It’s been a gloomy couple of days for the Arsenal faithful. Earlier in the week Guardian reported Cazorla suffered knee ligament damage, which is likely to keep our ambidextrous regista sidelined for around three months. This news, coupled with a long-term injury to Coquelin, means our central midfield pairing of choice for almost the entire calendar year is out of the equation.
I won’t go into detail why this is bad. I’ll simply leave you in the safe hands of @7amkickoff, who examines just why this unlikely duo is one of the best in the league and why it will be fiendishly hard to replicate what they do with different personnel.
The other bit of news that has people worried is Alexis’s injury. Varying reports say the Chilean will be out for the period of 3-4 weeks, which is not that bad, I guess. I mean, there’s nothing pleasant in losing one of your leaders, but at least that way he’ll get a much-needed break and won’t miss a lot of football. The only team which can cause us real trouble before January 13th (the Liverpool game) is Manchester City on the 21st of December. Naturally, I would prefer (as all Arsenal fans would) if Alexis were fit for the game, but if he isn’t, there’s no point in rushing him back. Word has it the Chilean traveled to his home town to get some R&R (and treatment, of course).
There was a hailstorm of criticism coming Wenger’s way in the immediate aftermath of the Norwich game, but I was still a bit surprised our manager stood up and defended his decision elaborately. Maybe it has something to do with today’s presser being public.
“We have medical tests. We are quite sophisticated in testing our players. I had a chat with Alexis after his injury and he was adamant he felt perfect before the game because we tested his strength, stretching, all the signs we test every week were perfect. There was no obvious sign or alert before the game – it happened, do I have to take the blame? I do, but there was not an obvious mistake to select him before the game.”
As they often do, Wenger’s arguments make sense. There’s a certain type of people who would have been dissatisfied anyway. Imagine we rested Alexis and lost/drew the game. I’m certain some would have said we should have risked Alexis, especially since he had a marvellous performance in midweek and a five-day-break after it.
Arsene gave no update on Wilshere, Rosicky and Welbeck, so here we can only hope for the best. The best being Jack in the squad around mid-December (maybe the City game he can make?), Rosicky early January and Welbeck around mid-January. Here’s to their respective returns on time.
Meanwhile, we have an actual game of football to get on with. If you fancy a bit of reading as to why we suffer injury crises each year, you can check out my own thoughts on the matter, or these of my colleague. Fascinating stuff from him. I’ll get back to the task at hand, though.
Team news update
We can’t count on any of those I’ve mentioned above, naturally, but there is a chance Gibbs, Koscielny and Walcott will make the squad:
“The players injured in the last two weeks will not play tomorrow and who is back maybe in the squad could be Laurent Koscielny and Theo Walcott. That will be a decision tomorrow morning (Friday).”
Gibbs’ availability Arsene addressed earlier. Seeing as all three took part in full training today, I expect them to make the squad, the question is in which capacity. By the way, Arsene didn’t have anything concrete to say about Arteta, which is a bit worrying, so add the Spaniard to his compatriot Santi, and also Alexis, Jack, Rosicky, Welbeck and Coquelin on the injured list.
The optimist in me wants to count in Kos, Gibbs and Theo, so I’ll just go ahead and do that. It means we’ll have an 18-man squad and can put together a decent bench on top of a decent starting XI. I wonder whether we can find a place for Jeff, though. Otherwise our bench will look defense-heavy with no nominal midfielders on it.
Supposing Theo does come back, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be reinstated straight away. We don’t want to rush a player who spent 6 weeks on the sidelines and on whom we’ll be dependent in Alexis’ absence to bang in some goals in the coming weeks. That means another start for Joel Campbell. Not the most exciting of prospects, but our options really are limited.
However, I’m also interested in whether Theo’s return means he’ll start games on the right consistently, upon regaining match sharpness. As Tim Stillman nicely put it, playing Oxlade, Theo, and Ramsey in their respective positions provides us with “plenty of ebb but not much in the way of flow”. In simple terms, it means we have quite a few players who are good at dribbling or off-the-ball movement, but aren’t that good at setting a rhythm to our game. This heavy burden will fall on the shoulders of Mesut Ozil and I fear this is too big an ask even for him. Arsene will have to come up with something, though, as none of our pace-setters (Cazorla, Arteta, Rosicky and Wilshere) are currently available.
What that means for Theo, however, is that I see him rotating with Giroud, but not on the wing. Though I’d say having Oxlade and Theo either side of him with Ramsey making runs from the deep is heaven for Olivier Giroud and his clever flicks, we run the risk of unbalancing the side this way.
Another question regarding our line-up tomorrow and in the near future is whether Arsene is willing to give Calum Chambers a shot in the middle of the park. The Englishman completed 90 minutes in this position for the U21s in midweek, maybe it was a kind of preparation of what’s to come.
I doubt Wenger sees it as a long-term solution and will be highly surprised if he’s not looking at the market in search of holding midfielders, but who knows? If the lightning really does strike twice and Calum excels in midfield, it’ll be way easier to find a good centre-back in January than it will be to find a central midfielder.
With that sorted, here’s my provisional line-up: Cech – Bellerin – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Monreal – Flamini – Ramsey – Ozil – Oxlade – Campbell – Giroud
Approach and head-to-head
Why do I get the feeling every time I write a head-to-head section we can’t seem to get a result which would have been logical looking at the stats?
Anyway, the best bit I can give you is that Sunderland has never beaten Arsenal at our place in the Premier League – that means in 14 games, of which the Black Cats lost 9. The Gunners are also unbeaten against Sunderland in 11 league games, winning 7. Something that is even more satisfying, Sam Allardyce has lost 7 consecutive away games against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. The fat bastard.
And now the bad news. Of the 7 last home game against the Black Cats, 4 ended in goalless draws. Moreover, we are not exactly firing on all cylinder at the Emirates this year, scoring just 8 goals in 6 games, though we have only lost one during that run – the opening-day defeat to West Ham. Furthermore, we are on a winless streak of three games, while Sunderland have won the last two, something which allowed them to climb out of the relegation zone.
What approach will they take and what can we do about it? I’m pretty sure Fat Sam will order his men to get behind the ball and restrict space. Unfortunately, this might just work. As @7amkickoff points out in his “By the numbers” section, teams seem to have found us out. They restrict space and watch us try and break them down. Were it not for our newfound defensive fragility it might not have been such a big deal, but that’s not the case, alas. Twice in our last two games we allowed our opponents back into the contest after scoring first, dropping points on both occasions. These were the first points dropped from winning positions since our loss at White Hart Lane in February. Before that, only the Swansea game in November comes to mind.
Tim offers two solutions: individual skill (i.e. dribbling) and distance shots (“poke and hope” as he dubs it and I have to agree that’s not really a solution. Without Jack, Alexis and Cazorla we’ll be hard-pressed to implement the former, though.
There is a silver lining, however. In Oxlade-Chamberlain, we have the best dribbler at Arsenal, I kid you not. He averaged 3.6 successful dribbles per game in 2014/2015, which amounts to a 67% rate. That’s more dribbles per game than Sanchez (3.3) and Cazorla (2.4), though the Spaniard has a slightly higher success rate at 72%.
However, it’s where the dribbles were made that’s important and, though I don’t have the numbers to back it, I’m pretty sure Cazorla attempted most of his in the middle of the park (he is an escape valve, remember?), while the Ox dribbles in the final third mostly. Or carries the ball from the deep, but you get the idea.
It feels like it will be another game where the opponent sits back and restricts space while we try to pry them open. The question is whether we have learned from our past two games and whether we’ll get the needed result if we did.
Fingers crossed, I’ll say “yes” in answer to both questions come tomorrow 5 p.m.