Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho rekindle their Premier League rivalry for the first time in six years – and with the Arsenal boss yet to beat his Chelsea counterpart, I don’t see anything to change the status quo.
Tonight will be the 10th time they come face to face, and history does not make good reading for Arsenal – they have lost five and drawn four of their nine Wenger v Mourinho encounters.
Mourinho does appear to have an edge over Wenger psychologically – it was usually the Arsenal man who gets more rattled by their mind games.
Both have calmed down a lot since those days, and they have admitted to regrets about what has been said in the past.
But one thing hasn’t really changed, and that is Arsenal’s fixed style of play – a style which plays into Chelsea’s hands.
Arsenal want to win games playing the Arsenal way when they should sometimes use different strategies. Playing a possession dominant, open style means you need to play well to win.
This means they are most likely to come unstuck against two types of team: the very best exponents of possession football (such as Manchester City and Barcelona) or cagey, patient counter-attacking teams, like Chelsea.
Arsenal are more than capable of beating the top possession sides, but they have to perform to the maximum to do that. They didn’t against a lesser possession side, Everton, and so nearly came unstuck.
Much has been made of Arsenal losing that seven-point lead and almost going out of Europe. Was it a slump in form, mental frailty or Mesut Ozil’s inconsistency coming to the fore?
Actually I think this run was inevitable because the fixture list threw up consecutive matches against teams with a similar philosophy. Arsenal can play poorly and win against more direct teams –a clear improvement from previous seasons – but they will not win against similar sides if they don’t play their best football.
You can’t help but think they’d have been better served playing a counter-attacking game away at City – it’s not like they don’t have the personnel to do so, there is just a reluctance to ‘spoil’ Wenger’s tactical purity. They went toe-to-toe with City, and came unstuck quite spectacularly.
While Borussia Dortmund are one of the top teams in Europe, their style – quick transitions as opposed to tiki-taka – means Arsenal can control the game and create chances.
Strangely though, teams like Chelsea – and there are very few teams that combine rigid solidity with creative flair – are Arsenal’s biggest bogeys.
Tonight we will see Arsenal dominate possession – but Chelsea don’t mind that. Not one bit. They will sit and wait, and wait, and wait, and hit Arsenal on the break.
Mourinho doesn’t have a lot of time for how Wenger views the game; Mourinho has his number. If it’s goalless after 70 minutes he knows what Wenger will do – commit men forward in search of the win, thus making them even more prone to the break.
Simply put, Chelsea don’t need to play well to win - and that alone makes a win for the Blues the most likely result.
But with Arsenal set to dominate possession, any loss of discipline defensively could see Chelsea punished. Chelsea don’t want to pitch too big tonight – they don’t want an open, running match from box to box. And they won’t let that happen anyway.
Part of Arsenal’s problem is that Wenger continues to pack his midfield with creative playmakers when, against the top teams, you need an effective destroyer.
Obviously he signed Mathieu Flamini in the summer and, while he is a decent player in that role, he is not world class. This was exposed against City, where he was dominated by Yaya Toure and co.
Mikel Arteta was dropped for that match, and with Jack Wilshere having a stinker you have to expect the Spaniard to return. While not a classic anchorman, he can sit back when required. If Arsenal are to get anything tonight I think Arteta will have to partner Flamini, and both will need to focus on protection first and foremost.
This will be particularly important if Laurent Koscielny fails to recover from his injury. He’s a major doubt at the moment and, while he has the odd error in him, his pace will be vital if Arsenal are to play a high line.
If he doesn’t make it they will have Thomas Vermaelen alongside Per Mertesacker, which will leave them vulnerable to exactly the sort of counter attack Chelsea have perfected. Mourinho is spoilt for choice in terms of quick-breaking attacking midfielders, spoilt to the extent that Juan Mata will probably miss out tonight.
Certainly the late runs of Eden Hazard and Oscar – plus Ramires from deep – are likely to cause Arsenal their biggest problems, more so than their strikers, who have not been firing away from home.
Which makes it all the more important that the midfield offers greater protection – although Vermaelen and Mertesacker are of better use at set pieces than Koscielny, who has a tendency to be dragged out of position in those situations.
So, in my view, bringing Arteta back into the fold will be vital to Arsenal’s chances - and, ultimately, their hopes of staying in the title mix after Christmas.