Chelsea clash is our 'small final,' admits Gunners boss as turbulence strikes
Arsenal v Chelsea, Live, BT Sport 1, 5.30
A winter storm is raging at Arsenal, where off-field trouble has combined with an on-field wobble to make this the most testing period of the post-Arsene Wenger era.
Cracks have formed within the newly-assembled executive, and a loss of momentum under Unai Emery threatens to darken the mood once more in north London.
Given the context, it is hard to avoid the feeling that this evening's meeting with Chelsea is the most significant match of Arsenal's season so far. It provides Emery and his players with an opportunity to kick-start a campaign that is beginning to stutter, but it is also a game which Arsenal dare not lose.
They start the weekend six points off the top four, knowing that falling any further behind would be close to fatal to their hopes of Champions League qualification. "I think yes," said Emery, bluntly, when asked if a gap of nine points would be too large to bridge.
For a league game in January, then, the stakes could hardly be higher. And so Emery craves a positive response from his squad after a run of three defeats in six league games, calling for them to "play with all we can" in a match he described as a "small final".
The Spaniard had hoped to meet Maurizio Sarri's side with only three points between the teams, but those plans were scuppered by a worryingly flat defeat to West Ham United last week.
"We had a big challenge against West Ham," said Emery, who is expecting his meeting with Sarri to result in plenty of goalscoring chances. "We spoke about playing under pressure, which we have to do if we are to be competitive and take this opportunity. After our loss, it is a big difference to be six points behind Chelsea instead of only three."
The question will be whether Emery's tactical tinkering provides Arsenal with enough of an advantage to mask their deficiencies in defence. He has already proved himself more than capable of changing the course of matches from the sidelines, not least during their stirring 22-match unbeaten run.
In recent weeks, though, the lack of solidity at the back has proved so overwhelming that Emery and his attackers have been simply unable to compensate.
All of a sudden, the constant changes of shape and personnel have been less effective. Some players appear confused at times, while the more vocal sections of the fan base have been angered by certain decisions, including Emery's tendency to withdraw Alexandre Lacazette from the action.
Such bumps are to be expected as Arsenal take this new road, of course, and no one can claim that Emery has not added a welcome dash of adaptability and unpredictability to their game.
"It is enriching for us, to have the capacity to use different systems," he said. "I think our best performance can come with different systems. It depends on the opposition and also on our players. Little by little, we are finding our way with different ideas."
The big concern is that these qualities can only take Arsenal so far, especially when the shortcomings in the playing squad prove to be so debilitating.
In terms of personnel, Arsenal simply do not boast a defence of Champions League quality, while the autumn promise of the midfielders has also faded in recent weeks. Even the combative Lucas Torreira, so important since his arrival in the summer, struggled for form over the festive period. Torreira has been on the bench for the last two league games, but will surely return against Chelsea.
"Sometimes he is with a good performance, sometimes he is with a worse performance," said Emery, hinting that Torreira had been dropped rather than rested.
Emery's issues with personnel are reflective of a wider problem for a club that is unable - or unwilling - to compete with the biggest sides when it comes to transfer spending. With club owner Stan Kroenke not investing his own money any time soon (they can only sign players on loan during this transfer window) Arsenal must be doubly efficient on and off the field.
The signings of Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi reflect this need to think outside the box, but the man tasked with leading this charge, head of recruitment Sven Mislintat, is set to leave the club after seeing his influence wane following the surprise departure of chief executive Ivan Gazidis last year.
Mislintat's unhappiness speaks to the ongoing upheaval behind the scenes, although it is understood that his relationship with the other leading powers at the club has by no means broken beyond repair.
Can the same be said for Emery's relationship with Mesut Ozil? For all the turbulence elsewhere, the Ozil saga remains the most compelling storyline of Arsenal's season.
The club's highest-paid player has turned out for just 155 minutes of league football since November 11, and was once again dropped from the squad last week.
Ozil was not deemed suitable for matches against Bournemouth and West Ham, so it is naturally hard to see him starting against Chelsea. That said, tonight provides the perfect setting for Ozil to show he is worth the £350,000-a-week contract that has put so much strain on the club's wage bill.
"This team can play with Mesut in a good performance," Emery said. "And also without him in a good performance." With or without Ozil, Emery knows that Arsenal will need a big improvement tonight.
© Daily Telegraph, London