Chelsea vs Arsenal: Two contrasting London projects collide as each seeks to show off their new identity

Ed Malyon

One has had a short while and the other barely a minute, but for the two coaches feeling their way into their new jobs a result at Stamford Bridge on Saturday would be a welcome bonus.

Unai Emery’s baptism of fire against Manchester City only left him with light burns but his side still looks very much like a work in progress. In a league as competitive as this, with the riches of the Champions League on the line, you don’t get given much time to bed in and Arsenal are expected to compete against Chelsea in a way that they never looked likely to against Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering City last weekend.

There were bright spots for the Gunners; their energy impressed and there were clear ideas there, new ideas. Matteo Guendouzi impressed as well, but this was a team that struggled to create chances and that we need to see more of before working out just how big the rebuilding job is that Emery must initiate.

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Shkodran Mustafi this week said that the Spanish coach has arrived with “an idea” but doesn’t seem intent on reinventing the wheel. “When I first met him, he had this aura that he knew exactly what he wants to do, what he wants to be working on, what are is priorities and he was very detailed,” the Germany international said.

“He was not trying to show us new football but he was trying to put one idea into the team.”

Maurizio Sarri, on the other hand, has many ideas. The eccentric Italian replaces another eccentric Italian in the Stamford Bridge hotseat but the pair could barely be more different. In Antonio Conte, Chelsea boasted a pragmatist, a flexible tactician who favoured the reactive but clashed with the club’s hierarchy. Sarri promises to be a much more pliable employee, but one who comes with a very specific way of playing and whose teams will conform to the image of ‘Sarriball’.

Maurizio-Sarri.jpg
Maurizio-Sarri.jpg

Maurizio Sarri is trying to transform the football at Stamford Bridge (Getty Images)

Both projects – the west and north London versions – are in their early stages but Saturday’s clash is a chance to, at best, lay down a marker for the season. At its very least this game provides an opportunity to meet a top-six rival when they might not quite be fully cooked, with all the opportunities that entails. Points count the same whether you win them in August or April and it feels likely that these two sides will have few points between them when the business end of the season shakes out, so this balmy afternoon on the second Saturday of the 2018/19 campaign might feel a bit soon, but it makes it no less important.

Against Huddersfield we saw all the impressive facets people wanted from this nuovo Chelsea, a dominance of possession and some new signs of life from flowers that looked to have wilted and died under the sad final days of Conte’s reign. Pedro, in particular, appeared to be a new man. N’Golo Kante’s slightly altered position with additional freedom had all the hallmarks of something that is going to improve this team. Jorginho’s addition promises much.

But in the same way that Arsenal are preparing for an altogether different challenge on Saturday so too are Chelsea. Huddersfield conceded early and rarely troubled the Blues beyond the odd set-piece opportunity. It was a nice way to ease in to English football for Sarri, who can add that confidence to another week of work on the training field.

Arsenal feel more confident in themselves not just because they avoided humiliation but because there are green shoots of something new there. The holdovers in the backroom staff have, to a man, been impressed so far by what Emery and his team have brought to the party. That contributes to a mood of improvement and with both sides keen to show what they can do when it matters, we may well see quite an open game at Stamford Bridge, one where Chelsea set out to play their way and where Arsenal play like an Emery team, a streetwise unit who aren’t afraid to pass it but equally aren’t afraid to punch you in the mouth.

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