So, after a two-week international borefest (made worse tenfold by the events in Paris), the real football is back. The players are returning, none of ours seem to do so in pieces and the next break is four months away. Four months of uninterrupted football at club level.
The weekend will kick off with Watford hosting a United side with Martial, Fellaini, Carrick and Rooney, but, naturally, our eyes will be trained on Arsenal. The Gunners take on West Bromwich away at the Hawthorns and this one for me has a distinct feeling of playing Stoke or Palace away, back when Pulis, now the manager at WBA, headed these clubs. I’m pretty sure we’ll be up against a physical side, concentrated more on time-wasting antics than playing actual football, and this is something we’ll have to work around. For a better understanding of what West Brom can offer, I thoroughly recommend you to check out this article by @7amkickoff. Fascinating stuff.
For now, though, I’ll try to figure out what we can offer. The first bit of business is, per usual, finding out the personnel at Arsene’s disposal.
Team news update
The only one back is Hector Bellerin. Ramsey and the Ox should be back on Monday though (I presume back in contention, for they have been training with the main group for a while now). Further news which I find a bit alarming concern Theo Walcott, about whom Wenger said:
“He is doing well, he could be a bit ahead of schedule but still you count a few weeks more”.
Which means Giroud remains our only option for the time being and I hope the Gunners faithful will back him fully (naive from me, right?). We should also factor in Giroud can be not quite in the state of mind to play football right now, same applies to Koscielny, whom Wenger mentioned in the presser:
“I will talk with him. It’s a big game for us. I have not talked to him yet, but I will talk to him to see if he’s completely recovered and focused.”
I do hope however both Frenchmen are okay, we badly need them. It sounds selfish, I know, but Giroud is our only real option at centre-forward, while Kos is simply undroppable. Yes, I know we have Gabriel, though as someone rightly pointed out to me, the Brazilian doesn’t seem to be particularly effective alongside Mertesacker. My gut feeling too.
Quite frankly, we have a good recent history against the Baggies, losing only 2 games out of the last 19 (away) and losing none of the last 9 (home and away). Moreover, we have a near-impeccable away record this season, winning 5 of our 6 games, which includes 3 out of the last three with a goal difference of +9 (11 scored, 2 conceded). Not surprisingly the online bookmakers have made is firm favourites and our away record id the best in the Premier League
This is coupled with West Brom’s atrocious home form this season, winning only one game and drawing another. West Brom are also a direct opposite to us attacking-wise: they attempt the fewest shots per game (at 9.5) which led to them finding the back of the net only ten times (league low, tied with Villa and Stoke), while we attempt the joint-most shots (at 18.4), though sit only fourth in goals scored with 22 (behind City, Leicester and, surprisingly, West Ham). That can partially be explained by our wastefulness in front of goal early on.
We are like chalk and cheese with West Brom, simply put. Their game is all about defending in numbers, time-wasting and staying up, while we prefer expansive attacking style of play and fight for major honours.
Arsene has quite a few things to ponder. Firstly, should he give Alexis a rest? The Chilean played 8 games in 31 days, featured in both international matches and looked jaded in the extreme even before he went away. As Tim Stillman brilliantly put it, Alexis is surviving rather than living right now. He surely will need a breather at some point, now seems as good a time as any. Better than during the Boxing Day frenzy anyway.
However, I won’t be surprised should Alexis both start and play the entire game. The reason is simple: we don’t have enough options up front to give Sanchez a break. Unless we want to try something radical at the Hawthorns, like Ozil on the right and Campbell on the left, I don’t think we’ll see Alexis omitted from the starting XI. Wenger is more likely to do so on Tuesday, by which time we should have both Ramsey and Oxlade back.
Another question is Campbell. I know it’s kind of stupid to say we lack options up front to continue playing Sanchez and then going on to ponder whether Joel should be involved, but I still think him starting is a res judicata. Why? Because I think it’s fair to say the Costa-Rican hasn’t blown us away with his performances. Him on the right is a mixed back: Joel is worse at dribbling than the Ox, but he is also less involved in the build-up than Ramsey. That explains why he’ll go back to being third-choice upon the return of Rambo and Ox, unless he pulls of a worldie of a performance.
In the light of Bellerin’s return, coupled with Debuchy getting back into form (something that shouldn’t come as a surprise, we know the Frenchman is a better player than his performances this season suggested), I wonder whether Arsene might be tempted to use Bellerin as a winger. The Spaniard will give us some directness, which the squad without Wilshere, Rosicky, Oxlade and, potentially, Alexis badly lacks, while such a role is not altogether unfamiliar to him.
Such a scenario still seems a bit far-fetched, though. At least it possesses an element of surprise and allows us to have an attacking option (Campbell) on the bench.
Finally, Arsene should decide on the mental state of our Frenchmen and Cazorla’s levels of exhaustion. I discussed Ollie and Kos above, so won’t stop on them here. Cazorla will most likely play, seeing as the international break wasn’t too challenging. Santi featured as a sub against England (scored a lovely goal too), while the game against Belgium was called off. As a result our diminutive playmaker returned a bit earlier.
Predicted line-up: Cech – Bellerin – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Monreal – Coquelin – Cazorla – Ozil – Campbell – Alexis – Giroud
We have a very good chance to do what we failed to before the break: go top of the league. United have a tricky away game at Watford, while City face a much sterner test in Klopp-led Liverpool. Leicester have an easier ride (Newcastle), so as much as wanting to go top, tomorrow should also be about ensuring we don’t fall behind.
Here’s to the three points later on. Come on you Gunners