COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
When Marcos Alonso won Chelsea a penalty against Huddersfield Town on the stroke of half-time after a clumsy tackle by Christopher Schindler, not many had caught the events leading up to referee Chris Kavanagh blowing his whistle.
14 passes were exchanged in the buildup to the penalty – which was subsequently tucked away by new boy Jorginho to send the visitors 2-0 up – and it involved eight of the Blues’ players getting a touch of the ball. Alonso who’d been brought down was the receiver of the first pass in the buildup (from David Luiz), and was afterward in the opposition’s box ready to finish off the move.
That was a little glimpse into what Maurizio Sarri’s looking to do at the west London club. In all honesty, it would have been easy to miss that moment as the opening half was a hard watch at times, with the Stamford Bridge outfit struggling to deal with Huddersfield’s low block. They found it difficult to find space between the lines and it often resulted in sterile possession as they passed it among themselves for large periods.
The second-half was easier for the visitors as they showed their greater class against the Terriers, and added a third by Pedro in the 80th minute.
Victor Moses was introduced for the Spaniard in the aftermath of the goal for the final 10 minutes in what could become a familiar sight for the wideman.
It seems strange just how much a managerial switch can do to a player’s chances in his side. The recently retired Nigeria international made 32 and 28 starts in 2016/17 and 2017/18 respectively, but now has to become used to a reduced role with Eden Hazard, Pedro, Willian and maybe Callum Hudson-Odoi higher in the pecking order.
Barring any bizarre tactical move by Sarri, the wideman isn’t expected to start in the London derby at Stamford Bridge this weekend.
Alex Iwobi’s situation at Arsenal is perhaps more complicated.
You get the feeling that if Unai Emery has his whole squad fit and also isn’t looking to rotate his side – especially in the forward positions – the playmaker isn’t in his manager’s best XI.
However, having recently signed a contract extension, you sense the Spaniard does have him in his plans going forward. It could also be that the club’s looking to promptly tie down players to new deals to avoid either losing them on a free or run the risk of prize assets leaving on the cheap – case in point, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey respectively.
Iwobi, though, didn’t feature in the Gunners’ 2-0 opening day defeat to rampant Manchester City. On one hand, it’ll be easy to criticize Emery and his players for losing the way they did, given City were without David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, Nicolas Otamendi and Fabian Delph in their starting lineup – who were six of Pep Guardiola’s 11 most frequently used players last season.
However, when you look at the bigger picture, you hold your hands up and admit the Citizens were a class above their hosts. Guardiola’s side are also about starting their third year with the decorated manager, while Emery only resumed in the capital circa three months ago.
It was the worst possible start Arsenal could have been handed given the circumstances, and even though they’d have preferred a trip to a different opponent this weekend, one can’t argue this is a meeting between two sides relatively equal in their development under new head coaches.
The Stamford Bridge outfit may have home advantage, but the Gunners have had a bit more time with their new trainer, and they’ll definitely fancy themselves to get a statement win against a big club on the road.
Given the north London club are winless at the home of their cross-town rivals since Robin van Persie’s hat-trick in a 5-3 victory in 2011/12, finally picking up a victory on enemy territory will get Gooners onside. A victory in Saturday’s tea-time fixture will represent a first triumph at one of the so-called big sides since 2014/15 – which was a 2-0 victory at City, courtesy of goals from the departed Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud.
Emery will be buoyed by the fact that his side gained the edge in this fixture in the last couple of years under Arsene Wenger. There was a 3-0 win over Antonio Conte’s side in 2016/17 – a game Iwobi stood out – a 2-1 win in the 2017 Emirates FA Cup final – a fixture which saw Moses receive his marching orders – and 2-1 win in last season’s Carabao Cup semi-final.
However, a wretched record at the Bridge that’s seen them lose on five of their last six visits while failing to score in four of their last five trips is what they have to change.
It remains to be seen whether the pair of Moses and Iwobi will get a run out in the derby, and that’ll be disappointing given the noticeable roles they’ve played in this fixture in recent years. Nevertheless, they sure will be willing to give their all if called upon by their respective managers.
For Maurizio Sarri, a win will go a long way to regaining control of this fixture having seen the Blues relinquish it under his predecessor, while for opposite number Emery, a victory will get people truly believing in Arsenal’s new direction. Critics will stand up and take notice, and that’ll just be what the doctor ordered!