The football is back today (along with yours truly) and, much as I like to avoid the cliched phrase, we really do have to win this one. Spurs scraped past Twatford yesterday to open up a 3-point lead on the Gunners (naturally, having played a game more) while City went down to Leicester at the Etihad, in quite spectacular fashion. It means a win today will see Arsenal leapfrog Pellegrini’s men and settle in 3rd, behind Spurs on goal difference only. We’ll still be behind league leaders Leicester by 5 points.
However, right now I see little sense in talking about Arsenal’s title chances. Before we can do that, Arsenal will have to string together a couple of wins and, indeed, score some goals, a feat that eluded them for the past three league games. Our winless run is even longer – 4 games.
I’m not inclined to blame the Gunners today, though. I was fuming when we have drawn vs Southampton, however a couple of days of mulling the whole situation over did what it always does: allow some perspective to be gained. The draws vs Liverpool and Stoke, while disappointing, are indeed two good points, something I’ve stated pre-Chelsea. Were it not for the fact these were back-to-back draws, I’m sure the fans wouldn’t have kicked up such a fuss.
The loss against Chelsea was infuriating alright, but here I’m with Marcotti, who said post-Southampton (can thoroughly recommend the article as a whole, by the way):
“Truth be told, you really worry when you’re not creating chances or when you’re conceding far too many. Some of the stuff that went against Arsenal in the past few games — superhuman keeper efforts, stupid red cards from World Cup-winning veterans, last-ditch equalisers — is down to those things that we don’t like to talk about: happenstance and luck.”
We were fiendishly unlucky not to score against Southampton, while what Mertesacker did was just astonishing, something you wouldn’t normally expect from him (it was just the second red card Mert received in an Arsenal shirt in the Premier League – in 143 appearances!) So, after a couple of days of deliberation I came to the conclusion that our recent run, while highly frustrating, is mostly down to happenstance and luck (or rather, lack of thereof). It’s not worth losing your head over it, calling for wholesale changes, however it’s also obvious we have to pick ourselves up today if we are to catch Leicester who are pulling away dangerously, having already faced Spurs, Liverpool and City – and beaten them all.
Team news update
There’s basically nothing to report on that front. Mertesacker is of course back from his suspension (indeed he was back for Southampton, I wonder whether starting Gabriel was a means to punishing the German for his rash challenge on the cheating Costa). Welbeck played 60 minutes for U21s, but I doubt we’ll see him make the squad today. Leicester is a more realistic return date, maybe even Hull in the cup.
Jack and Santi remain sidelined, the former should return end of February, the latter end of March. And of course we have to count out Tomas Rosicky, who has suffered a set-back on his return vs Burnley.
It’s heartbreaking, truth be told. It was the word Tomas himself used when talking about this set-back and this is the one which I think best describes the whole situation. Tomas is not only one of our current longest-serving players, his status is that of a club legend. He is almost revered by the fans, something he understands and acknowledges himself. And now it looks like his Arsenal career will fizzle out with the Czech sidelined and not in the thick of things. This is not something he deserves. Furthermore, it doesn’t look like Tomas will get a Premier League medal should we win the title (unless he plays at least 5 games, that is):
“The League Champions shall further receive 40 commemorative medals to be presented by the Club to its Manager and to such of its Players and Officials as it thinks fit provided that any Player who has entered the field of play in a minimum of 5 of its League Matches that Season shall receive from the Club a commemorative medal. ” – Premier League handbook
A very sad situation indeed. The quickest of recoveries to Tomas, I hope he returns in time to play the required number of games, or, at the very least, in time for his testimonial.
The talking point after our Southampton draw was the midfield balance. The general consensus remains that a Flamsey axis is ill-prepared for a sustained period of successful performances. A lot of column inches were dedicated to the matter, so I won’t dwell on the subject myself again. I’ll just point you to two articles on the subject I liked best – one from Tim Stillman, the other from Jane Cavendish, both quite brilliant.
I’ll just say that a Ramsey-Coquelin duo seems our best bet for now and I’ll be hugely surprised and disgruntled if we don’t see them start together later today. Though I must admit the idea of pairing Coquelin with Elneny and moving Ramsey back on the right makes sense if Wenger is looking for minimal changes to the set-up in Cazorla’s absence. Question is whether Elneny is ready for the Premier League and if he is, can he shoulder Cazorla’s burden. At the moment it looks like the answer to both questions is “no”.
Apart from the midfield balance (which is the most important riddle for Arsene to solve), there are still a couple of selection dilemmas. For one, as I’ve stated above, I’m highly interested in how long Mertesacker’s exile will last.
Then we have the question of who plays on the right. Oxlade, having put in a good performance vs Burnley, wasn’t rewarded with a start vs Southampton, so I doubt he’ll start today. Walcott looks even less of a solution, especially with his finishing hitting an all-time low. However it doesn’t look like Campbell was entirely convincing too. Three candidates and none look perfectly alright.
Finally, there’s a case to be made for Theo up front. Yes, I know I’ve just put him down, and I had reason to, but our best spell this year came with Theo playing centre-forward. He brings the best out of Alexis Sanchez (for starters), but he can also rediscover his form there, so who knows?
Predicted line-up: Cech – Bellerin – Gabriel – Koscileny – Monreal – Coquelin – Ramsey – Ozil – Campbell – Alexis – Giroud
Bournemouth look a mixed bag right now: since losing to us in December, the Cherries won 4, drawn 2 and lost 1 (home loss to West Ham). However, they are doing very well for a team keen to avoid relegation, not the least because of their ambition in the transfer market: Iturbe and Afobe are a testament to that.
No doubt we’ll have to work hard today to get a win. However a win is absolutely essential. Let’s hope we break our spell today.
Come on you Gunners.