Five questions Chelsea boss must answer before facing Arsenal

During any normal season, London rivals Arsenal would represent welcome opposition for Premier League champions Chelsea – especially under Jose Mourinho.

Indeed, with the exception of the ambiguous Community Shield – is it a friendly? is it a cup final? why is the trophy a giant 50p? – the Special One has never lost a competitive fixture to his Gunners counterpart, Arsene Wenger.

But the current campaign, at least at Stamford Bridge, has been anything but normal. Five games into their Premier League title defence and the Blues are in 17th place, losing three and drawing one, with the worst goals conceded record in the division.

So after coming away from a 3-1 defeat to Everton on Saturday licking their wounds, there’s plenty for the Chelsea boss to think about before facing Arsenal next weekend – a fixture whose importance is only further amplified by the west London outfit’s desperate need to get some points on the board.

Being the ever-helpful bunch we are at Football Fancast, we’ve listed FIVE questions Mourinho must answer before kickoff at 12.45pm next Saturday. Fail to do so, and Chelsea will be staring down the barrel of defeat once again.

CAN IVANOVIC COPE WITH ALEXIS SANCHEZ?


Branislav Ivanovic’s reputation as the best pound-for-pound purchase of the Roman Abramovich era, a fantastic servant to the club and one of the Premier League’s top right backs over the last decade remains without doubt, but he’s been arguably the biggest culprit behind Chelsea’s woeful defensive displays this season.

Indeed, the vast majority of the Blues’ concedes have come from their right hand side and the Serbian international has been dribbled past on ten occasions already this term; the most times of any Premier League defender and nearly two-thirds of his total from last season in just five appearances.

One would expect such an experienced and usually consistent defender to eventually turn his form around. But he’ll be up against Alexis Sanchez on Saturday – one of the most prolific offensive threats in the Premier League who possesses the power, pace and tricky to ensure another harrowing afternoon for the 31 year-old.

The timing feels right to protect Ivanovic, although that will largely depend upon Jose Mourinho’s assessment of £14million signing Abdul Rahman Baba.

The left-back offers the speed the rest of Chelsea’s habitual back six intrinsically lack and fielding the ever-dominant Cesar Azpilicueta on his favoured right-hand side could prove an incredibly shrewd move to keeping Sanchez at bay.

Whether the 21 year-old is ready to make his Premier League debut, however, especially in a fixture as important as this one, remains to be seen.

WHAT IS FABREGAS’ BEST ROLE


Along with Ivanovic, Chelsea fans will find Cesc Fabregas’ sudden decline this season amongst the most frightening. Last term he claimed 18 assists in 34 appearances whilst averaging the second-most created chances per match of any Premier League player; this year he’s still waiting to get off the mark and ranks joint-34th in terms of chance creation, lower than Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin.

On another weekend the Spain international would be facing the drop to the substitutes bench. But one would be incredibly surprised if Jose Mourinho left him out of the starting line-up to face his former club, knowing full well how that tends to give players added incentive to perform.

So the real question is where does the 28 year-old slot into the starting Xi? His lack of protection in deep midfield undoubtedly contributed to defeats at the hands of Manchester City and Crystal Palace, but the Blues fared no better against Everton last weekend with him at No.10. In fact, it reduced their capacity to hit the Toffees on the counter-attack and Fabregas was eventually substituted for Willian after 75 minutes.

With Arsenal representing a must-win fixture for Chelsea, who also enjoy the home advantage, you get the feeling Mourinho might gamble on placing the playmaking Spaniard next to Nemanja Matic. Then again, if Arsenal perform to the best of their abilities, it could prove to be a suicidal selection.

WHO STARTS AT THE HEART OF DEFENCE?


What a head-scratcher this one is. Jose Mourinho has already explored all of his centre-back options in all possible combinations this season – barring Branislav Ivanovic and deadline day signing Papy Djilobodji – and none have managed to plug up the gaps in Chelsea’s porous defence.

Indeed, John Terry and Gary Cahill have conceded three goals in 135 minutes playing together this season, Cahill and Kurt Zouma have conceded five goals in 168 minutes playing together and Terry and Zouma have conceded four goals in 144 minutes playing together.

Throwing Djilobodji into the mix is certainly an option yet one that could cause as much chaos as it intends to solve. The reinstatement of Terry and Cahill, by far Chelsea’s most experienced and familiar centre-back partnershipm seems like the logical solution – but can the Blues’ ageing skipper handle the penetrative, pacey threat of Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott?

HOW CAN JOSE MOURINHO PUT THE PRESSURE BACK ON WENGER?


As aforementioned, Jose Mourinho’s record against Arsene Wenger in competitive fixtures is about as one-sided as it gets. Barring the previously discussed Community Shield final earlier this summer, Mourinho boasts seven wins, six draws and no defeats from his 13 encounters with the Arsenal boss.

Whilst Wenger tends to lament Chelsea’s superior spending power as a direct cause of his woes against the Portuguese, the press conference mind games undoubtedly have a pivotal effect too. One of the greatest psychologists the Premier League has ever witnessed and a serial wind-up merchant, Mourinho usually has his Gunners counterpart riled up to borderline insanity before a ball is even kicked.

So with Chelsea enduring arguably their worst form ever under Mourinho’s leadership from two separate spells in charge at Stamford Bridge, they need the Special One to do what he does best; distract from the Blues’ worrying form and put the pressure back on the opposition – or more specifically, Arsene Wenger.

He’ll struggle to find ammunition from the opening weeks of the season, considering the Gunners’ superior league standing. But there’s plenty of old material for Mourinho to fall back on; particularly Wenger’s refusal to spend during the summer transfer window and Arsenal’s failure to win the league title in over a decade.

ARE WE LOOKING AT THE SAME OLD ARSENAL?


It wasn’t too long ago Chelsea thumped Arsenal for six at Stamford Bridge, including a triple-salvo in the first twenty minutes and probably the Premier League’s most catastrophic sending off of all time – Andre Marriner’s unforgettable case of mistaken identity.

And part of the reason Jose Mourinho enjoys such an imperious record against Arsene Wenger is that he worked out the Arsenal cheat codes quite some time ago – 2004 to be precise, when he first arrived in the Premier League and drew with the Gunners twice en route to the title.

His implementation of the 4-3-3 formation and the ‘Makelele role’ destroyed everything the Invincibles had created, and the north London outfit have been playing catch up with the rest of England’s habitual title contenders ever since.

In short, Mourinho – more than any other manager – knows how to nullify Arsenal’s strengths and exploit their weaknesses. His philosophy is almost tailor-made to counteract Wenger’s.

But the real question is whether we’re looking at the same Arsenal as in 2004 or indeed, 2014. They’ve looked a different side since beating Manchester City at the Etihad last term, with better structure and greater defensive resilience, so the old game plan might not work.

The scoreless draw at the end of last season and the 1-0 defeat in the summer’s Community Shield final are both warning signs of Arsenal’s progress, especially when facing the Premier League’s top sides. Whilst the Gunners’ ideological fundamentals remain the same as ever, they forge considerably more taxing opposition this time around.

 


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