While they had directly opposite outcomes in their first matches in charge, both Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery know there is much work to be done to rebuild both their teams to an elite level as Chelsea and Arsenal meet in a London derby at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Sarri, who came over from Napoli to replace Antonio Conte, is in the midst of an overhaul from a counterattacking unit to a flowing one with a 4-3-3 formation. Everything mainly went according to plan in Chelsea’s season opener as they routed Huddersfield Town 3-0 on the road last Saturday.
The focal point of his makeover, holding midfielder Jorginho, contributed a penalty right before halftime as both N’Golo Kante and Pedro added goals. Kante, the France international and World Cup winner, is still finding his legs going forward as Jorginho plays the deeper role Kante rose to international stardom playing for both Chelsea and Leicester City over the past three seasons.
“He is playing like a centre right-midfielder and I am very happy for the performance of Kante, especially when I think he only arrived with us on (Aug. 6),” Sarri noted to the team’s official website.
The victory also marked a return to relevancy for centre back David Luiz, whose falling out with Conte last season essentially made him a forgotten man at Stamford Bridge. Despite the Brasil international’s sometimes adventurous forays forward, Sarri values Luiz as a player who can carry the ball forward from the back and be a voice of leadership in the locker room.
“He is very good to build up the action from defence,” the manager said. “If you are a good defender you can play in a three-man defensive line and a four-man defensive line. I think he will be very useful for us – on the pitch and in the dressing room.”
Keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga had a rather easy time in winning his debut following his record £71 million transfer from Athletic Bilbao. He finished with one save but was also fortunate when a shot thumped the crossbar with the score 1-0.
Sarri likely will elevate Eden Hazard into the starting XI for this match after the Belgium international was a late substitute and assisted on Pedro’s tally versus Huddersfield Town. It also seems less likely Hazard will move to Real Madrid before the European transfer deadline at the end of the month, which would scuttle a reunion with compatriot, former Chelsea teammate and keeper Thibaut Courtois.
The other position of intrigue for Chelsea is the other wide midfield spot, where Ross Barkley is trying to fend off England international Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Barkley started the opener, but it would not be surprising to see Loftus-Cheek in the first 11 with another week of practice under his belt.
“Playing in a 4-3-3 in an attacking midfield position is kind of my position really, my suited position, so hopefully I can bring my best football to the team,” said the 22-year-old Loftus-Cheek, whose game grew on loan at Crystal Palace last term before contributing to England’s semifinal run at the World Cup. “I feel like I have got that experience of a Premier League season now, and international football as well. I feel more mature as a player to help battle for three points every game.”
While Sarri saw most of his match-planning come to fruition, Emery had a first-hand look at the enormous scale of Arsenal’s rebuild to rejoin the Premier League’s elite as the Gunners started their season with a 2-0 defeat to champions Manchester City on Sunday at the Emirates.
The loss was not due to lack of graft as Arsenal harried City all over the pitch and tried to rapidly regain possession of the ball when it was lost. Even with one of the most potent attacks in Europe, the Gunners simply did not have enough talent to deal with City, especially in the midfield.
Granit Xhaka still is not the box-to-box destroyer many thought he would be upon his arrival prior to last season. French teen Matteo Guendouzi gave a game effort but was overmatched against the likes of Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez, and the hopes and dreams of Aaron Ramsey being a playmaker in a more advanced role in Emery’s 4-2-3-1 set-up were put on hold as he failed to unlock City’s defence.
“It’s two different halves, the first and the second half, for me,” Emery told Arsenal’s official website. “The first half, we conceded more space on the pitch for Manchester City to progress. In the second half, we took more risks with our pressing, took more risks with the ball to break their lines and go forward quickly.
“I think we need to improve collectively and also individually. But I think this process is normal against a great team like Manchester City.”
One area Emery will be forced into a change is at left back, where Ainsley Maitland-Niles was forced off with an injury after 35 minutes but also run ragged by both Mahrez and Kyle Walker. Summer signing Stephan Lichtsteiner will likely step into the spot, and his veteran presence brought some discipline to the back four.
Arsenal also looked better going forward after Alexander Lacazette replaced Ramsey, which means Emery may have to juggle his attacking players to find a group who work well together. It is also possible Lucas Torreira could start in Xhaka’s place after the Uruguay international got a 20-minute runout in his Arsenal debut.
Emery is also sticking with Petr Cech between the sticks for this match over £22 million summer signing Bernd Leno. Cech finished with six saves, including a double in the first half, and denied Sergio Aguero on a 2-on-1. While Emery expressed confidence in both keepers, the Gunners still appear to be in a place where the sooner Emery rips the band-aid off and commits to a rebuild from the back out, the better they will eventually be.
“I am very happy with Cech’s performance – he has experience, he has quality, he has the capacity,” the Arsenal manager told The Telegraph. “Also, with Bernd Leno. They are two goalkeepers who are important for us. They have different qualities but for us, in the way we want to play, they can [both] play. For Saturday, the decision for me is easy. Petr Cech can continue to start the match. I believe in him. If Bernd starts, I believe in him also.”
Cech has beaten his former club just once in six tries (1-2-3) since moving across London in 2015.
Arsenal are unbeaten in their last five (2-3-0) in all competitions versus Chelsea starting with their 2017 FA Cup victory, and eliminated them in the Carabao Cup semifinals over two legs last season. The teams played to a pair of draws in league play last season, and the Pensioners have taken points in 12 of the last 13 league matches (7-5-1).
Chelsea had won five straight over Arsenal in league play at Stamford Bridge prior to last season’s scoreless draw.
Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are decisive 4/5 favourites, while Arsenal are 3/1 underdogs. For those thinking the Gunners can escape with another point like last season, the odds are 11/4. A 2-1 Chelsea scoreline seems to be the preferred option among punters at 7/1, ahead of 0-0 (17/2) and 1-0 to the hosts (9/1).
Alvaro Morata and ex-Arsenal forward Olivier Giroud are joint first-choice options for first-goal scorers at 4/1, followed by Hazard and Aubameyang at 5/1 and Pedro at 6/1. Willian slots in just behind at 13/2, closely trailed by Lacazette at 7/1. Morata and Giroud also lead the way with 13/10 any-time goal-scoring odds, with Hazard and Aubameyang joint-third at 8/5.
One gets the sense Arsenal will eventually figure out what Emery is asking of them with his higher-pressing, higher-tempo style. The key word is eventually as opposed to now in mid-August where concepts are still taking hold. While that still holds true on the other side of London with “Sarri-ball,” the fact the Gunners do not have a possession-based No. 10 to link their defensive midfielders to their attack is going to prove problematic until either Ramsey figures it out or Emery potentially drops Ozil deeper to take better advantage of his playmaking skills.
The fact Kante has quickly figured out his new role is not surprising, and regardless of who is on Jorginho’s left — eventually it will be Loftus-Cheek, otherwise they would have loaned him out again — Chelsea are going to have a relentless and tireless midfield trio. How this group links with Hazard in attack will be a bellwether for the Blues as they go forward. They had some impressive sweeping movements against Huddersfield Town, and while Arsenal are a step up in class, one gets the sense Jorginho has made the transition on the blue side of London far more seamless than the red.
Prediction: Chelsea 2, Arsenal 1.
(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at the STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related notes and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)