Preview by Numbers: Chelsea v. Arsenal

Stamford Bridge, London
Saturday, February 4
7:30 a.m. EST, 12:30 GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Martin Atkinson
    • Assistants: Stuart Burt and Steve Child
    • 4th Official: Stuart Attwell
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 3 - 0 Chelsea
  • This Match, Last Year: Chelsea 2 - 0 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 73 Arsenal wins, 61 Chelsea wins, 54 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-D-W-W-L
  • Chelsea's League Form: W-W-L-W-W-D
Long-time readers of this blog will know that this piece is at its funniest when Arsenal are total garbage. Unfortunately, we're not there yet. Lose this one, though, and I'm going to have to find another level for next week's Hull City preview.

Arsenal were in a similar position at this time last year, as they chased first place Leicester City in the table and faced them in early-to-mid February. Arsenal even had the same referee for that match as they will for this one, Martin Atkinson. Atkinson, of course, gave Leicester a dodgy penalty, then made up for it with a soft second half red card and Danny Welbeck nabbed a late, dramatic winner. Then, Arsenal went on to ruin all of that momentum by losing a million times.

If Arsenal win this game, they won't suddenly become title favorites; they'll still be six points out, but that's manageable in February, if they can somehow stop playing like utter garbage (see: first half against Watford, first half against Preston, second half against Manchester City, most of the game at Bournemouth...) If Arsenal lose this game, then the gap is 12 points, and in my preview of the Bournemouth match, I said, "nine points is doable over 19 matches, but if that number climbs into double digits, then that's a hell of an ask." It's four games later and Arsenal have gained no ground.

Six points over 14 matches is still doable, nine is questionable, and 12 is a bridge too far.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Ramsey (calf,) Elneny (Africa Cup,) Debuchy (match fitness,) Cazorla (Achilles)
Doubts: Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee)
Suspended: Xhaka (third of four, serious foul play / second red card)

We're really in the depths of it here with the holding midfield situation, which I'll get to in a second, but I have a request first. Please, for the love of God, Arsenal cannot start Olivier Giroud as a central forward in this game. The Frenchman has been excellent at times this season and has already won a ton of points for the club, but this is not the type of match in which he is historically successful as a target man. At the same time, look at the second half against Watford, in which Arsenal finally remembered how to play in midfield, then never had anybody in the box to win a ball in the final third. This is why Giroud is often best left as an impact sub.

As for the midfield, Watford's best player on Tuesday, Aaron Ramsey, pulled out with an injured calf early on, after deflecting in their first goal and meandering back on defense for their second. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came in and hurt his knee during the second half, though he completed a limpy 90 minutes. The Ox is expected to be available for tomorrow, while Aaron Ramsey will not. Mohamed Elneny did not feature for Egypt in their Africa Cup semifinal win over Burkina Faso on Wednesday, as he's nursing an injury of his own. He is a doubt for the final. Granit Xhaka remains suspended. Santi Cazorla remains hurt. Jack Wilshere remains on loan. Not a lot of options here; Francis Coquelin is dealing with a hamstring problem himself.

Hopefully Hector Bellerín is fit and ready to go at right back, because Gabriel, while serviceable, leaves a ton to be desired at the position. In fact, all of the back four has been struggling a bit lately, likely in large part due to the lack of shielding they're getting from the midfield. Bellerín is still struggling as he comes back from an ankle injury and was rested on Tuesday.

Predicted XI: Čech, Bellerín, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Iwobi, Walcott, Özil, Alexis.

Chelsea Squad News

Out: None
Doubts: David Luiz (knee)

Because life is cruel, Antonio Conte has basically no injury concerns going into this match. David Luiz has a slight knee problem, but then again, he played 90 minutes and scored Chelsea's goal on Tuesday. So that means Conte has a full list of available players from which to select his XI.

Conte has been playing a 3-4-3, with César Azpilicueta, David Luiz, and Gary Cahill as the three center backs, Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso on the wings, and N'Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matić in the center of the midfield. Diego Costa starts up top, Eden Hazard starts on one side of the forward trio, and the other forward is the only question mark, whether it be Pedro or Willian.

There's not much else to say here. This is a strong XI, made stronger by the fact that they have incredible depth and no fixture congestion. We're looking at a potential second consecutive season in which the Premier League title winner was not playing in Europe at all and that worked to their advantage.

Predicted XI: Courtois, Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill, Kanté, Matić, Moses, Alonso, Pedro, Hazard, Costa.

Current Form

Interestingly, if you look at the league form section at the top of the preview, which lists the last six league results in order, you will see that Arsenal and Chelsea have picked up the same number of points: 13 out of a possible 18. Both are through to the fifth round of the FA Cup as well, meaning Arsenal and Chelsea have matched each other exactly since Christmas (and since Chelsea's 13-game winning streak was snapped.)

Of course, when you're nine points out of first, matching the league leaders is not what you want to be doing or... you know, you'll finish nine points out of first. Since Arsenal will pick up playing in Europe again in the coming weeks, an obligation Chelsea does not have, this remains Arsenal's last decent shot at making up ground in one fell swoop.

Of note for this particular match is that Chelsea have won eight straight Premier League games at Stamford Bridge. To make that seem even more daunting, they've kept a clean sheet in six of them.

Match Facts

We can start with some good news here, as Arsenal won the the reverse fixture 3-0 at the Emirates in September. It feels so long ago. Arsenal jumped out to a huge lead, with Alexis Sánchez pouncing on a Gary Cahill error in the 11th minute before Theo Walcott doubled the lead three minutes later. Mesut Özil added a third before halftime.

In this match last year, Mike Dean and Diego Costa happened, as Chelsea won 2-0. Arsenal finished the match on nine men after Gabriel was sent off in the first for a kick-out at Diego Costa and Santi Cazorla picked up a second yellow 11 minutes from time. Kurt Zouma scored from a set piece on 53 minutes and a Calum Chambers own goal twisted the knife in injury time. Of course, Diego Costa should have been the one to be sent off for head-butting Laurent Koscielny in the first place, which would have changed the tenor of the entire match. The FA rescinded Gabriel's red card and slapped Costa with a three-match ban after the fact, but that doesn't rescue the three points, now does it?

Arsenal have not won at Stamford Bridge since that time John Terry fell down, which was October 29, 2011, a 5-3 Arsenal win. Chelsea have scored at least twice in seven consecutive games against Arsenal at the Bridge. Arsenal have only scored twice in those seven matches; one of them was the aforementioned 2011 win, the other was in January of 2013, in which Theo Walcott scored a second half consolation goal as Chelsea won 2-1. That match is mentioned again below...

The Referee

The referee is West Yorkshire-based Martin Atkinson. This is the fifth time Atkinson will take charge of an Arsenal-Chelsea match; Chelsea have won all four of the previous meetings. Someone tried to take me to task on Twitter with this statistic, trying to imply that I blamed him solely and not the players for those results, but that's a far too simplistic way of reading into a statistic like this, especially since Arsenal have a reputation of not showing up against Chelsea anyway.

So, let's go back through those four games, shall we? The first time Atkinson took charge of an Arsenal-Chelsea match, it was the 2009 FA Cup Semi-Final, in which Theo Walcott's opening goal was cancelled out by Florent Malouda and Didier Drogba scored a late winner. Not much to criticize in Atkinson's performance there; Arsenal basically beat themselves on the day.

The other three matches were all league fixtures. Chelsea won 2-1 at the Emirates in September of 2012 as the Blues scored twice from set pieces. You could really point to Vito Mannone being the goalkeeper as more of a reason Chelsea won that one as he was outplayed by Petr Čech at the other end.

Atkinson worked the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge that January, also won 2-1 by Chelsea (as mentioned in Match Facts above,) but made some critical decisions in Chelsea's favor in that one: Francis Coquelin was blatantly fouled in the build-up to Chelsea's first goal and the second was a penalty where there had been minimal to no-contact. Both of those are essentially paraphrasings from Sean's recap of that match, rather than any sort of revisionist history.

The third was a 2-0 Chelsea win at the Bridge in 2014, which you may recall from being the time Arsène Wenger shoved José Mourinho. Sean's recap this time called Atkinson "a joke," though noted that both sides got away with tons.

Arsenal have seen Atkinson twice so far this season, once for their 4-1 win over Sunderland (in which he gave the Black Cats a penalty to make it 1-1 before Arsenal pulled away) and again for their 2-1 loss at Manchester City (in which both of City's goals were offside, but to be fair, Arsenal didn't deserve to win it either.)

Chelsea have two wins and a loss with Atkinson so far this season, losing 2-1 to Liverpool at home and beating Manchester United 4-0 and Tottenham Hotspur 2-0.

Around the League
  • Saturday: Crystal Palace v. Sunderland; Selhurst Park, London
  • Saturday: Everton v. Bournemouth; Goodison Park, Liverpool
  • Saturday: Hull City v. Liverpool; KCOM Stadium, Kingston upon Hull
  • Saturday: Southampton v. West Ham United; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Saturday: Watford v. Burnley; Vicarage Road, Watford
  • Saturday: West Bromwich Albion v. Stoke City; The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
  • Saturday (late): Tottenham Hotspur v. Middlesbrough; White Hart Lane, London
  • Sunday (early): Manchester City v. Swansea City; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
  • Sunday (late): Leicester City v. Manchester United; King Power Stadium, Leicester
John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and a type of spice. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat for bad cooking recipes.