Premier League: London derby presents chance for Arsenal and Chelsea to lay down a marker in season of transition

In the ‘train crash’ stage of Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal, Petr Cech was often sent out to address the media in the aftermath of humbling defeats. An effective communicator, the senior custodian was entrusted with the task of calming waters. The previous role must have come in handy this week when he took on Bayer Leverkusen’s Twitter handle for a seemingly innocuous joke.

The difficulties of playing Manchester City are considerable, but Cech was irritable because he struggled to play out from the back last Sunday. A near-own goal was the lowest point of his discomfort with the ball at his feet, and also the source of Leverkusen’s mirth. It was Cech who needed comforting words this time, and his manager Unai Emery sought to put his goalkeeper at ease when he interacted with the media.

Arsenal coach Unai Emery gestures during their defeat to Manchester City. AFP

Arsenal coach Unai Emery gestures during their defeat to Manchester City. AFP

“Goalkeepers can play like a player, to start short with the centre-back or the full-back. It is not compulsory to start each action that way. Maybe if the opposition is doing high pressing against us, then we need also to find another option and to play the ball long. We are training for each situation. I want in each moment to know what is our best action to do in the match. This is our creative style and idea,” said the Arsenal boss.

Cech was also handed the assurance of a start against his former employers Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. But that might be among the only few things we confidently know about this derby. Both teams have undergone major transitions this summer and there’s plenty of questions still. It is not just Cech who is waiting for the tactics-addled fog to clear out.

The goalkeeper’s place for Saturday, though, was hardly in doubt, even though Emery has a better-suited option in the form of Bernd Leno. Cech is secure for now because his manager cannot risk damaging the confidence of one of his most experienced campaigners. Instead, it will be the midfield where Emery will now look to leave a deeper imprint.

Arguably, among the quintet of Arsenal’s summer signings, no acquisition bore the stamp of the new manager like Lucas Torreira. Emery clearly identified the defence as the problem area as none of his five buys have their starting positions in the final third. But it is Torreira’s defensive steel combined with an acute passing range which can be crucial to Arsenal’s style.

Torreira was still recovering from his World Cup hangover last weekend but he seems set to start against Chelsea. For a side which did not win away in the league until the final day of the previous season, and has also shown a tendency to collapse against major opposition in the last decade, the addition of the Uruguayan midfielder is a major boost. Matteo Guendouzi, after all, is still one for the future while Granit Xhaka bears a history of errors. In this light, Torreira might be the one who knits Arsenal’s play while allowing the more attacking players to flourish.

Although he does not have the physically imposing stature of a Patrick Vieira or Gilberto Silva, Torreira’s game intelligence is the key to the door which remained locked for Arsenal in the late Wenger years. Even against City, in the absence of the 22-year-old Uruguayan, the Gunners were hamstrung offensively as Mesut Ozil had to feature in a deeper role.

But in times of early-season uncertainty, who is to say whether quick fixes would work. For Chelsea themselves are embracing the brave, new world of Maurizio Sarri. Torreira’s effectiveness could be limited by the high-pressing Blues, especially when one considers the new role of N’Golo Kante, who is operating further forward. Not to mention the dynamic Jorginho, who understands Sarri’s system better than anyone at Chelsea right now thanks to the time the two spent at Napoli.

Then there is the question of Eden Hazard who should start on Saturday. Under Antonio Conte last season, he looked a bit lost as the overly defensive demeanour of Chelsea hurt the Belgian’s effervescence. But Hazard is coming off a hugely successful World Cup and early signs suggest he will gain from Sarri’s high-intensity, attacking football.

David Luiz has already benefited from the change in power at Chelsea this summer as he is now, alongside Antonio Rudiger in defence, part of the first eleven. After being frozen out by Conte due to a dispute over tactics last season, Luiz is experiencing a renaissance under Sarri thanks to his ball-playing ability.

But there is a soft core to this Chelsea team. After functioning in a three-man defence for the better part of two years, the Blues now find themselves in a conventional four-member backline without any change to the personnel.

Behind the defenders, though, there is a new presence — the callow goalie, Kepa Arrizabalaga. The enormity of the task at hand is not lost on Sarri, who believes it could take up to three months before this Chelsea team play in his image.

Even during the comfortable win over Huddersfield, there were causes for concern. “We had some problems in the first half with pressing against their three defenders. We have to improve in moving the ball faster. In the first half we didn’t. We did it better in the second, (when) there was more space and time,” said Sarri.

Thankfully for the manager, with no European or domestic cup games for now, he still has plenty of time to drill his charges on the training ground. But on Saturday, both Emery and Sarri will realise better what their teams need. The defeat against Manchester City for Arsenal, and likewise for Chelsea following its comprehensive win over unadventurous Huddersfield, revealed limited pointers — the two results are unlikely to have a huge bearing on either club this season.

The derby on Saturday, though, is a chance to lay down a marker. It is also an opportunity to learn more and better. Both Arsenal and Chelsea will be better for the lessons that are forthcoming.

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Updated Date: Aug 18, 2018 07:52:26 IST

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