Arsenal only show up when they feel like it; will they be 'ready' for Chelsea?
To be perfectly honest, I don't think I'm "mentally ready" to write this Chelsea-Arsenal preview. Yet only 72 hours ago, I was completely jacked up to make the case that Saturday's game would be Arsenal's season-defining match.
Against all logic (and the club's impressive history of self-sabotage in February) I'd convinced myself that the awesome display of attacking firepower I had witnessed in the 5-0 FA Cup annihilation of Southampton this past weekend was something so much more than another fever dream for a long-suffering Arsenal fan. "Beware Bayern, we're coming for you in the Champions League," I heard myself shouting at the screen as the goals rattled in. A hat trick for Theo Walcott! A brace for Danny Welbeck! Three assists for Lucas Perez!
That fine morning, there wasn't a sliver of doubt in my mind that Arsenal would do the double against Chelsea and find themselves within touching distance (well, a mere two points) of Antonio Conte's magnificent hair weave.
Of course, I had neglected two details: Southampton had fielded their junior varsity team and Arsenal had a midweek game against Watford. Still, I could justify my surge of optimism by reminding myself that Arsenal hadn't lost a league game at home to Watford since 1988.
Oh, there was one more thing, and this was perhaps the biggest reason I felt so sanguine. After the Southampton carnage, Wenger had dug into his Big Book of "Invincibles" Bombast, heretically proclaiming that "numbers-wise and quality-wise, we've never had so many players who could score goals." How the Watford starting Xl kept from soiling their shorts standing there in the tunnel, looking across at Olivier Giroud and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, is almost psychologically incomprehensible.
You could forgive Wenger's preening hubris had this been an isolated example but the idea of Arsenal just needing to turn up to claim the three points has become an all-too-depressingly familiar ritual in recent years. And when they inevitably fall short of the Frenchman's rarified standard, as is their destiny, the response is always the same -- "the players lacked confidence" or "Arsenal lacked fight."
Still one has to feel for Wenger, stuck in an endless Groundhog Day loop, as he must continually explain away his team's shockingly poor starts in games against outclassed opponents: 2-0 after 20 minutes against Bournemouth; should have been 3-0 down instead of 1-0 against Preston in the FA Cup; 2-0 down after 13 minutes against Watford. Oh, and let's not forget Ludogorets (2-0 down in the first 15 minutes) in the Champions League. Arsenal actually fought back to beat the Bulgarians 3-2, which allowed Wenger to wax lyrical about his team's "mental strength."
Can you picture Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp conjuring up their team's lack of effort and commitment to mask their own motivational shortcomings? At the very least they'd have the decency to add "and since I'm being paid millions of pounds to ensure they're in the right frame of mind to compete, I've failed at my job today." But then, unlike the other uber-managers, Wenger knows that his position is secure until he is ready to say au revoir.
After 20 years as Le Boss of Arsenal, it's hardly surprising he no longer possesses the competitive hunger that drives his younger counterparts to make certain their players are locked in for 90 minutes. Instead, Wenger's laissez-faire attitude toward his team's psychological state suggests a sage who thinks it's up to his players to motivate themselves. After all, they're being paid ungodly sums to ply their trade at Arsenal and as Wenger's acolytes, they are ordained to achieve the appropriate state of soccer transcendence.
Somebody might want to explain that concept to Aaron Ramsey.
Wenger fosters this pond-water stagnation by permitting a culture in which every achievement is immortalized by a selfie and his players live in an extremely well-paid comfort zone with little threat at their respective positions.
When your midfield is ravaged by long-term injuries (Santi Cazorla), questionable loans (Jack Wilshere), international commitments (Mohamed Elneny) and red-card magnets (Granit Xhaka), what sort of pressure is on Ramsey and Francis Coquelin to work extra hard for fear they'll be replaced? Similarly in defense, Gabriel knows that until Hector Bellerin is 100 percent fit, the right-back position will be his to turn into a comedy of errors.
It's only in attack where Arsenal appear to have the quantity to match their quality and that's only if you subscribe to the theory that scoring a hat trick against a raw Southampton side makes Walcott anything more than a flat-track bully. Plus, you have to admit that while it's painful to watch Giroud trip over his clown shoes, his beard is a thing of wonder.
As for the rest of Arsenal's offensive riches -- Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Welbeck, Perez, Chamberlain and Alex Iwobi -- they are certainly capable of torching opponents with their skill and pace but the ever-buzzing Chilean notwithstanding, how many of them go full-throttle from the opening whistle?
Let's face it: Arsenal show up when they feel like it, which tends to be late in the second halves of matches. Or very late when playing Burnley, who cruelly lost twice this season to Arsenal on 92nd and 98th minute winners that belied a pair of thoroughly pedestrian performances by Wenger's men.
This pathological lack of urgency was always going to catch up with the Gunners and if they weren't ready for Watford's pop quiz of their mettle, what are the chances they'll be prepared for a much more rigorous examination at Stamford Bridge? Yes, Arsenal flipped the script against Chelsea in their first meeting by going up 3-0 by half-time and inspiring Conte to launch his fabled tactical three-at-the-back re-jig. It didn't succeed in turning around the final result but Chelsea have gone on to win 15 of their next 17 league games and need no help in devising a strategy for Saturday's rematch.
Still, you can imagine Conte phoning his fellow countryman, Walter Mazzarri, and asking the Watford manager for a tactical tip or two: "Easy, Antonio," Mazzarri might say. "Start aggressively. Press them high up the pitch. Tell Diego Costa and Eden Hazard to run at them for the first 20 minutes while N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic muscle them in midfield. By then you'll be 2-0 up and can park the bus in the second half. Buena fortuna."
Except that Chelsea doesn't need luck in any language against Arsenal. They have been relentlessly fine-tuned by Conte to play hard for 90 minutes. Of course, it is possible that Wenger will have figured out what his players need to be "mentally ready" by then.
New selfie sticks, anyone?
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.