New year. New eras. Same old rivalry. North London hosts West London as Red and Blue collide again in an epic Emirates encounter
Arsenal v Chelsea, Saturday 19 January, 5pm, BT Sport 1 HD (CH 527)
This time last year, Chelsea were in turmoil. They slumped to a goalless draw with Leicester – a third successive 0-0 in all competitions for the first time in the club’s history – and then went on to lose two in five days against Bournemouth and Watford. The constant speculation surrounding Antonio Conte’s future unsettled the troops (Willian has since claimed he would have departed had the Italian remained boss) and the club slipped from second to fifth in an all-too-familiar campaign to defend the title.
Across London, Arsenal made it five games without a win after letting a lead slip at Bournemouth, before defeats at eventually relegated Swansea and Brighton meant the Gunners had lost more games than any other team in 2018 at the time. A second successive campaign without Champions League football looked increasingly likely (they’d previously been involved in an English record 19 European competitions on the bounce) and the “Wenger Out” movement was fast becoming a global phenomenon.
Fast forward 12 months and the picture could not be more different. Unai Emery has revolutionised the Arsenal outfit, while Chelsea’s fluid football under Maurizio Sarri is keeping the fans and Mr Abramovich happy.
Ahead of Saturday’s showdown, we look at some key areas where this season of transition has helped both clubs exceed expectations.
Between the sticks
With costly new goalkeepers often comes at least one opening clanger. But try telling that to Bernd Leno and Kepa Arrizabalaga. Since arriving in the Premier League, the pair have (one slight hiccup in the North London derby aside) been error-free. Petr Cech’s somewhat convenient injury allowed Unai Emery to deploy his ball-playing number 19 to great effect, while Kepa sits among the top three keepers with clean sheets and has the highest pass success rate of all Premier League stoppers so far. As Samba stars Alisson and Ederson hog the headlines, these two have quietly continued their ball-stopping business.
Such was his belief in the Italian maestro, Sarri swooped for Jorginho the moment he put pen to paper at Stamford Bridge. The 27-year-old orchestrates Chelsea’s midfield and instantly set a Premier League record for the most touches and passes in a single game against West Ham in September. The claim that his addition has stunted the role of N’Golo Kanté is nonsensical – a five-year-deal for the Frenchman proves both he and Sarri are comfortable with his new box-to-box approach – a change vindicated by that opening goal against Manchester City last month.
Top boy, Torreira
Anyone see this guy stand out at the World Cup? Us neither. Torreira went under the radar in Russia and during his previous three-year stint at Sampdoria. But just like Arsene Wenger plucked a young Patrick Vieira from Serie A upon his arrival, Emery has done exactly the same with this incisive, quick-thinking midfield dynamo who opened his Arsenal account against rivals Tottenham and followed it with an acrobatic winner in a win over Huddersfield one week later. Torreira was eased into life at the Emirates. He’s now proving to be the replacement Vieira that Wenger could never seem to find.
Eden after all this time
It looked certain Eden Hazard would move to pastures new (read: Real Madrid) following his exploits in the summer. Sarri’s best bit of business was holding onto the brilliant Belgian for at least one more year, especially as he bagged seven goals in eight games to see Chelsea start the season with 22 points from a possible 24. Chuck a bunch of assists into the mix and Chelsea not only have a match-winner, but a standalone faux-striker they simply could not cope without.
All change, all good
Both managers would still admit they haven’t figured out their best team. But that’s the key aspect here – they will admit it. Gone is the stubborn nature of Wenger and Conte, replaced with gaffers unafraid to mix it up. Sarri has been brave enough to play without a recognised frontman this season (Álvaro Morata wasn’t even in the squad for the City game, while Olivier Giroud sat on the bench for 89 minutes) and Unai Emery has already made more half-time changes than his predecessor did all last season. The result has been a record opening Premier League run for Sarri and Arsenal’s best unbeaten streak in 11 years.
With all that in mind, the scene seems to be set rather nicely for this showdown. See what unfolds when it kicks off on BT Sport this Saturday!
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