Antonio Conte has endured a tumultuous week as Chelsea boss.
The Italian was left slightly red-faced following his side’s 2-1 defeat to Liverpool at Stamford Bridge and responded in extraordinary fashion by orchestrating a stunning 4-2 win against Leicester City in the EFL Cup. He now faces yet another domestic heavyweight in Arsenal this evening and will seek to gain an early advantage in the title race against his opposite number, Arsene Wenger.
Chelsea’s recent league record against Arsenal has been impressive. They have won six, drawn three and lost only one of their previous ten meetings with their London rivals and will not be fazed by the prospect of travelling to the Emirates at this early stage. Their league double against the Gunners last season characterized a few positive elements from what otherwise was a disastrous year and with recent history backing them to the fullest, they may sense blood.
In this day and age though, past meetings count for little. Conte has never been involved in a derby of this magnitude before and keeping in mind the numerous problems he has had to address as Chelsea manager thus far, it will take a Herculean effort for his side to overcome Arsenal on their own patch. That said, here are three issues he must sort out before Saturday’s blockbuster clash:
1. A leaky defence:
John Terry’s failure to recover from his ankle injury against Swansea City on September 11 means Conte will be forced to play David Luiz alongside Gary Cahill in defence. The Brazilian hasn’t made the best of starts to his second spell at Stamford Bridge and has already leaked four goals in two games. Cahill has had to shoulder a major chunk of criticism himself and for a side with genuine title ambitions, it is absolutely imperative to find a solution to this defensive conundrum. The likes of Alexis Sanchez and possibly Lucas Perez will be licking their lips at the prospect of battling Cahill and Luiz and it will take a mightily disciplined performance from the duo to shut them out for the entirety of 90 minutes.
2. Obtaining the right balance in midfield:
The exclusion of Cesc Fabregas in each of Conte’s five starting line-ups in the league thus far may suggest a thing or two about how he envisions his Chelsea side. Prioritizing defensively sound midfielders has always been part of his philosophy and that may prove to be a crucial element this Saturday. Having said that, Conte might require a player to find gaps between Arsenal’s backline and with Oscar and Nemanja Matic operating ahead of N’Golo Kante in midfield, he may run the risk of relying excessively on wingers Eden Hazard and Willian. Fabregas offers exactly that and given his match-winning performance for Chelsea off the bench against Leicester City on Tuesday, Conte may be required to include the Spaniard in a greater degree than any of his previous substitute appearances in the league.
3. The temperament of Diego Costa:
If there is one player in the league Arsenal loathe vehemently, it is the controversial Spaniard. Having scored two goals against the Gunners in three appearances, Costa’s reputation as a pantomime villain may be brought to the fore in this clash. While this may be viewed as a bigger problem for Arsene Wenger and his side, given the ignominious history involving his centre-halves and the striker, Costa’s antics off the ball have been well documented and may be instigated by Arsenal this Saturday. The expected centre-back duo of Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny will be required to provoke the striker as much as they possibly can and should the Brazil-born forward lose his temperament at any stage of the game, especially in the referee’s eye, it will prove to be a massive problem for Conte to deal with.