Arsenal and Chelsea are both unbeaten, but when the two London giants clash at the Emirates tomorrow (7:30 a.m. ET, ESPN 2) the most dangerous seats in the house may be those directly behind the goals. Both teams have been uncharacteristically profligate in attack this season. Chelsea have mustered a mediocre 24 shots on target. Arsenal's shooting accuracy percentage is 27.1 percent, bettering only the woefully uncalibrated Wigan, West Ham, Reading and Liverpool.
Although Roberto Di Matteo's team rode winning ugly all the way to Champions League glory last May, owner Roman Abramovich has made it clear he is judging the club by a different, more aesthetic standard this season. His desire hovers above every performance, creating an unrealistic sense of expectation. As a result, few teams have given their fans more to fret about while going top of the table. Di Matteo could be forgiven for internally channeling the sentiment of then-Brazil coach, Carlos Parreira, who vented his frustration to domestic critics in 2006, asking "Why do Brazil have to play beautifully and the others don't?"
This Arsenal team, meanwhile, have been the antithesis of Arsene Wenger's familiar style. Though defensively stubborn, conceding just two goals, they have appeared oddly shorn of composure in the final third of the field.
Both teams have been bruised by a sense of loss: Chelsea by the impending short-term absence of John Terry on disciplinary grounds; Arsenal by the curdling insecurity catalyzed by the departure of Robin van Persie. Last week, both teams needed late strikes by defenders to bail them out of games. Ashley Cole popped up in front of goal to pierce Stoke's resistance; Laurent Koscielny lashed the ball past Joe Hart to salvage a richly deserved point at Manchester City.
As a result, Saturday's game is about more than the three points on offer. Chelsea will meet heavyweight opposition in the Premier League for the first time this season. The West Londoners will seek to eradicate lingering memories of their only real test this season, the Champions League opener against Juventus, from which they stumbled away unconvincingly with a 2-2 draw.
Top of the table they may be, yet on the field, the Blues carry the stink of an outfit built to pummel their opponents with size and power. Though Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard (responsible for seven of Chelsea's nine league goals with 1 goal and 6 assists) can provide elements of the fast-thinking, fleet-footed football Abramovich is said to crave, the pieces are yet to meld. Chelsea remain a team in transition. Too often, watching them is akin to flipping between two radio stations on a road trip.
Arsenal struggled in August but proceeded to dismantle both Liverpool and Southampton before battling defending champions City with gusto. Reports of their demise upon van Persie's departure now appear greatly exaggerated.
With Mikel Arteta imperiously imposing himself from a deep-lying position, Abou Diaby charging forward with his signature leggy energy, and the mischievous Santi Cazorla leading the league in passes crafted in the final third, the midfield have played with the joyful naivete of Dumbo upon learning to fly. A win against their London rivals will affirm their true stature as credible title-challengers in a season in which all of their competitors appear deeply flawed.
For all the attack-minded talent taking the field, neither team can boast a goal scorer ranked in the league's top 10. Despite the mounds of cash both teams have invested to boost their offensive capabilities, they are currently shamed by the likes of Southampton's $1.7 million signing Rickie Lambert and Swansea's early-season $3.2 million sensation Michu.
Arsene Wenger has admitted that the plan for replacing RvP's 30 league goals is to split the scoring burden and “share it around a bit." New arrival Lukas Podolski, who leads the team with two goals, may feel comfortable enough to contemplate having the Arsenal crest tattooed onto his right arm but $21.1 million summer signing Olivier Giroud is yet to score in the league.
The Frenchman opened his account with a cultivated chip in the Capital One Cup against League One side Coventry City during a 6-1 demolition. He also fluffed a penalty, valiantly admitting that the presence of two English strippers who invaded the field clad only in their underwear did not contribute to his error. Wenger focused on the positive after the game, professing postmatch, "It was a good finish … at the moment I believe he is looking for confidence and that goal will help him.”
The savvy Wenger neglected to mention that Giroud's lack of confidence could have been reinforced by watching the pitiful Gervinho selected ahead of him against Manchester City. The Ivorian exhibited a display so lax, it bordered on the ironic.
In his early-season performances, Giroud has appeared out of sync, like a man eager to deliver a spoken-word performance while the rest of his teammates sing a tender choral arrangement. Wenger will hope this lack of form can be attributed to the Premier League learning curve. After scoring this week, Giroud admitted he had suffered from a lack of confidence. “The fact I hadn't scored played in my head... [the goal] lifts the weight off my shoulders,” he told the press. “This must be the beginning of a beautiful adventure.”
Giroud's opposite number, Fernando Torres, is another fragile psyche for whom the Capital One Cup offered a brief yet welcome respite. The Spaniard chipped in with a header during Chelsea's 6-0 romp over Wolves. He could, in truth, have scored a handful more.
Last week against Stoke, Torres appeared glumly inconsistent, as if experiencing every touch as an attempt to rekindle his self-confidence. The striker has scored just nine times in 51 league games for Chelsea -- a goal count equal to the number of eager proclamations that his form is “back.” He is fast becoming football's equivalent of the Black Orlov Diamond, cursing all those who manage him.
Last season, Torres conceded he suffered from a lack of confidence so crippling he became too "scared" to move into scoring positions for fear of failing. Back then, the powerful Ivorian Didier Drogba picked up the slack. Drogba has since moved to Shanghai Shenhua in China. Last Saturday, at the very same time Chelsea labored against Stoke, Drogba netted for his new club, triggering both a wave of nostalgia among Chelsea fans and a sense of absence.
Upon striking the winning penalty in the Champions League final, Drogba described the security of his mindset. "I was confident … I wanted to score for my teammates. I wanted to make Chelsea smile.”
If either Arsenal or Chelsea can field a striker with an iota of that self-assurance, they will move from blunt force to true threat.
Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN and, with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter: @rogbennett.