Game to watch – Arsenal v Chelsea
When asked over the weekend whether uncertainty over the future of Alexis Sanchez had been playing on the minds of the rest of his Arsenal squad, Arsene Wenger was unequivocal. “Yes,” he replied. “There are periods when the atmosphere is less enjoyable than others. It is the lack of clarity.
“It is not losing players – teams are used to losing players,” he continued. “But it is the fact that you have uncertainty in the group – that they don’t know if he will be here or not. Once it is clear, the team gets used to it.”
They wasted little time in doing so, starting with the emphatic victory over Crystal Palace. With Sanchez’s future now settled as opposed to the subject of whispers in the Emirates Stadium corridors, there were no distractions. The grey cloud that had loomed over the rest of the squad shifted, and for 22 glorious minutes in north London, Arsenal were unstoppable. This was proof of life after Sanchez.
It was also further proof that Wenger is not a man who learns his lessons easily. He admitted in May that constant speculation over his own future had “contributed” to an “absolutely horrendous psychological environment” for his players. By August he said that he himself inadvertently created “a lack of clarity in the dressing room and there is nothing worse”. That same month, he conceded that he had made a mistake in trying to convince Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to stay, going so far as to start the England international in the humbling against future suitors Liverpool.
Each time, Arsenal have prospered when that proverbial weight has been removed. The club won six of their subsequent seven games after selling Oxlade-Chamberlain, and must embark on a similar run if they are to rescue this season.
— Sam (@samuelJayC) January 22, 2018
Palace was the first step, and a finely poised Carabao Cup semi-final second leg is next. Arsenal host Chelsea on Wednesday knowing that their only other route to silverware – the Europa League – is filled with infinitely more obstacles. The potential reward is considerably greater, but so is the risk.
Arsenal are unbeaten in their last five games against Chelsea, who have not won at the Emirates Stadium since January 2016. With the Premier League champions trying to keep focus on four competitions simultaneously, the Gunners are in place to capitalise.
Arsenal have faced Chelsea three times already this season, and on two occasions they relied on more defensive tactics. They had two shots on target in a battling 0-0 draw in September, and eight shots to Chelsea’s 21 in a drab first-leg stalemate a fortnight ago. Sanchez started neither of those games, but played the full 90 minutes of the frenetic 2-2 draw earlier this month. Arsenal’s attacking threat with and defensive togetherness without their one-man band is likely not a coincidence.
There is now no alternative but for the show to go on without him. Arsenal players no longer have Sanchez’s considerable shadow to hide behind, and new leaders must emerge. Chelsea will relish the opportunity to immediately discredit them.
Player to watch – Alexandre Lacazette
The arrival of Henrikh Mkhitaryan is likely to excite Alexandre Lacazette rather than cause concern over his starting place at Arsenal. The prospect of battling with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for a spot could be a different story.
Lacazette stands to gain the most from Sanchez’s departure. The Chilean dominated Arsenal’s attacking approach, such is his constant demand for the ball. A record of 126 goals and assists in 166 games suggests that was no bad thing, but Sanchez was so often the individual competitor in Arsenal’s synchronised swims.
Arsenal as a club benefited from that unpredictability; Lacazette as a player was stifled. With Sanchez as the focal point in attack, the tendency was for some players to simply pass both the ball and the buck to him. But Lacazette relies on selfless forward runs from teammates, and incisive, searching passes from midfield to capitalise on his own clever movement.
Of Lacazette’s nine goals this season, none were assisted by Sanchez. The Frenchman’s strike against Palace, his first in ten games, was the result of a quite sublime team goal, orchestrated by Mesut Ozil. That is the sort of service Lacazette can expect regularly now, and he must make the most of it while the threat of Aubameyang looms.
Team to watch – Chelsea
“For this team and squad this system is the right fit. The coach must understand and find the right suit. We are like a tailor,” said Antonio Conte in October 2016. His Chelsea side had just beaten Leicester – their second of a remarkable 13-game run of consecutive victories.
The “right fit” the Italian was speaking of was his fabled 3-4-3 formation, the system which helped deliver a Premier League title in his first season. But Conte sought to find a system that suited his new signings in the summer. The change to a 3-5-2 formation has not been a popular one among fans. It offers too much defensive protection, stretches an already struggling midfield, and places even more of a creative burden squarely on the shoulders of Eden Hazard.
Hazard and Willian joked in a post-match interview today about how easy is to play together and Eden coughed "but.. Antonio you know" 😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/YEwDGSrYfc
— Dumitrel Miron (@mynameisdumi) January 20, 2018
The tailor tweaked the suit ever so slightly this campaign, and it was beginning to tear at the seams. So abandoning the formation and returning to the previously successful 3-4-3 against Brighton was met with delight and celebration. Hazard was sublime, Willian brilliant, and Michy Batshuayi wonderful.
The temptation is always to try and fix what ain’t broke, but Conte would be well-advised to put the tools back in the shed. Alvaro Morata returns from suspension against Arsenal, but it would be counter-productive in the extreme to drop Batshuayi now. The champions can pursue Ashley Barnes all they want, but Conte would do well to give his first-ever Chelsea signing a meaningful first-team opportunity.
Besides, it has only been two weeks since Morata’s finishing defied all logic. It is far too soon to contemplate witnessing a repeat.
Manager to watch – Lee Johnson
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s game, it has been a remarkable campaign for Bristol City. The rise of a team that finished three points clear of Championship relegation last season to one that enjoys a three-point buffer in the play-offs has been unexpected and unpredictable. Lee Johnson has gone from a manager under pressure to a coach spoken of in fond terms by Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola.
This is an unfathomable situation for a manager who experienced his first beginnings in coaching in considerably less favourable circumstances. “When I was at Oldham, Manchester City allowed me to get an insight into their philosophy,” he said last week. “The experience helped shape me into the manager I have become and hope to be.”
Johnson would go on to explain his belief that “the best managers are the best thieves” and he has had ample opportunity to fine-tune his larceny skills this season. Bristol City have beaten four Premier League team this season – more than West Brom (3) and as many as Southampton and Swansea.
Guardiola was sure to praise his managerial adversary after the narrow first-leg defeat. The Robins had displayed more attacking endeavour than many a Premier League visitor to the Etihad Stadium this season, and almost reaped the greatest of rewards. But they deserve great credit for even keeping this two-legged tie competitive. City will know a place in the Wembley final is far from secure.
Johnson’s biggest challenge now is to ensure that, even if Bristol City do fall on their swords as expected in the second leg, they do so in a manner that can benefit them for the rest of the season. They entered their quarter-final with Manchester United on a four-game winning run, but have won just one of their subsequent eight games. Bobby Reid is their only player to score in all competitions since Boxing Day; the goal GIFs have become a distant memory.
A 0-0 draw with Derby avoided a sixth straight defeat on Friday, but the collective eye has been taken off the ball. Against Wednesday’s opponents, that is a cardinal sin.
One-on-one battle to watch – Marlon Pack v Kevin de Bruyne
For three minutes, it was the biggest story on Monday evening. Manchester City confirmed that Kevin de Bruyne had signed a new contract at 6.07pm. By 6.10pm, it was already forgotten outside the blue half of Manchester; Alexis Sanchez had arrived at Old Trafford.
Not that City will care. The timing of United’s announcement was surely coincidence, but given the choice, Pep Guardiola would much rather have secured the long-term future of his best player, rather than adding yet another brilliant forward to his collection.
An improved contract is just reward for a fine season for De Bruyne. He has been the club’s best player, and the consistency of his performances has been matched only by his new-found leadership skills. In the first-leg victory over Bristol City he started as club captain for the first time, scoring the much-needed equaliser.
With Guardiola acknowledging the threat of Bristol City, De Bruyne is sure to start the second leg at Ashton Gate. And the Belgian will be tasked with doing what Paul Pogba could not: escaping from Marlon Pack’s pocket.
Joe Bryan and Korey Smith scored the goals in the Robins’ famous quarter-final win over Manchester United in December, but Pack was the unsung hero. He had the most touches of any City player (77) as he won the central midfield battle with Pogba. But this was no simple man-marking job. Pack did not just shadow Pogba, but he beat him at his own game. He controlled the match through intelligent passing and positioning as much as by nullifying Pogba’s threat.
It was Pogba’s worst performance of the season, and a midfielder signed for £100,000 was the primary reason. Pack will hope to repeat the trick against the Premier League’s other outstanding central midfielder – although De Bruyne poses a different challenge. Pack could concentrate solely on Pogba last month, such was the lack of other game-changing talent in the United side. The league leaders have no such shortage, and Pack will be stretched to his limits.
Pass this test, and Championship leaders Wolves will not be the only side showing an interest. Be it with City themselves or otherwise, it seems inevitable that Pack will soon be testing himself against the Premier League’s elite each week.
Football League game to watch – Rotherham v Bradford
Two places and four points separate these Yorkshire rivals after 28 games. Rotherham are in fine form, unbeaten in their last eight. Bradford are struggling, losing each of their last three games.
There should at least be a clear winner: Only three teams have drawn fewer games in League One than Rotherham this season (5); Bradford (3) are one of them.
European game to watch – Sampdoria v Roma
In a curious quirk of the Serie A fixture list, Sampdoria host Roma on Wednesday before travelling to the Italian capital on Sunday for their second league meeting in four days. Heavy rain and thunderstorms forced their September clash to be called off, and so their rearranged game slots neatly into this midweek.
Roma are fifth and Sampdoria sixth, but neither arrive at this juncture in particularly good shape. They are 12th and 14th respectively in a Serie A form table over the last eight games, and a gap has opened up at the top of the table as a result. Napoli lead second-placed Juventus by four points, with Lazio and Inter Milan a further seven points behind. Roma are three points behind those two sides, and Sampdoria seven off the pace of their visitors on Wednesday.
Both sides require a victory to inject some momentum into ailing seasons; a meeting of Serie A’s second-best defence and fourth-highest scorers should at least provide an intriguing clash of styles.
Writer to watch – Matt Stead