CHELSEA have fallen away from being title contenders in the past couple of seasons, but a new wave of investment and a bolder approach to blooding youngsters promises to revive the club as challengers to the new “big two”.
The FA Cup semi-final victory against Manchester United, taking Chelsea to their third final in four years, was in stark contrast to the opening game of the 2019-20 campaign which saw United thrash a Blues side that had, out of necessity, been built around youth.
That 4-0 defeat in August didn’t bode well for Frank Lampard, but over the course of the season, Chelsea have exceeded expectations. Recently, with the transfer ban out of the way, they have been adventurous in the transfer market, securing Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner of RB Leipzig and also have Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak, Dortmund’s Kai Havertz and Ben Chilwell of Leicester City on their radar. Chelsea may look an exciting prospect for 2020-21.
Chelsea, United, Tottenham and Arsenal are, arguably, transition teams at the moment which has created a gulf between the top two and the other members of the “big six”. It can change fairly quickly – a year ago, the pundits were asking if City were the “best ever” Premier side and similar questions have been asked of Liverpool this time around.
Furthermore, Arsenal were supposedly without a plan and Spurs were the team of the future. Now, the barometer has edged away from Tottenham High Road to Finsbury Park. Things look rosier now for the red side of north London.
What is clear is that Liverpool and City have raised an already high bar skywards and now it is up to their rivals to see if they can keep pace. Chelsea have signalled they are ready to spend to revive their own prospects.
One can only assume Manchester United will flex their wallet in the close season and, if Arsenal are serious about the Arteta era, the Spaniard will be given the chance to build a Gunners’ team aligned to his plans.
The biggest question mark may be against Tottenham – with their new stadium debt to be paid and the uncomfortable appointment of José Mourinho, will they have the resources and appetite to invest in their team?
Chelsea showed in the semi-final they are, after all, better placed than United to make a challenge at the moment. The result, to some extent, was not as emphatic as the performance or the difference between the two teams. It didn’t help United’s cause that David de Gea had a nightmare evening, making a mess of the first goal and clearly at fault for Mason Mount’s low drive that made it 2-0.
Chelsea have had their doubts about their own Spanish goalkeeper, Kepa, but De Gea seems to be on a downward slope since the 2018 World Cup. As is customary with the noble art of the custodian, as soon as you become less than reliable, you are replaced, so it is no surprise Chelsea have been looking at Oblak (possibly the world’s number one) and United are now being linked with every major goalkeeper.
Arsenal, in the first semi-final, pulled off something of a shock result in beating Manchester City, which underlined the character of the much-maligned David Luiz and the razor-sharp finishing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Arsenal, with a five-man defence, sat deep and City had an astonishing 71% of possession and three times as many shots than Arsenal. Is the City model stale or has the Pep way been found out? – he was clearly frustrated by his team’s inability to break down their opponents.
Have they won so much in two years that their motivation has been dulled? Certainly, City’s clumsy-at-times season probably owes as much to human nature as it does to ability and luck. Look at their defeats this season in the league and ask yourself if Pep Guardiola’s team of 2017-19 would have lost at Norwich, Wolves and Southampton, or allowed Manchester United to beat them three times in the season? The fact is Arteta knows more about Guardiola’s methods than most and he cleverly outfoxed his mentor.
Aubameyang’s future is uncertain as his contract expires at the end of next season. If he leaves – and at 31, his options will diminish soon – Arsenal will have a huge gap to fill, especially as there are signs of something positive developing at the Emirates. A winners’ medal be just be enough to persuade the Gabon international to sign a new deal. Arsenal have to ask themselves, would they find a good replacement in the current market – surely it is worth paying top dollar to a player with Aubameyang’s finishing?
Having beaten Liverpool a few days before knocking City out of the Cup, Arsenal have recovered from their early post-lockdown malaise, but tail-end results can be misleading. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe teams managed by Jürgen Klopp and Guardiola go into any game wanting anything other than a win.
The London finals
And so, the FA Cup final will between two members of English football’s elite – again. Arsenal v Chelsea in 2020 means the competition has been won by the “big six” in 24 of the last 27 seasons with 10 of those finals between members of the top half dozen. More tellingly, three of the last four have been clashes between members of that group. Not important to the big clubs? – think again.
For both Chelsea and Arsenal, the FA Cup represents the only chance for silverware and in Arsenal’s case, could be their only way into Europe for 2020-21. The clubs met in the 2019 Europa League final and Chelsea strolled to a 4-1 victory against a poor Arsenal. But the Gunners have beaten the team from London SW6 on the two occasions they have met in the FA Cup final, 2-0 in 2002 and 2-1 in 2017. It will be the seventh all-London FA Cup final.
There is no way any clash between the two clubs could possibly be meaningless – local pride, silverware, Europe, the careers of the players and, especially, Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta who will be eager to lift their first trophy as managers of the clubs they played for. They need success to endorse the decision to appoint them in the first place. It’s a pity nobody will be in Wembley Stadium to witness it.