Pivotal is a word that would aptly describe Arsenal's clash with Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, not just because the game is a six-pointer for a top-four spot, but because the result of the game could go a far way in setting the tone for the rest of the seasons at the two London clubs.
It would also be safe to say that the remainder of the campaign could have far-reaching effects on the two managers' long-term futures at their clubs. Neither Unai Emery or Maurizio Sarri are living under the shadow of the sack at this moment of time, but failure to finish the season strongly would weaken their position at the helm of affairs and put huge pressure on the performance in the upcoming campaign.
The success of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino have been great advertisements for the show of patience towards managers, but modern-day football's dynamics don't make it the best breeding ground for stability, especially in the blue half of the English capital where things turn south in a blink of an eye for a manager.
Sarri and Emery have already made an impression on English football at different times of the season, but the challenges that the football in the land come with, seem to be getting better of the two managers at this point of the time.
Apart from dodgy form, a rejuvenated Manchester United have added to their problems. Five straight wins have seen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side wipe out the deficit on Arsenal while the six-point gap to Chelsea suddenly seems bridgeable. So a draw would no longer be a good result for Sarri's men who would be more cautious about happenings at Old Trafford now. Whatever the result in the Arsenal-Chelsea clash, Manchester United will be celebrating at the end of the day.
Off the field, there are similarities over problems Sarri and Emery are facing. Arsenal have a complete financial freeze in January and only imports possible would be in form of loans. A similar type of purchase is on the horizon for Chelsea, who are going against their policy of buying players above the age of 30, to strike a loan deal for striker Gonzalo Higuain to fulfil Sarri's wish. There's a lack of conviction in the Chelsea board over the need of another midfielder which the Italian has on multiple occasions stated needs to be acquired as a replacement for the departed Cesc Fabregas.
Sarri denied any frustration over lack of a midfield signing ahead of the game against Arsenal, but making most of the available resources to secure the top-four place seems to be the theme at Arsenal and Chelsea during this mid-season window.
On the field, Arsenal and Chelsea's problems are quite the opposite. Arsenal have struggled to keep teams out, while the Blues have found it difficult to break down defences. Chelsea are the lowest scorers (40 goals) in the top six, while Arsenal, along with Manchester United, are the worst defensive side (32 goals) among the Premier League elite.
Arsenal have kept just three clean sheets in the season so far and none have come against the Premier League’s top six. Chelsea have failed to score on five occasions in all competitions so far. But on the brighter side for the Blues, barring the recent blank against Tottenham in the League Cup semi-final, they have always managed to find the net against the bigger sides.
The Blues have a slightly better record in big games having won two, drawn two and lost just once in the games against the big six, while Arsenal have one win, two draws and three defeats in the big matches this season.
At the Emirates, Arsenal have won 8 out of their 11 matches and are unbeaten since the opening day when Manchester City triumphed there. Chelsea's away record though isn't the worst having won seven out of their 10 games on the road, losing only twice. However, the Blues have lost their only away trip to a big-six opponent this season, and the game at the Emirates will truly test their top-four credentials.
Both managers are hardly expected to make wholesale changes to their system for this crucial game, considering their strong beliefs in their philosophy of football.
Sarri is expected to deploy Eden Hazard in a false-nine role again, with Olivier Giroud as the back-up option. Alvaro Morata, who is on the verge of exiting Stamford Bridge, is likely to miss out entirely. The rest of the Chelsea side almost picks itself. The Italian mentioned Arsenal's threats from the wide areas in his pre-match conference, so having Pedro and Willian as the wide players would be the likeliest outcome, considering Sarri's assessment of Callum Hudson-Odoi who he feels needs to improve his defensive side of the game.
Emery will most-probably go with a back three comprising of Shkodran Mustafi, Sokratis Papasthopoulos and Laurent Koscielny. Granit Xhaka and Alex Torreira would form the midfield pivot with Alex Iwobi, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette starting up front. Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal are favourites to land the wing-back roles against Chelsea.
Aaron Ramsey could be another alternative if Emery decides to pair Lacazette and Aubameyang up top, but considering Chelsea's weakness down the flanks, Arsenal would go with the pace of Iwobi. It will be interesting to see who Emery deploys to mark Jorginho as that is a strategy which has worked for every manager trying to play against Sarri's Chelsea. That may prompt the Spaniard to with an additional midfielder in the side.
Saturday's result may not be decisive in terms of the points table, but the momentum a victory may provide for either side could be seminal. A draw though would hand the initiative to Manchester United in a race for the top four sports that's only about to begin and not end with this crucial all-London affair.
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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2019 16:25:44 IST