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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Arsenal helped shape Chelsea under Conte and remain their trickiest opponents

Wenger's side host the reigning Premier League champions on Wednesday evening.

Arsene Wenger, left, and Arsenal, will entertain Antonio Conte, right, and Chelsea in the Premier League on Wednesday. Clive Rose / Getty Images
Arsene Wenger, left, and Arsenal, will entertain Antonio Conte, right, and Chelsea in the Premier League on Wednesday. Clive Rose / Getty Images

It is the fixture that shaped Antonio Conte’s first season at Chelsea. Yet they are the opponents who have most thwarted him over his time in English football.

Arsenal against Chelsea may no longer be the Premier League’s top duel, as it was for a period, nor can it even claim to be the last word in London football’s hierarchy. But it is a game-changer.

It was at the Emirates Stadium, two months into his tenure with Chelsea, that Conte resolved to pull Chelsea into an entirely new shape. He had suffered a chastening awakening on a bright September afternoon in late September 2016: Arsenal 3, Chelsea 0 after 40 minutes.

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Addressing reporters after what was his sixth league match in English football, and a second successive defeat, the Italian sighed: “There is a lot of work to do.”

He had already set about it, put in to place a key joist in the radical rebuilding plan he had in mind. Ten minutes after he had surveyed a confused, beaten dressing room at half-time he replaced the midfielder Cesc Fabregas with Marcos Alonso. His back four became a back three; no further goals were conceded and a fresh system was in place.

It had wing-backs and it had astonishing altitude. After that alteration, and that defeat, Conte's Chelsea won every remaining Premier League game in 2016, went to seize the title and he finished his first term looking for a domestic double.

His tactical switch would gild the reputations of Alonso and Victor Moses, marauding down the flanks, and it made him the sort of innovator English football celebrates only rarely, as it did when Wenger first arrived in the mid-1990s, with his dogmas about fitness and nutrition and pass-and-move; as it does watching Pep Guardiola’s high lines and precision delivery. By the end of last season, managers across the top division were borrowing Conte’s 3-4-3 formation. Even Wenger.

But Arsenal took from Chelsea something even more valuable than the idea of a back-three. They snatched a trophy to protect their manager’s esteem: the FA Cup.

Outplayed in the final, Chelsea fell short of their double. Wenger, needing that triumph at Wembley to quieten the noisy voices demanding he call time on his long reign, became the only manager to have beaten Conte twice in the last year and half. He then did it a third time, on penalties, in August’s Community Shield.

Arsenal get under Chelsea’s skin. In the last three meetings, Conte has had to reshape his tactics not to finesse his flanks, but because he has been a left a man short.

Moses was red-carded in the FA Cup final, Pedro in the Community Shield and, in September, towards the end of a muscular 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge, David Luiz was dismissed for showing too much of the sole of his boot in a tackle on Saed Kolasinac.

Hindsight suggests that event may have foreshadowed a turning point, too, in the Conte chronicles. Luiz returned to the first XI after his suspension but was dropped not long afterwards and his place in Conte’s scheme for the medium-term is in enough doubt that he he has regularly linked with a possible move to Arsenal. “These reports,” said Wenger on Tuesday, “are wrong.”

So, as Wenger never tires of repeating, are reports that offers for Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, both out of contract in June, have been received at Arsenal.

Neither man started the goalless draw at Stamford Bridge three and half months back, although the idea Arsenal are weaning themselves off the two stars would be an exaggeration.

Sanchez’s three goals in his last three outings have been worth four points to Arsenal’s scratchy bid to climb into the top four. They trail third-placed Chelsea by seven points and fourth-placed Liverpool by six.

Wenger will probably be without Kolasinac through injury on Wednesday night while there are fitness doubts over captain Laurent Koscielny and Ozil.

“We have a big enough squad to deal with injuries but at the moment the injury list is quite long,” the Arsenal manager said.

And, this being new year, the schedule is dense, and heavily coloured in with royal blue. Arsenal face Chelsea in the League Cup semi-final in a week, and again in the second leg on January 24th.

That’s three meetings in three weeks for Conte to correct his poor record against his most tricky opponent.