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Community Shield Match Preview: Chelsea v Arsenal; Full of Sound and Fury

Arsenal’s Community Shield meeting with Chelsea on Sunday carries interest but no meaning.

The English media’s reliance on the lazy and hackneyed narrative — Wenger and Mourinho square off! — just shows the insignificance of the Wembley affair. It’s a glorified friendly, the last live-action preparation for the start of the Premier League campaign the following weekend.

Although Arsenal supporters would like to see the Gunners continue their impressive pre-season form, close out their spotless record, and lay down a marker with the league champions, none of those accomplishments will have any bearing on the season to come.

Let’s not forget that Arsenal blitzed Manchester City 3-0 in last year’s installment, then won just two of its first eight league matches. By January 1, 2015, it had compiled the fewest points (33) from its first 20 matches in the 19 years of Wenger’s tenure. The year before, Manchester United won the event and went on to a seventh-place league finish.

So we should draw no conclusions about Arsenal’s prospects from Sunday’s outcome.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be interested in what transpires, as long as we keep it in the proper perspective. Any time Arsenal is in action, we can deepen our understanding of the team and how it plays. Here are some questions to keep in mind during Sunday’s encounter:

1.  Will this be a real workout?

It’ll be interesting to see whether Mourinho constructs and instructs his side to thwart Arsenal’s offense. That would be true to form but counterproductive in this preparatory exhibition match. A cagey affair, in which neither side gets the chance to stretch its legs, wouldn’t serve the objective of improving physical readiness for the season ahead.

A free-flowing encounter would contribute to better fitness; it would also favor Arsenal, provided the Arsenal defense maintains its discipline. The Gunners’ speed of thought, movement, and passing generally exceeds Chelsea’s, so the more open the play, the more likely Arsenal’s advantage.

2.  What influence will Petr Cech have?

Arsenal’s headline summer acquisition will face his longtime bosses and teammates straightaway. Any specific insights he might share about Chelsea’s approach may not determine the outcome of this match; after all, the managers and the players know each other fairly well.

What will be interesting to watch is Cech’s interactions with Arsenal’s defense. If he provides calm leadership and deals with the threats to his goal in this high-profile but low-pressure encounter, then he could bring stability throughout the league campaign. That will make the difference that Arsenal sought when it acquired him.

3.  What clues will we have about the manager’s preferred starting XI?

In the pre-season matches so far, Wenger has varied his selections, working on the fitness of all the players and experimenting with combinations. These mixes of players have been intriguing and successful in the context of the pre-season. The four  matches have also emphasized the substantial depth Arsenal enjoy at just about every position, even with leading scorer Alexis Sanchez yet to return from holiday and Danny Welbeck sidelined with injury.

But we still don’t have much of an idea of Wenger’s thinking on several personnel decisions. In particular, how does he balance the contributions of both Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey, who bring different strengths to the central midfield role? There have been occasions when they functioned as a midfield pair, but that required the removal of Francis Coquelin and his defensive energy and skill. Not the best setup against high-quality opposition.

Jack Wilshere also has to fit into the puzzle somehow. He’s taken up a more advanced position frequently this pre-season, following a brief stint on the flanks as last season ended. Wenger may reveal more of his intentions for Wilshere, and for the first XI overall, on Sunday. He did send out the same starting lineup in last year’s Community Shield and in the league opener against Crystal Palace six days later. Then again, several key players — Olivier Giroud, Per Mertesacker, and Mesut Özil — weren’t ready to start.

4.  What will happen at center forward?

The different strengths of Giroud and Theo Walcott allow Wenger some flexibility in his choice of center forward. Walcott, the ink just dry on a new four-year contract, is less tested in that role against top-level defenders, but his speed could trouble Chelsea as it has in the past.

Another benefit of a Walcott center forward run-out would be to shield Giroud from the battering he’d take from Chelsea’s galoots in central defense. The Frenchman will endure beatings from defenses for 10 months, including physical tests in the first two weeks of the league season, so limiting his exposure in this exhibition match makes some sense.

On the other hand, Wenger may want to prime the chemistry and relationships in attack for the league campaign, which would point to a Giroud start. A peach of a goal like the one he scored in the 2014 affair might send him off to a strong scoring start.

“Might” is the operative word in all these observations, because the connections between Sunday and the league campaign are iffy at best. The day could be mildly informative and enjoyable should Arsenal notch a win over Chelsea, but it signifies nothing about the team’s prospects.

Players to Watch:
Arsenal: Peter Cech. He’s the marquee signing and a former Chelsea man. If this is a tight encounter, his savvy and skill could make the difference. Particularly if the match goes to penalties.

Chelsea: Eden Hazard. The Belgian is Chelsea’s biggest threat, especially with striker Diego Costa questionable due to a hamstring tweak. Hazard keyed Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge last season and will be a test for Hector Bellerin or Mathieu Debuchy on the right of Arsenal’s defense.

Injuries and Absences:
Arsenal: Welbeck (knee), Rosicky (knee), Sanchez (holiday), Ospina (match fitness)

Chelsea: none

Match Officials:
Referee: Anthony Taylor

Assistant Referees: G Beswick, J Brooks
Fourth Official: R East

Broadcast Information:
UK: BT Sport, 15:00 GMT
US: Fox Sports 1, 10 AM EDT

Chelsea 1 – Arsenal 1. Arsenal win 5-4 on penalties.

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