It is the nature of the modern Premier League that, even when it gets to the semi-final stage of a domestic knock-out competition, it isn’t quite seen as being about that competition.
The build-up to what should be the big match of the EFL Cup last four between Chelsea and Arsenal was dominated by issues way beyond this game, to do with the league. It was dominated by what Arsene Wenger described on Tuesday as “the circus that exists around our game today”.
“Circus” is certainly one fair way to describe the spat between Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho – “I don’t hate anyone”, the Italian ended up stating – but there were also so many questions about Alexis Sanchez’s immediate future, the consequences of Arsenal’s FA Cup exit to Nottingham Forest and all the controversy from Wenger’s comments about officials – not least as regards Eden Hazard‘s penalty from the league.
Arsenal vs Chelsea player ratings
Even in terms of whether won of these can win the competition, it isn’t quite seen as just winning the EFL Cup on its own terms. It would be the first knock-out trophy of Conte’s career and potentially a last at Chelsea, given the speculation about his future. It would be the first EFL Cup of Wenger’s, and maybe the only way to end up saving this season, amid so much debate over whether this should be his last.
It is thereby probably fitting that this isn’t even a self-contained two-legged semi-final.
This first leg at Stamford Bridge is instead the second time the clubs will meet in the space of three weeks, forming what Pep Guardiola once described as something “like the basketball play-offs” and almost a big, more sophisticated game of rock-paper-scissors. That’s because, with three matches, there’s a lot more than second-guessing going on.
“When you play as many times against each other, it becomes like the basketball play-offs,” Guardiola once said. “You do one thing; they respond with another, you answer in another way…the guessing, the changing, the preparing, the switches during games; guessing what formation they will play, how we can surprise them too…”
Both managers will already be reacting to the last league match, one of the most riveting of the season as it ended in a 2-2 draw.
Wenger didn’t necessarily think it would follow that pattern.
“I believe it can be a very attractive game, but football is so unpredictable it can as well be a locked game, where both teams know each other well, they know they have 180 minutes to win the tie, so both things are possible yes. It can be a crazy game, but as well be locked.”
Conte meanwhile spoke of the accumulative toll of games like that in such circumstances.
“When you play these types of games you lose a lot of physical energy and mental energy, and then you have to play in the league. That is always important. It is not just that we are playing three times against Arsenal, it is three massive games in a short time.”
Conte does have an advantage over Wenger here, though, and not just because his side are champions and he is generally seen as more tactically astute. Chelsea have a more obvious basic starting XI that they can play with, that they can do something unexpected with in certain areas.
Wenger meanwhile admitted to a lot of personnel issues right now after the Forest match, and that would be a problem anyway, but is only exacerbated by one of the central acts in the circus: the future of Sanchez. In that sense, it’s not a circus. It will inform “the facts” of “what happens on the football pitch”, as Wenger also put it.
With City confident they could get a deal done in the next few days, the Arsenal boss was guarded on what would happen on Wednesday. He said he hadn’t yet decided whether he would play Sanchez but also that he expects “nothing” as regards his future, and in any case sources say he has already pretty much made the decision to sell – provided a few terms are met. If that is the case, then it seems highly unlikely the Chilean will start at Stamford Bridge, and that could well remove what Wenger felt was one of the real positives from that league match: Arsenal’s attacking slickness.
“Overall going forward we were outstanding, we had some outstanding moments in our game of combination at high pace and created football we want to play.”
Conte said he expects Sanchez to start, but then he also said he expects him to stay at the club beyond the end of this window. Such diplomacy notwithstanding, the Italian has surely made alternative plans for what Arsenal might do.
That’s where the second-guessing starts, at what the alternatives might be. Might Danny Welbeck to come in to give Arsenal’s attack a different texture? How will Conte play with his attack around Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata, especially given the striker is suffering a real drop in scoring form? There’s also the issue of Chelsea’s midfield, given Tiemoue Bakayoko’s struggles and up against a resurgent Jack Wilshere, and what will likely be a makeshift Arsenal defence.
There will be something unexpected, that should enliven the tie, if also the circus.