Debating lineups is a favorite pastime of sports fans. Should your team start the wily veteran or the exciting rookie? Is Player A or Player B a better fit at [insert position]? Do you play the skilled but inconsistent star who may not show up or the no-nonsense plodder that you know is at least going to give you something?
Those questions are Arsenal in a nutshell right now. Just look at the ink / pixels devoted to the club over the past few weeks. Should Rob Holding start over either Shkrodan Mustafi or Sokratis? Petr Cech or Bernd Leno in goal? What is Mesut Özil’s place in the side? (Okay, so maybe that one has been debated for a bit longer than the last few weeks).
And here’s the thing - nobody, probably not even Unai Emery, has the right answers yet. He’s still learning his players, those players are still learning his systems, and everybody is adjusting to new teammates with different tendencies.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, the schedule-makers gave them the toughest opponent possible to open the season and didn’t do them any favors with the second match. Arsenal travel to Stamford Bridge on Saturday, where they haven’t won since 2011 or even scored in four of their last five visits.
On top of that, Eden Hazard looks set to start for Chelsea after coming off the bench against Huddersfield. New Blues boss Maurizio Sarri said that Croatian international Mateo Kovacic (on loan from Real Madrid) is likely to make his Chelsea debut on Saturday as a substitute. If you’re not familiar with Kovacic, you will be by the end of this season - he’s an extremely talented attacking midfielder who has been stuck behind Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Isco at Madrid. Cesc Fabregas picked up a minor injury and will not be available to face the Gunners.
On the Arsenal side of things, Ainsley Maitland-Niles has a small fracture in his leg that could keep him out for as long as two months. Fortunately, Nacho Monreal is fit and ready to go. Petr Cech will start in goal; Unai Emery made it clear this week that he believes in the veteran keeper. Danny Welbeck has returned to training and may make the substitutes’ bench.
Still up for debate, however, is who should start at the base of the midfield. Matteo Guendouzi was a surprise start against Manchester City next to Granit Xhaka, who was replaced by new signing Lucas Torreira in the second half. Unai Emery seems to have confidence in the young Frenchman and Torreira looked good in his cameo, but Emery named Xhaka one of the alternate club captains last week, so it would seem that he has the manager’s confidence as well.
Starting two inexperienced squad newcomers in an early-season, difficult away match doesn’t seem likely. My bet: Torreira gets the nod next to Xhaka.
Getting a result against Chelsea would be good - starting 0 and 2 is a tough pill to swallow. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world. There were bound to be some growing pains with the new regime, and City home, Chelsea away is a difficult start to any season. Patience. The Gunners are a good side. The results will come.
WHAT: Arsenal at Chelsea
WHERE: Stamford Bridge, London
WHEN: Saturday, August 18th, 5:30 PM BST | 12:30 PM EST | 9:30 AM PT
US TV: NBC. Stream here.
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