I've done these match-ups columns before,[a] but I've never done one where the challenges were so predictable. Usually there's more than "can they stop this striker" or "how do the midfields match up," but for Monday's English Premier League main event - Arsenal hosting Chelsea at the Emirates - the battles are obvious: Can Drogba be stopped? Who fights off Chamakh? What of Lampard and Fàbregas? Is Wenger too prideful?
When Arsenal Attacks
Marouane Chamakh versus Branislav Ivanovic - This recent resurgence of John Terry has coincided with Alex's knee injury, something that might be purely coincidental, though there may be something to having Branislav Ivanovic to his right as opposed to the Brazilian with Thor's hammer as a right foot. Over the last three seasons, Ivanovic has made 56 league starts (most at right back). Alex has only made 10. Terry's may be more familiar with Ivanovic, something that's translated to more aggression and confidence.
Let's assume Terry is as aggressive today, bursting out of the line to destroy plays as they approach the line (you know, The plays Mikel John Obi's supposed to break up). If Arsenal can use Terry's aggression to pull him out of position, they'll have Marouane Chamakh matched-up against Ivanovic, and while the Serbian is as equipped as any center half to handle Chamakh's aerial prowess, asking Ivanovic to cover while Terry's out gives Chamakh bigger channels to run through, Arsenal's midfielders more space in which to provide service, and Ivanovic more chance to be at a disadvantage.
The problem matching up with Chamakh is not unique to Chelsea, but it is one that can turn a match. If Arsenal can isolate Ivanovic, it gives the Gunners an obvious (if only potential) answer to their Chelsea problem.
Cesc Fàbregas versus Mikel John Obi - Interesting that both clubs have attacking midfielders returning to full health to match up with defensive midfielders that have drawn the ire of supporters. For me, it makes it easy to identify interesting match-ups. For supporters, it's a recipe or premature baldness, hair being pulled out as their destroying misreads the play, is caught recovering from a venture into attack, or is lured out of position by some basic, non-threatening build-up. Apply to Mikel or Song as you see fit.
For Mikel, the problem tends to be the latter, and with Cesc Fàbregas set to return to the Gunners' starting XI, you could see Chelsea's destroyer falling in love with containing the Spaniard. When Arsenal is in possession and Fàbregas is playing closer to line, no problem, but when Fàbregas drifts, particularly in scenarios where he's dropping out of an advanced position and trying to pull Mikel into places that could be accounted for my Michael Essien or Frank Lampard, Arsenal could have more space in front of the line for Chamakh, Andrei Arshavin, Samir Nasri and possibly Robin van Persie.
When Chelsea Attacks
Dider Drogba versus Laurent Koscielny and Gaël Clichy - Chelsea at their most dangerous when Drogba drifts right, allows Nicolas Anelka to come toward the middle as the team leans right, relying on Ashley Cole on the left to supply the width. Such a shift would leave Chelsea's most explosive weapon matched-up against two of Arsenal's vulnerabilities. If you're Arsène Wenger, do you trust Gaël Clichy, a player on the brink of losing his spot at left back, to handle Drogba when the Ivorian drifts? Do you think Laurent Koscielny is the maexplores the channel entering the right side of the area? Better yet, what options does Arséne Wenger have?
Per formation, Arsenal seems to have options, nominally starting two deep midfielders, if you think Jack Wilshire both starts and provides sufficient deterrent for Chelsea. If you don't feel that will work, you can play your third midfielder deeper or, if you're concerned about the threat on your left hand side, drop your left wing to support, play more of a four midfielder set-up, possibly starting Samir Nasri as a left midfielder.
Whatever Arsenal does, it needs to be a new idea. Didier Drogba has five goals in his last three appearances against Arsenal, eight goals in his last six. Missing two nominal starters - Kieran Gibbs and Thomas Vermaelen - Wenger should entertain the idea that he doesn't have a defensive option that can contain Drogba, that his best defense may be a good offense. Either make possession your best prevention or try to outshoot Chelsea. Start van Persie, sacrifice Wilshire, and have both Nasri and Fàbregas in central midfield. Admit it: "Whatever we were doing before wasn't working, so let's play to our strengths.
"What's the worst that can happen? A loss? It's not like we've been doing otherwise over the last two years."
Frank Lampard versus Alexander Song - Fixation on Frank Lampard's goal totals have caused him to be a vastly overrated player in some circles (circles painted in blue ink, surrounding golden lions), but he's worlds better than the players Chelsea have in reserve. Lampard's main virtue is incredible consistency. No matter the circumstance in match or competition, you're going to get the same all around, above average performance - somebody that will be able to exploit your opponents weaknesses while never serving as yours.
And so we come to Alex Song, somebody whose penchant for jumping into attack has furrowed brows of Gooners wondering what good's a destroyer if he's not there to bust-up attacks. Perhaps it's Song's wanderlust that's left a suspect defense exposed, highlighting the limitations of Koscielny and Clichy, though Song shouldn't shoulder the blame alone. If Song's being more aggressive, it could be at Wenger's direction.
Whatever the reason, it needs to stop on Monday. Else, you could see Chelsea's attack pushing back Arsenal's line and leaving a ball for Frank Lampard to run onto. When the Blues are in transition, Song is going to have to bust ass to get back and help, because if there's one thing Frank Lampard can be counted on to do, it's be in the right place at the right time, to exploit whatever space a wayward defender gives him.
Back To High School English: Man Versus Himself
Arsène Wenger, The Progressive versus Arsène Wenger, The Prideful - At the core of Arsenal's shortcomings is the pride of Arsène Wenger, on display in every post match press conference where acknowledgment of his opponents virtues is overlooked while the manager dwells on extraneous excuses explaining his club's failures. If it's Barcelona that beats Arsenal, fine. But if other teams beat Arsenal? His team didn't play well, or the officiating was incompetent and conspiratorial, or the other team didn't play the right way (ignoring the fact his teams have become much more foul prone).
Given Arsenal's belief in style - a right way to play - Wenger can't concede that other philosophies might be better, even on a single, given day. If that concession's made, then everything Arsenal's built this version of the club upon comes into question. Players have been acquired, styles have been instilled assuming that this approach, over the long run, will be proven right. Thus, the belief must be maintained: Once we get this thing right, the philosophy underscoring our play will lead us to greatness.
It's a very high-minded, positive, progressive approach, but it's also one that leads to stubbornness. Once it becomes in your best interest to be narrow minded, you're less likely to react when better options present themselves.
We mentioned those other options when talking about matching up with Drogba. Does Arsenal need to go 4-4-2? Or do they go with a 4-3-3 that moves away from the second deep option? Or, most important, does Wenger accept that the current way may not prove right, even if for only one day?
There was a time when Wenger was considered a progressive. Perhaps now's still that time, as he's still thought of as continential, liberal - erudite and philosophical. But there is an element of aloofness to him, a professor of classical philosophy who doesn't acknowledge the need for phenomenology.
His current approach, derived from a successful if now classic one, works in theory, he would hold. If it fails on the pitch, there has to be some other reason, begging the question: What will be today's reason, should Wenger fail to adapt?