Prem preview: Are the Blues hungover? Is Arsenal the real deal?
It’s all eyes on London this weekend as champions Chelsea brace themselves for what could be the beginning of one heck of a hangover.
It’s almost becoming habit for the Blues; England’s most successful team over the past seven years can’t seem to string successes together. Instead, wild moments of glory and ecstasy have been interspersed with humiliating failures.
The year 2011 saw Carlo Ancelotti’s magical, record-breaking team fall flat on it’s face in defence of its league title. Roberto di Matteo lasted the length of a sneeze after delivering the holy grail of the Champions League to the club in 2012. José Mourinho, the saviour of Stamford Bridge, was crucified after a pathetic defence of the 2015-2016 trophy.
Early signs point to it all happening again. Chelsea were irresistible for most of last season, looking all but guaranteed for the gold the moment the 3-4-3 got out of the starting blocks. Antonio Conte and the Blues were the perfect fit. Surely he could avoid the same fate that befell his predecessors? Early evidence is not compelling.
The champions have had, at best, a mediocre transfer window. Diego Costa’s bags were packed the moment last season’s final whistle blew, and the peculiar sale of Nemanja Matic to Manchester United could come back to haunt them. We await to see what the newcomers as a whole can bring to the team, although Álvaro Morata certainly gave plenty of reason to be positive in last weekend’s humiliation.
Aside from his goal and assist, the match was an unmitigated disaster. Chelsea had only themselves to blame for the 3-2 home loss to Burnley — although there was a shade of dodgy refereeing in the mix.
Thanks to red cards for Gary Cahill and Cesc Fàbregas, the Blues head into their encounter against Spurs with more than a hint of frailness.
Factor in the injuries of Tiémoué Bakayoko, Eden Hazard and possibly Pedro and their prospects look bleak. One positive is Spurs have demonstrated a remarkable propensity to come up short at Wembley, their new temporary home.
Lose, and the hangover at the bottom of the table will be particularly nauseating. If they do, it will be fascinating to see what lengths the club will take in the market.
Potential sellers, such as Southampton, will be licking their chops at the prospect of a desperate Chelsea offering their patronage. The Saints have resolutely held on to prized asset Virgil van Dijk this summer, but also know that the Roman Empire will stop at nothing to shore up any holes.
Spurs are in a similar awkwardly shaped boat. Mauricio Pochettino’s side has bought no one. Yup, that’s it. In their “IN” column there sits a big fat N/A. On the flipside, the only significant name on the OUT side is right-back Kyle Walker — an annoying loss but one that is theoretically adequately filled by Kieran Trippier.
After back-to-back impressive league campaigns, it seems to be very much a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” for the Poch. But again, a disappointing result at Wembley could change the mood of their new home.
Given the prudence Spurs have demonstrated in the market, it seems unlikely that they will succumb to the temptation of the emergency buy, but ambition is a dizzying drug.
Arsenal is Schrödinger’s cat
Meanwhile, Spurs’ North London neighbours are also gearing up for what could be a season-defining few weeks.
Brilliant. Frail. Mercurial. Erratic. Smooth. Go ahead and pick your adjective, they’re equally applicable.
In 2017, it feels like a cliché to ask, “Same old Arsenal?” But this is the most pertinent question that arose from the Gunner’s thrilling 4-3 win over Leicester City on a rare Friday night of football. Slick, ruthless and soft, all in equal doses, the match was a microcosm of what we have come to expect from Arsène Wenger’s men. Following Alexandre Lacazette’s crisp headed-goal, the first touch of his Premier League career bar the kick-off, the horizon appeared clear for smooth sailing at the Emirates.
But then we remembered, this is Arsenal. And we had a ruthlessly in-form Jamie Vardy to remind us.
Shortly after the break, it was 3-2 to the Foxes and you could hear the pitchforks being sharpened. But Wenger proved he might not be destined for the stake just yet by subbing on what was the game winners, Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud.
Three points aside, this win was vital in providing a solid footing for the upcoming season. The Gooner faithful have not forgotten the frustration of last season and the “Wenger Out” rhetoric is by no means mute. Had the Foxes sneaked any points, the inquest would have kicked off in full force. Questions about the team’s quality and ability to hang out with the big boys would have abounded. No one can afford to underestimate the effect that negativity can have on on-field results.
As it stands, however, Wenger and his charges can afford to focus on the positive — the extraordinary character they showed to come back in the last 10 minutes. They can also point to the significant resources that will soon return, particularly in defence. Gabriel, Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Per Mertesacker will bolster the front line, while there’s the small matter of one Alexis Sánchez returning as well.
Up next for the Gunners is a (possibly) rainy evening in Stoke, a trip that has traditionally borne as much fruit as an autumn willow. More often than not, they have been unable to match the physicality of the Potters and leave with nothing but refereeing complaints.
Arsenal need to channel the ruthless Hyde that was on show in their Leicester comeback if they are to get three points on the board and make a true statement about their title aspirations. Show up with a timid Jekyll and their progress will be pushed 10 notches back. Either way, we will soon bear witness to what Wenger’s charges have to offer us.