Moody stories that surrounded Chelsea at the beginning of the season seem to be a thing of the past after what has quickly become an impressive start to the season and they can keep the momentum by beating Arsenal at Stamford Bridge tomorrow.
The summer and pre-season has been dominated by acrimony between Antonio Conte, the board, and the still present Diego Costa, as well as the offloading of two thirds of the team’s youth prospects to pastures new whilst big starts sped across Europe. Some of the departures included Nemanja Matic, now settled in at Manchester United, whilst Diego Costa was an effective loss that needed replacing.
However, Conte did get quality replacements in Tiemoue Bakayoko, who has really grown quickly into the same dominating force he was for Monaco last season, and Alvaro Morata, who has wasted no time in settling into the first XI and scoring goals.
Since an opening day 3-2 defeat to Burnley which now looks more like an aberration with every passing week, they have won four games in a row, including tricky assignments at Tottenham and Leicester, as well as comprehensive home wins against Everton and Qarabag.
The last named of those was a stroll against vastly inferior opposition but it did allow Conte to rest Alvaro Morata and David Luiz whilst giving Pedro, César Azpilicueta and N’Golo Kanté very easy nights, a very handy advantage given that at least a couple of members of the Arsenal XI will have played on Thursday against Koln on that most eventful of European nights.
Arsenal have had two much needed wins to wash away some of the memories of their 4-0 shellacking at Anfield when Wenger’s team selection and formation condemned them to an even chastening experience than the one that had already been in the offing after their 1-0 defeat at Stoke the week before.
Their 3-0 win against Bournemouth, with Alexandre Lacazette returned to the fold from the start, should have given them plenty of confidence – especially to Danny Welbeck, who scored two and assisted the other goal. A changed side had to scrap hard to get a win against Cologne in midweek, when the addition of Kolasinac at half time and the change to a back four from a back three proved to be important catalyst for a much improved second half performance.
The return of Alexis Sanchez’s goalscoring exploits was perhaps the biggest positive to take from the night, and with the Chilean here for at least the next few months Arsenal will feel that they are not without a chance, but this will be far more of a struggle.
Wenger must decide if he starts with three at the back, the formation which saw them deservedly take the FA Cup last season when beating Chelsea in the final as well as winning eight of their last 10 games.
However, doing the same this season has left the midfield badly unbalanced and overrun, with Aaron Ramsey out of sorts and Granit Xhaka’s deficiencies badly exposed whilst Mezut Ozil struggles to input himself on games.
A change in personnel after their trashing at Liverpool has given them confidence and starting with Kolasinac, Koscielny, Sanchez and Lacazette ought to give them a bit more ballast. However, this is a completely different task to the one they had against a Bournemouth side that did not play to their best at the Emirates and there’s a feeling that they are still vulnerable defensively against top class opposition.
The flanks have been a huge problem for them so far this season and whilst they could give themselves a strong chance by lining up in a 4-2-3-1, the dominating stature of N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko could be just as difficult to deal with as the speed that Liverpool were able to display in midfield, and in Pedro and Alvaro Morata Chelsea have two of the most nimble attackers in the league, which spells trouble for Wenger.
Manchester United will be aggrieved to have lost Paul Pogba for what could be a conceivable amount of time in midweek, but once they found a way to break down Basel they were very taking and Jose Mourinhio has to be happy with the start to his second season there.
He faces Everton at the right time, with Wayne Rooney returning under a cloud after tow comprehensive beatings at the hands of Tottenham and then Atlanta in the Europa League, with Ronald Koeman and his side coming in for some deserved criticism, so much so that he has held a crisis meeting with senior players at Everton after three straight defeats.
Whilst many will focus on the absence of Romelu Lukaku, now finding the net with aplomb for United, Koeman’s quotes to the Guardian on Thursday suggest he is more worried about rear-guard action.
“I am worried about our aggression on the pitch and how we defend,” he said. “I see a difference in how teams make it difficult for our strikers and how much space we give their strikers, how we let them turn, not following your man, not defending your man tight, not being aggressive. That’s what I am worried about. And, of course, confidence.
“Michael Keane is normally our best centre-back in our ball possession. Maybe now he has doubts in his football. If you have doubts then instead of going forward in your defending you make a step back. That’s all about confidence. You don’t go, always you step back if you are afraid. And I can name more players who are not performing and that are struggling. That all together makes the team weak at this time.”
United, even without Pogba, have the players and the form to take advantage, and they can cover a one goal handicap here.
4 pts Chelsea (4/5 general)
2 pts Manchester United -1 (evs general)