Arsene Wenger will be glad the game coinciding with his 20-year Arsenal
anniversary won’t involve a clash with nemesis Jose Mourinho, but there's another villain the Frenchman will have to stomach. An in-form Diego Costa, who will lead the line for Antonio Conte’s men at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, always poses problems for the Gunners – even more so when Cesc Fabregas is supplying the ammunition.
That, at least, is what recent history indicates: Arsenal haven't beaten Chelsea
in nine league games and have gone six without finding the net, a record not helped by Costa succeeding Didier Drogba as their chief tormentor since transferring from Atletico Madrid
Only twice have Arsenal avoided defeat since his arrival, namely the scoreless draw at the Emirates in April last year and their 1-0 win in the Community Shield a few months later. One thing those two fixtures have in common is that Costa was out injured and didn't feature.
When that's not been the case, Chelsea have won three out of three, with Costa the protagonist. He clinched the second goal in the 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge in October 2014, then engineered the dismissal of Gabriel Paulista to facilitate another 2-0 win in September 2015; last January, with Guus Hiddink in charge, he got Per Mertesacker sent off and struck the winner in a 1-0 triumph.
The studious Italian will no doubt have noted that on two of the occasions his star striker punished Arsenal, he did so by making clever runs in behind the backline
His performances have offered a mix of provocation and actual play, but if histrionics are hard to predict, the tactics Conte will use to get Costa scoring are easier to analyse. The studious Italian will no doubt have noted that on two of the occasions his star striker punished Arsenal, he did so by making clever runs in behind the backline.
It was such an initiative that brought the second goal in 2014, with Fabregas sending the ball over the top as Arsenal chased an equaliser. Last January, Costa curved his run to poke Willian’s through-ball past Mertesacker, who was tempted into fouling him as the last man.
Worryingly for Arsenal, Costa’s movement now looks sharper than ever. His five league goals this season include a trademark strike at Watford, where he sprinted in behind the defence to collect a sumptuous pass on the break. Again, the delivery came from Fabregas, who had entered the fray late in the second half.
On Wednesday, in the 4-2 win at Leicester
in the League Cup, Costa came off the bench to launch several dangerous runs and could easily have scored. The danger is thus clear for Arsenal: Chelsea will look for Costa in transitions, with incisive passes designed to pierce the backline.
A high defensive line would make little sense at the Emirates against Alexis Sánchez and Theo Walcott, and so the game could fall into the familiar pattern of Arsenal keeping the ball against a deep-lying Chelsea side
What increases the risk of this happening is the venue of the fixture. At the Emirates, Arsenal will be expected to run the game and send players forward; they were the team with the most possession at home last season (58.3 per cent).
The good news for Wenger is that Mertesacker, who's out injured anyway, has been replaced with Shkodran Mustafi. The German centre-back who signed from Valencia for £35 million in August is more mobile than his older compatriot and should, alongside Laurent Koscielny, Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal, give Wenger decent cover when Chelsea break forward.
Yet besides sheer pace, counter-attacks are also about planning and organisation, and Conte is a master at both. Evidence of this was provided at the Euros, where Italy shone on the break against Belgium and Spain with pre-determined moves rehearsed so well that it looked as if the players could have carried out the gameplan blindfolded.
Conte did an excellent job in charge of Italy at Euro 2016
Though the formation will not be 3-5-2 on Saturday, a similarly reactive approach will surely be applied. Conte positioned his team deep at home to Liverpool
and, though Chelsea lost the game, the two goals they shipped came via set-pieces. A high defensive line would make little sense at the Emirates against Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott, and so the game could fall into the familiar pattern of Arsenal keeping the ball against a deep-lying Chelsea side.
Should that happen, the scenario would surely suit Fabregas. The Catalan playmaker has started none of the five league games so far due to his inability to maintain the high-octane tempo Conte demands, but that would be less applicable should Chelsea cede control of midfield anyway. Even Fabregas is capable of holding his position in a deep-lying block. In January, for instance, he put in an all-action man-of-the-match display as Chelsea won at the Emirates.
Conte is likely to play Eden Hazard and Willian out wide in his 4-3-3, but neither would have the same conditions for playing passes over the top. Both tend to be involved when the game reaches the final third, whereas Fabregas drops deeper to collect the ball and can launch long passes far quicker. This dimension will be lost almost entirely if Conte benches him in favour of Oscar and Nemanja Matic as the pairing in front of N’Golo Kante.
The understanding between Costa and Fabregas is also well developed after their title-winning season under Mourinho in 2014/15. Even against a backline as mobile as Arsenal’s, the duo’s capacity for combining at a high level of speed and precision could undo Mustafi and Koscielny, who have only played three games together and kept a clean sheet in none. The advantage of intuitive understanding would be with Chelsea.
On Wednesday, Fabregas also entered late to score the two decisive goals at Leicester. He's clearly in fine form and, whatever reservations Conte may have about his defensive work, this seems an occasion where the pros of including him outweigh the cons.
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