When Chelsea travel to the Emirates stadium on Saturday, history will not stand still and nor will the future provide key indicators.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is completing two decades in charge. It is an occasion to stand back and take a pan shot of a manager who has had a deep and lasting effect on the English Premier League. It will also be an occasion to see what Chelsea’s new manager Antonio Conte has in mind. And yet it’s just a game – a contest between two high-profile teams, both ill at ease, feeling unsettled, although for entirely different reasons.
Both Arsenal and Chelsea have had decent openings to their campaign, although they don't match up to the spectacular early form of Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool. Both teams have suffered the results of poor defending. Both lack a settled midfield. Both have creative options and proven goal-scorers. Both have managers obsessed with football, even if one has just come in, while the other is an example of longevity and survival.
At their best, Wenger’s teams display a sense of fun, a certain lightness in approach that verges on the amateur. It’s charming, endearing. When things go wrong, this turns into a lack of application – as also a serious mismatch between ambition and ability. Wenger has become more a symbol of financial prudence than success. He’s come to symbolise a cut-price feel; while wealthy neighbours go shopping at Harrods, Arsene beats the familiar path in a flea market for bargains. His report card has too many seasons of leading the table and then fizzling out to the all-too-familiar comfort of a top-four finish.
However, Chelsea ought to be full of confidence, having not lost to Arsenal in their 10 previous fixtures. But Conte has yet to settle in. It is worthwhile to recall the opening of his 2011 campaign after taking over at Juventus. He tried out several combinations and shapes and systems before arriving at his preferred 3-5-2, designed to get the best out of his then personnel, especially the deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo. He requires his teams to be flexible enough to change systems on the fly. Chelsea look too brittle just now for a Conte outfit.
At a time when a four-man defence has become a norm with attacking full-backs, Conte became the only top-rated manager – certainly the only successful one – to revert to the 1980s and deploy three centre-backs and a three-man midfield, with wing-backs providing width all along the touchlines. Not just at Juventus but also for Italy’s national team, which he managed for two years after leaving Turin. With some of the biggest players of the Italian national side injured, Conte’s team impressed one and all in Euro 2016.
Conte takes his time to settle, and he did not have the desired success in the transfer market. The buccaneering David Luiz does not cut a picture of solidity in central defence. With captain John Terry still recovering from injury, Conte does not have the defence he likes. It seems the Italian has not arrived upon the key players around whom he can rebuild the team in accordance with his plans. The loss to Liverpool made that clear. The nature of the loss was uncharacteristic of a Conte team. Given time, chances are Conte will find his chosen personnel and approach. He’s not rated so highly for nothing.
One could argue that this is the ideal time for Arsenal to overturn that 10-match blight. Yet the Arsenal team gives an impression that its parts do not function in harmony. The sublime attacking talents of Mesut Ozil don’t always sit well in the team. It is a conundrum typical of the club: one cannot say whether the player is the problem, or the forward line that he’s supposed to serve? Not all players anticipate and read Ozil’s creativity (Alexis Sanchez being the exception.)
Wenger’s team look the best when Aaron Ramsey is in the middle, and fit. This is the most remarkable feature of Wenger’s team in recent years – his key players tend to get injured at key times in the season; season after unlucky season, player after crucial player. Which is surprising, given that it was Wenger who pioneered fitness and nutrition reform among footballers in England, radically changing training drills. The most ridiculously injury-prone example is that of Jack Wilshere, now out on loan, after promising so much for so long, without delivering. And remember Robin van Persie, who at his peak spent time on the sidelines due to injury, then moved to Manchester United and had a great season?
The frequent injuries to key players hurt the fans all the more given 'The Professor'’s reluctance to spend big. In no position does this stand out as starkly as it does up front. Olivier Giroud is not the forward who can carry Wenger’s ambitions on his shoulders. Diego Costa, who arrived in 2014 very much the finished article, has already cost Arsenal dearly last season with his characteristic harrying and off-the-ball antics. While Shkodran Mustafi is yet to come good on his transfer price, he has the personality to deal with Costa.
What will rile Gunners' fans most though, is if Arsenal lose due to the performance of Cesc Fabregas. If their former captain chips in with a later winner, like he did mid-week in the EFL Cup tie, it’ll be the kind of luck the club has come to be known for recently.