The EFL Cup resumes on Wednesday night when Arsenal travel to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea in the first leg of their semi-final clash.
These two teams met just one week ago at the Emirates Stadium where Hector Bellerin’s late goal in stoppage time cancelled out what Chelsea thought was an 84th minute winner from Marcos Alonso in a 2-2 draw.
Both teams have played in the FA Cup over this past weekend and both rotated their squads heavily with Wednesday’s clash in mind.
Antonio Conte left a host of first-team regulars in London ahead of their trip to face Norwich at Carrow Road, but still put out a side that on paper should have won the match. But a lacklustre first-half performance gave the hosts a bit of confidence, and Chelsea just couldn’t find a spark, drawing 0-0 and adding a replay at Stamford Bridge to the growing list of fixtures.
Arsene Wenger took a similar tact by playing a number of first-team squad players, but he also started two 18-year-olds, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock, against Nottingham Forest. Forest were very much up for the fight, and with Arsenal sort of just going through the motions, Forest sent the Gunners packing 4-2.
The match at Stamford Bridge should be much different with both squads still in the same condition as they were when they met last week. David Luiz’s return to action on Saturday is the only real change as far as injuries for either side.
Surely Arsene Wenger must play his first-choice side.
If there was any questions about Arsenal’s team selection leading up to Wednesday’s EFL Cup match, those questions were answered on Sunday afternoon when Arsene Wenger rotated heavily for Arsenal’s FA Cup match against Nottingham Forest. Wenger made nine changes to his team, and he watched from the stands as his team was defeated 4-2.
Even though Wenger has tended to view the EFL Cup as a chance to give his youngsters match experience, given the changes he made for the FA Cup match, it’s pretty clear that he views a fourth meeting with Chelsea in the semi-finals the more important match.
With the same injury problems that plagued Arsenal’s defence last Wednesday night, expect Arsenal’s team and shape to look the same as the team that faced Chelsea at the Emirates. The only change that might be made is if Granit Xhaka doesn’t pass fit and Wenger will need to find a solution to partnering Jack Wilshere. Otherwise, the team should be the same.
Antonio Conte viewed this semi-final in the same way, but against Norwich, we learned why he’s used such a small squad.
Antonio Conte also made nine changes for Chelsea’s FA Cup match against Norwich, but his side, despite playing poorly, managed to escape with a draw thanks to Norwich’s weakness in attack.
But if that was a chance for some of the squad players to impress Conte and push for more match time, it simply proved Conte’s point that he lacks cover in certain areas.
Danny Drinkwater has had good performances since regaining fitness, but in Saturday’s match against Norwich, he was poor in possession and his distribution from midfield seemed off. It didn’t help that his midfield partner Tiemoue Bakayoko continues to struggle for form and at times looked as if he were just going through the motions.
Marcos Alonso has started nearly every match for Chelsea this season, and it’s not hard to see why. Kenedy played on Saturday in place of the Spaniard, but failed to impress. While he’s undoubtedly good on the ball, the Brazilian clearly isn’t comfortable in that position, playing more like a forward than a wing back or a winger.
Most disappointing was the performance of Michy Batshuayi. With Alvaro Morata lacking confidence and on a bad run of form, this was a chance for Batshuayi to show Conte that he can make an impact when starting a match, as opposed to being an impact sub.
That didn’t happen on Saturday, and while you could say that Batshuayi didn’t have enough service from his wide players and midfield, service is also dependent on the player being an option for a pass. Too often, Batshuayi took up positions where he was never really an option for the player on the ball, or wanted the ball to feet instead of making a run in behind.
Morata did come on for the last 15 minutes, and the attack looked much more threatening in that time period, which doesn’t bode well for the future of Batshuayi’s match time.
On to the match itself — Chelsea’s three-man midfield must do a better job of containing Mesut Ozil.
Mesut Ozil comes under criticism a lot for his languid style. His tendency to glide around the pitch looking for spaces is effective when his team have the ball and are playing well, but when they don’t have the ball and aren’t playing well, it can look as if he’s disinterested and not trying.
But when Ozil is switched on, there are very few pure number 10s who can control the rhythm of a match and create numerous scoring chances.
Last Wednesday, he caused Chelsea all sorts of problems in combination with Xhaka and Jack Wilshere. After numerous injuries, Wilshere has sort of found a niche in the Arsenal side as a deeper midfielder who is willing to take the ball in order to keep possession ticking over, while still possessing the ability to drive forward when the opportunity presents itself.
Wilshere’s been more tactically disciplined than Aaron Ramsey in that deeper role, and it’s allowed Ozil a platform to drift around the pitch looking for the ball and not have to worry about covering for Ramsey’s runs into the box.
Against Chelsea, Ozil was at his best. He would drop into midfield to match Chelsea’s midfield three and look to initiate an attack or switch play, or he would drift in behind the Chelsea midfield and look for passes through to Alexandre Lacazette or Alexis Sanchez.
Ozil’s ability to link play in those areas allowed Arsenal more of the ball and pushed Chelsea’s midfield back, forcing Cesc Fabregas and Bakayoko deeper to compensate and isolated Morata and Eden Hazard.
Chelsea cannot allow that to happen again because it afforded Arsenal plenty of chances in attack and somewhat stifled Chelsea’s counter attack. If Arsenal fix their defensive problems and Ozil plays with the same influence, the Blues could be in real trouble.