Arsenal

Arsenal and Chelsea must hide flaws in top-four battle

 • by Harry Gray
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As far as shaping the destiny of the race for the Premier League top four goes, the meeting between Arsenal and Chelsea could have a huge impact.

The London rivals head into the game with six points between fourth-place Chelsea and their hosts and, with Manchester United back in the chase for a Champions League spot, there is plenty to play for at the Emirates Stadium.

United, who have won six in a row, will be hopeful of making it seven on the spin under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when they face Brighton and Hove Albion at Old Trafford.

If they do so, the importance of victory for both Arsenal and Chelsea will only intensify. There is plenty to play for in the capital.

Of course, Chelsea are still in the driving seat with 16 league games to play, but, given their fine early season form, they would have hoped to be enjoying a greater cushion at this stage of the season.

The west London club went 12 Premier League games without a defeat under Maurizio Sarri before being beaten 3-1 by Tottenham Hotspur on November 24.

Since then the Italian’s side have tasted defeat in three of their ten Premier League games and drawn once, but have still managed to extend their lead over the Gunners by two points.

Their struggles have come at both ends of the pitch and they have scored 13 goals over the past ten games (1.30 per 90) while conceding nine times.

In contrast, the first 12 games of the league season saw the Blues register 27 times (2.25 per 90) and concede only eight goals.

Simply put Chelsea are scoring fewer and conceding more and have had to rely far more often on narrow wins over the festive period.

The fact their expected goals output stands at 13.03 over the past ten matches suggests they are finishing their chances but simply not creating enough.

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Much has been made of Sarri’s lack of faith in both the Atlético Madrid-bound Álvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud; a situation which has left Chelsea without a prefered centre forward.

Eden Hazard has been deployed in a false nine position at times – a role he has previously made clear is not really to his liking. The Belgian remains Chelsea’s leading man and has laid on six assists during Chelsea’s more testing spell of the season as well as netting four goals in his last nine league outings.

That figure is still impressive, but the lack of a striker in any sort of form has clearly been detrimental to Chelsea and the club’s interest in Gonzalo Higuain is hardly surprising.

An extended run in the Carabao Cup, Chelsea face Tottenham in the second leg of their semi-final next week, as well as the start of the FA Cup could also have had an impact on the Blues’ performances.

Chelsea’s form may be patchy but they are still unbeaten in their last four league games after a run of three wins and a draw, and they will take heart from Arsenal’s recent failings.

The North London club have lost three of their last six games and were also held to a 1-1 draw at Brighton. They have maintained their fifth place standing but only on goal difference.

After a rocky start, which featured defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea in his first two Premier League games, Unai Emery looked to have the beating of English football.

A 22-game unbeaten run in all competitions on the back of the August loss to tomorrow’s opposition was as impressive as it was long.

However, the Gunners’ current woes began with a 3-2 loss on the road at Southampton which looks to have sapped much of the confidence from Emery’s players.

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Uncertainty over the futures of Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey rumbling on in the background has not helped matters.

It is telling that Ramsey, who looks likely to depart either this month or in the summer, topped the assist rankings in the league during Arsenal’s purple patch with six.

He also had more shots (four) and touches (97) than any other Arsenal man during a rare start as they overcame Blackpool 3-0 in the FA Cup.

The Welshman has maintained a high-performance level despite his lack of game time and the sense is Arsenal could be making a mistake in his underuse.

Meanwhile, Ozil, with his sky-high wages, looks to be viewed as a luxury by a manager who values the ability to press in his midfielders.

Conceding too many goals has been a problem for the Gunners in recent weeks and they have been breached 12 times in the past seven league games.

That figure makes up 37.5 per cent of the 32 goals Arsenal have shipped in the league this season, and means the 11 goals they have scored over the same time period (1.83 per 90) have not been rewarded.

Part of the issue could be the areas where the Gunners are winning the ball back and they are no longer enjoying the same success with a high press they did early in the campaign.

They are now winning possession in the attacking third three times per 90 minutes, the 17th worst in the Premier League, compared with 4.12 before the loss at Southampton (fifth most often).

It is in defence where Arsenal are struggling in truth, with the 2.50 big chances they have created per 90 in their bad run actually being better than the 1.62 they managed before.

So to tomorrow, and this oh so important of games where these sides must look to solve their contrasting flaws.

If Arsenal can improve at the back they might just edge it, while Chelsea must look to step it up in front of goal if they are to prosper.

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