Chelsea’s transformation into a possession side this season has seen them assemble over the summer, a cast of gifted, small playmakers but at the same time, stripped themselves of the very depth in central midfield that was the basis of their surprise cup triumphs. That was ruthlessly exposed in their Super Cup defeat to Atletico Madrid where they were picked off on the break to lose 4-1 and they then relinquished a two-goal lead against Juventus to draw.
Roberto Di Matteo has chopped and changed certain members of his line-up week-by-week but there’s a particular template that’s remained consistent throughout. Eden Hazard and Juan Mata are the star players, often interchanging between phases of attack while on the other side, Di Matteo usually selects a “defensive winger” to balance out the team. Their transition from defence to attack, like Arsenal’s, has been a joy to watch. At lunchtime on Saturday, though, it will be a battle of who can do it better.