Chelsea vs. Arsenal - five questions ahead of Saturday's London derby
Arguably London's biggest two sides in Chelsea and Arsenal face off this Saturday in a derby match at Stamford Bridge. ESPN FC takes a look at the five biggest questions ahead of the match.
What would defeat mean for Jose Mourinho?
"Lads, it's Tottenham," was, according to Roy Keane, the sum total of Sir Alex Ferguson's team talk when Manchester United faced Spurs.
No need for complex tactical discussions, no need for inspiring speeches, no special instructions -- just a recognition that his men had Tottenham's number, that they had a psychological hold over them so great that it barely had to be acknowledged and certainly not complicated.
At times during his five-plus years at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho might have been tempted to say similar whenever his side came up against Arsenal. This has seemed less like mere dominance and almost like a form of bullying, of Mourinho beating Arsene Wenger just because he can, not even because he needs to. In 13 competitive games (the Community Shield it not classed as competitive), Mourinho has not lost a single one.
For this reason, a defeat to Arsenal might be an even worse blow to Mourinho than just any old defeat, perhaps a symbol that his wily mental powers really are on the wane. It would be a little like the scene in the movie "Casino" when Nicky Santoro, Joe Pesci's fearsome enforcer and peerless hardman, had declined to the point that it took three punches to take a man down, when previously they would be knocked out in one.
Mourinho reacted sharply this week when he was asked if he was under pressure, pointing to the titles he has won and currently holds. That was (perhaps correctly) characterised as a defiant defence of his position, but an alternative view might be that the question touched a nerve. Defeat to Arsenal would mean more than just a loss of three points, but a symbol of something else. This game means more to Mourinho than most.
Can Arsene Wenger really break his Mourinho hoodoo?
Of course, many billed Arsenal's victory in the Community Shield as a sign that Wenger had finally cracked it against Mourinho, but let's remember that this is a glorified preseason friendly in which teams are permitted to use five substitutes. It's a nice thing to have, but there's very little at stake.
This is not to say that the win at Wembley won't mean anything, because Wenger can tell his players they are capable of defeating Chelsea and Mourinho, and some of the psychological burden is shifted.
Mourinho, of course, kept up the digs this week, aiming what is usually described in the tabloids as a "thinly veiled barb" at Wenger, saying: "In other clubs you have to go back two, three, four years, five, six, 10 years to remember good results. In our case you just have to go back three months, and three months ago we were the best team in the country, the best manager, the best players."
For his part, Wenger claims not to bother too much about his record against Mourinho, but recognises it still has an impact.
"Personally I must honestly say it didn't play on my mind at all," he said after the Community Shield win. "But as long as I get it served every time in press conferences it can have an impact on the team... It was important for them to get that hurdle out of the way."
In some respects, that hurdle is indeed out of the way, but beating Chelsea in the Community Shield is one thing. Beating them in a live fixture, at Stamford Bridge no less, would be another.
Might Mourinho change how Chelsea set up?
Mourinho has been largely wedded to a 4-2-3-1 formation for some time now. Even in the games in which he "parks the bus," the system is a variant of that, with two deeper midfielders supporting a No. 10, and two wingers feeding a main striker.
However, things have largely gone Mourinho's way with that setup, certainly in the two seasons since his return to Chelsea, but the start of this season has been different, and it might be necessary for him to make some changes.
It would almost be easier for him if this game was at the Emirates, because he could then adopt the batten-down-the-hatches, defensive style that won them a point and plenty of derision in the fixture last season quite easily, just to regain some confidence and remind his team who they are. As it is, with the game at Stamford Bridge, there is slightly more onus on Chelsea to be on the attack.
One positive note in the campaign so far was the 4-0 win over an admittedly modest Maccabi Tel-Aviv on Wednesday night, a game in which Mourinho made a number of personnel changes and set his side up in a formation that looked a little closer to 4-3-3 than 4-2-3-1. The alteration might be subtle, but could help Chelsea retain a little more control in midfield, just one of the areas in which they have struggled so far this campaign.
The game also provided an opportunity for Baba Rahman and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to show what they can do, and as both performed pretty well, their inclusion on Saturday could make sense. For Rahman, it's a chance to shift Cesar Azpilicueta to right-back and remove the troublingly out-of-form Branislav Ivanovic from the firing line, and Loftus-Cheek could provide some support to Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas. Or perhaps...
Could Cesc Fabregas be dropped?
At points last season it would have been unthinkable to omit Fabregas from the Chelsea team. The Spanish playmaker was the pivotal part of their team, and although Eden Hazard took both plaudits and awards at the end of the season, in the opening few months of the campaign Fabregas was their key man.
However, since around the turn of the year Fabregas has been at times poor, at times utterly anonymous; remarkably, some weeks he hasn't justified his place in the team. This was one of the reasons why it was something of a surprise that Mourinho didn't invest more in the heart of his midfield in the summer transfer window, but the good news for him and Chelsea fans is they do have a few options.
The return of Oscar, whose absence has been keenly felt, could allow Mourinho to play him in a slightly deeper role than usual, and indeed his countryman Willian has been mentioned as a potential starter in a more traditional No. 10 role, although his first-half substitution against Maccabi means he will be an injury doubt.
With Loftus-Cheek's good showing in that game, combined with the return of Matic, Mourinho at least has alternatives, whereas watching Fabregas at some points over the last few months, it has almost appeared as if he's in the team because there's nobody else. It would be a big call to drop the Spaniard against his former club, but one that Mourinho could easily make.
Will Olivier Giroud or Theo Walcott start up front?
One of the smarter moves Wenger made in the Community Shield victory was to play Theo Walcott as his centre-forward, rather than Olivier Giroud. The Chelsea centre-backs that day were the rather-less-than-fleet-of-foot John Terry and Gary Cahill, which explained the selection of a man who, in spite of everything else you might wish to say of him, can certainly shift when he wants to. Plus, at that point Chelsea were a week behind most other teams in their preseason training, so the result was Walcott dancing his way around some sluggish defenders for an hour, causing woe hither and thither.
The natural assumption, therefore, would be that Walcott will again start in the most advanced role, although Wenger might pause slightly before making that decision, given that the more rapid Kurt Zouma will almost certainly play in the Chelsea defence, lessening the advantage from starting with the England man.
However, the alternative is Giroud, a man whose performance against Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League could only have been more calamitous if he'd stepped in a can of paint and fallen over, after he missed a series of presentable chances and then got himself sent off for two bookings in 18 minutes.
As Walcott has displayed on numerous occasions in the past, he is hardly a sure thing when it comes to goals, goals, goals, but at the moment he looks like a more effective option than Giroud. That Arsenal only have these two very good, but ultimately not quite good enough options to choose from up front might be troubling, but that's a debate for another day.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.