Chelsea has quickly established themselves as the team to beat this season, storming to the top of the table with a 13-game winning streak in the past few months. Revitalized by Antonio Conte and his 3-4-3 formation, as well as—cough cough—a lack of Champions League football—the Blues now sit a pretty 5 points clear in first place.
Where does it leave Arsenal? Despite whooping their London rivals 3-0 back in September—funnily enough, this result was what inspired Conte to change to the revered 3-4-3—Arsenal have been unable to keep up with Chelsea. Recent results have seen the Gunners slide down into fifth place, eight points adrift of the top.
While the drop out of the top four might be discouraging, if we’ve learned anything over the past few weeks of Premier League action it’s that things can change very quickly in football. We’re going to take a look at how Arsenal compare with league leaders Chelsea this season and how they can catch up with them in the coming weeks.
On paper, there’s not much to separate Arsenal and Chelsea. Both teams have deep squads assembled to challenge for the title and relatively equipped to deal with injuries and suspensions.
In terms of pure talent, they go toe-to-toe as two of the strongest squads in the league. For starters, each side has a pair of world-class star attackers: Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez for Arsenal, and Eden Hazard and Diego Costa for Chelsea. While both teams have a plethora of offensive firepower, Arsenal seem to have more depth in attacking players. The likes of Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alex Iwobi, Lucas Perez, Danny Welbeck, and Olivier Giroud are all options for Arsenal, while Chelsea have just Pedro, Willian, Michy Batshuayi, and Victor Moses.
They both boast strong midfields, too, though the Gunners appear to have more depth in this area as well. In typical Arsenal fashion, however, three of their five central midfielders are currently unavailable: Santi Cazorla is out until March at the earliest, Francis Coquelin is sidelined until the end of the month with a hamstring injury, and Mohamed Elneny is off at the Africa Cup of Nations with Egypt.
Chelsea, meanwhile, have the trio of Ngolo Kanté, Nemanja Matic, and Cesc Fabregas, and rotate them to good effect. Luckily for Antonio Conte, his side are bottom of the injury table with zero players out.
In defense the Blues have been far stronger this season, conceding seven fewer goals than their London counterparts. Gary Cahill has done a full 180 from his calamitous 2015-16 campaign, while David Luiz has silenced his critics by marshalling Chelsea’s back three with surprising composure. The dependable Cesar Azpilicueta, who played every Premier League minute of 2016, has been as consistently solid as ever.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have been blighted by their usual defensive troubles despite finally finding an adequate partner for Laurent Koscielny in Shkodran Mustafi. When the pair start together Arsenal do look safer at the back, though as a defensive unit the Gunners remain prone to lapses in concentration—all three goals conceded against Bournemouth last week serve as a prime example.
Between the sticks, Arsenal and Chelsea have two of the Premier League’s finest keepers in Petr Cech and Thibaut Courtois, respectively. Courtois leads the league in clean sheets this season with 11 compared to Cech’s six, though the former Chelsea man boasts a slightly higher save percentage with 70.3% compared to Courtois’ 68.6%.
There really doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between Arsenal and Chelsea, yet the table says otherwise. The key difference, then, is the system that each side plays with. Antonio Conte has created a system that gets the most out of the players at his disposal—or at least it did for 13 games—while Arsene Wenger has persisted with the classic yet predictable 4-2-3-1 he’s been using for years.
One possible chink in the armor of Conte’s Chelsea is the wingbacks. The 3-4-3 requires wingbacks with a very specific skillset—without them, the formation simply doesn’t work. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso have surprised everyone with how comfortable they look in a generally uncomfortable position to play, but Chelsea don’t have much backup for the pair. As the season continues to wear on, fatigue and/or injuries could take their toll on Conte’s well-oiled machine.
Upcoming Fixtures (Premier League only)
Arsenal: Swansea City (a), Burnley (h), Watford (h), Chelsea (a)
Chelsea: Leicester City (a), Hull City (h), Liverpool (a), Arsenal (h)
As the old cliché goes, there’s no easy game in the Premier League. Some games are certainly easier than others, though, and Chelsea’s 13-game winning streak was partly thanks to a run of favorable fixtures. Their five wins leading up to the recent defeat at Tottenham were against Stoke City, Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Sunderland, and West Brom.
Chelsea’s fixture list gets a bit trickier now, starting with a trip to reigning champions Leicester City. Claudio Ranieri’s men have been a shadow of their 2015-16 selves this season, but still have the ability to wow on their day—see the 4-2 win against Manchester City last month.
The following game against Hull City at Stamford Bridge should be relatively straightforward. The Tigers are currently rooted to the bottom of the table and winless in nine games, so anything but a comfortable win for Conte’s side would be a surprise.
Chelsea’s match against Liverpool—their final game before facing Arsenal at the Bridge—could be the Blues’ biggest test of the season thus far. From an Arsenal perspective, it’s the perfect match to come before the London derby. Ninety minutes at Anfield against Jürgen Klopp’s notoriously tiring “gegenpress” is as taxing as it gets. The fact that they play on the Tuesday before the Saturday match against Arsenal is only good news for the Gunners.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have three very winnable fixtures against bottom-half sides before their clash with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge next month. A trip to Swansea City is probably the toughest of the three games as Arsenal have had difficulties at the Liberty Stadium in recent years, but anything less than three points against the out-of-sorts Welsh side will be a huge disappointment. Home games against Burnley and Watford should be comfortable wins on paper, giving Arsenal some momentum before they face the league leaders in February.
Predicted points for Arsenal from next three games: 9
Predicted points for Chelsea from next three games: 5
Head to Head
Arsenal and Chelsea face off at Stamford Bridge on February 4th in a match that could make or break the Gunners’ title challenge.
Arsenal haven’t won at the Bridge since October 2011 (!), when a certain traitorous Dutchman scored a hattrick in a stunning 5-3 victory. Since then, there’s been some results to forget—the 6-0 demolition back in March 2014 was easily one of the worst days of the Arsene Wenger era.
This time around, the North Londoners will be playing for their title hopes—a win at the Bridge could change the dynamic of their season, while a loss could leave them too far behind Chelsea to catch up.
The inability to win at Chelsea has become somewhat of a mental block, but the 3-0 victory back in September will give the Gunners encouragement that they can indeed beat the Blues. That said, I predict a draw in what will likely be a cagey affair.
Follow me on Twitter @Gunner_NYC