Heart Of Football

Heart of Football: Under scrutiny, Wenger and Rooney can upset odds

Arsene Wenger seems perpetually one game away from the apocalypse. The manager needs a big win, and until that happens every critic who has never sat in his seat will keep on condemning him as a man past his peak.

Arsenal at Stamford Bridge today seems like another opportunity to bury his reputation.

Two hours later, Wayne Rooney gets the treatment. His return to Old Trafford, where for heaven's sake he broke the records of Bobby Charlton and all the rest, is billed as a man going back to his old ground as a diminished player.

There, perhaps, the comparison stops. One cannot imagination Monsieur Wenger going out on a late night bender while his wife and kids are away.

Actually, Wenger is married to Arsenal. He possibly should have walked away when the crowd was baying but his team shocked most people by beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final in May.

That victory, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte whispered this weekend, was when the Blues were down to 10 men. Another win, on penalties in the Charity Shield, was similarly affected by a red card to a player in blue.

"I hope we finish with 11 players," Conte said, his voice hushed by a bad reaction to air-conditioning in his office. "With 11, we will see who is the best."

Well, we might.

The tide is with Chelsea. Wenger's resistance is nothing if not stubborn, and if, one day, his players remember why they signed up for him, today's game is not necessarily a blue banker. Then, in Manchester, the comeback of the discarded Rooney awaits. 

Chelsea have strength where Arsenal lack it, notably in defence and the deeper-lying midfield area where Conte can choose between Tiemoue Bakayoko or Cesc Fabregas to partner the redoubtable N'Golo Kante.

If Conte wants to go for the jugular, he will employ Fabregas as the man whose passes can unlock defences. If he prefers to contain and wait for the opponents to tire, Bakayoko and, when he is fit, Danny Drinkwater are robust options.

If midfield is where contests are won and lost, Wenger is embarrassingly short of options. Maybe, one day, he will be able to reunite Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere - if the pair ever get fit for the full 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka possess neither the engine nor the discipline to hold the midfield together against top teams. They offer meagre cover to the often overrun and perpetually criticised back three, or four, depending on Wenger's tactic of the day.

Reverse that coin, and the fact that David Luiz is occasionally liable to go Awol from defence and gambol upfield is well-covered by Kante's energy and Bakayoko's reading of a game.

In terms of firepower, forgetting the opening game at Stamford Bridge where Chelsea were shocked by Burnley, Alvaro Morata has quickly made the Blues forget that Diego Costa, the prolific scorer and disruptive rebel.

Morata, never sure of his place at Real Madrid and sometimes used as an attacking midfielder at Juventus, has dovetailed well into Chelsea. He's 24, intelligent off the field and adaptable on it, and chose Chelsea because he knew Conte from their time together at Juve.

Morata sensed he would fit in. His countryman Cesar Azpilicueta, now Chelsea's vice-captain, sorted out a house for him in London. And Pedro, Fabregas and Marcos Alonso make up an impressive Spanish contingent at the Bridge.

That harmony, Conte's drive and tactical flexibility, contradict the speculation that friction within the club could implode the way they did under Jose Mourinho.

A win today would lay some of that to rest. Another defeat for Arsenal would turn up the volume against Wenger. The statistics that are uncomfortable for him show that Arsenal have won only 11 of 51 league games against the top five of the Premier League since 2012.

"Nobody would deny that we need a result against our direct rivals," Wenger concedes. "This, of course, is an acid test."

Another test is when and how to reintegrate Alexis Sanchez into the attack. Sanchez, and Mesut Ozil, have been salary agitators for months, and went into a deplorable sulk when the Gunners' season nosedived after Bayern Munich took them apart in the Champions League last season.

Ozil is there because no big club came for him. Sanchez is there because Wenger refused to release him to Manchester City. And while Sanchez curled in a peach of a goal against Cologne on Thursday, he must displace Alexandre Lacazette or Danny Welbeck for a starting place.

The tide is with Chelsea. Wenger's resistance is nothing if not stubborn, and if, one day, his players remember why they signed up for him, today's game is not necessarily a blue banker. Then, in Manchester, the comeback of the discarded Rooney awaits.

Pundits are obsessed with whether Rooney will celebrate if he scores on his old stomping ground. What does it matter?

To score is the be-all and end-all for an attacker. There isn't a man who has celebrated more than Rooney after 253 goals in 559 games wearing United colours.

But he is back now where he started, with Everton. His lip is buttoned about the lack of opportunities he got under Mourinho, and Rooney's return to his boyhood team represents the final turn of his career circle.

Everton need goals from him after their principal striker Romelu Lukaku demanded, and got, his move to United.

Lukaku, 24, is in his physical prime, and nobody knows better than Everton what he can do when the ball is served to him. Six goals in six games is just the start.

Mourinho muses that this is a more difficult Premier League to score in than when Rooney got the bulk of his goals for United. There is a grain of truth and a pile of rubbish in what Mourinho says.

Maybe he is implying that United's 12 goals in just four games this season shows how mighty his team are against all those defensive opponents?

Go on Wayne, hit another goal at the Theatre of Dreams, and show what is in your old heart.

CHELSEA V ARSENAL
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 17, 2017, with the headline 'Under scrutiny, Wenger and Rooney can upset odds'. Print Edition | Subscribe