Matchday №26 is looming large (in fact it’s already upon us at the time of me writing this), however, I think I won’t make a grave mistake by assuming most eyes will be fixed on Sunday’s fixtures and not so much on Saturday’s.
It is understandable: the top 4 teams are playing one another on February 14th, with Arsenal hosting Leicester and Spurs visiting City. Journalists this week have been mostly focused on the former game, marvelling at Leicester’s meteoric rise and wondering if their current run of form is sustainable.
The good of it is that it takes some of the heat off Arsenal. No disrespect to Ranieri’s men, but I couldn’t understand the logic of those writers piping up the Foxes as favourites for this top-of-the-table clash. Leicester have been great, they have only suffered one loss since going down to us in September (a fluke 1-0 away at Liverpool too), however it still beats me how Arsenal can be viewed as the underdogs on home soil to ANY team in the league. We have lost at home this season, yes, (twice in the league), but both losses were, if I’m to borrow Arsene’s phrase “under very special circumstances” and on both occasions we were the favourites prior to kick-off.
Team news update
What is more, our ranks have been growing increasingly, erm, swelly (is that a word?), what with Coquelin and Alexis finally making their way back to full fitness. Welbeck should also return soon, though I doubt it will be against Leicester:
“I think he is very close. Fitness-wise he is there, it is just competition he misses. It is a bit early for him maybe but he is now back to full power in training. It is a big possibility [he could be involved against Hull next week]. We gave him one or two days recovery after the under-21 game, but now he is back in full training. He has worked very hard and he is fit”.
With Cazorla and Wilshere “it’s a question of weeks”, though these weeks look like they’ll eventually stack up to a month:
“They are back running, they are on a fitness programme now so it means it is not a question of months anymore, it is a question of weeks for them to be back. I can’t count on them in the next three or four weeks”.
And of course poor Tomas Rosicky remains on the sidelines with no return date as of yet, which means he’s not close to one. Alas.
However the recent inclusion of Alex Iwobi in the senior squad means we now have 22 players to count on, the imminent return of Welbz will make it 23 and that’s great to hear. It means Arsene will have to omit 5 players from matchday squads on a regular basis and only Iwobi looks the fall guy for now.
I think a maximum of two changes is in order: Coquelin for Flamini (should have done it, like, three weeks ago) and Walcott for Giroud. Oh, and maybe Campbell for Oxlade, but that’s not even a hunch, more of a personal preference based on the opposition we are facing.
The other selection dilemma is the Gabriel/Mertesacker decision, but I get the feeling we’ll see Gabriel start once more:
“Sometimes I use a different formula. Per Mertesacker is a great leader, a very respected one in our dressing room, but I have three centre backs and I adapt a little bit to their level of form, to the number of games they’ve played and to the opponents we play against. What are their strengths and where can they hurt us?”
Update: it looks like Gabriel’s participation is under question owing to a possible thigh injury. If he’s not fit to play, then there’s of course no question regarding who will.
Coquelin for Flamini seems an obvious one. Neither are going to solve our midfield control problems, so the choice boils down to who is better at what they do best. We have a clear winner here and it’s not the billionaire playboy. Unless, of course, Wenger springs a surprise and pulls Arteta out of his hat or hands Elneny his PL debut. Think we can safely forget about poor old Chambers’ chances at this point.
Walcott for Giroud is much less obvious. Yes, our handsome Frenchman hasn’t scored since the game at Anfield, but then Walcott’s last goal happened even longer ago, in December. Since then he has done little to convince anyone he is the answer (regardless of what the question is). Two things speak in his favour, though: Theo’s ability to turn up for big games in a big way and the fact Alexis seems much more comfortable with the Englishman up front. However, Theo’s recent form is abysmal in the extreme, so I, for one, would be mightily surprised to see him start.
And finally, we have the task of guessing the manager’s thinking on the Oxlade/Campbell subject. Personally, I’d start Joel over Alex, seeing as he offers better protection to Bellerin and I’m sure Bellerin will need all the help he can get to contain Vardy. Especially if Mertesacker starts and Hector will be instructed to sit tight so as not to expose Per’s lack of pace.
However, I think Ox is the more likely of the two to play from the first minutes. His recent escapades (an assist vs Burnley and a well-taken goal vs Bournemouth) surely have put him back into Arsene’s thinking:
“I’m convinced that that will give him appetite to score more, to give more assists and to go more in the final third, where he can be deadly.
You cannot imagine when you look at Alex that he will not score goals. He has power, pace, technique, finishing.
I believe that only he maybe did not believe enough that he can score. That will convince him and hopefully it’s the start of many more.”
Oxlade starting offers another dimension to our attack, as he is a very good dribbler and is likely to be much more useful than Campbell against teams sitting deep (something Leicester will undoubtedly do). Furthermore, he is one of the few natural wingers we have, one who sticks to the wing often and this in itself is another useful quality against the Foxes, who prefer to play narrowly and vertically, thus leaving space on the flanks.
But Oxlade will have to be very conscientious about his defensive duties. As I’ve said, Bellerin will require help to stop Vardy. If it doesn’t materialise, we may find ourselves in a difficult position indeed.
Predicted line-up: Cech – Bellerin – Gabriel – Koscielny – Monreal – Coquelin – Ramsey – Oxlade – Ozil – Alexis – Giroud
It is quite clear how the teams will set up initially, if not for the most part/the entirety of the game. Wenger sums it up here pretty well:
“They (Leicester) are more cautious at the moment. They play a lot in their final third and come out very quickly.
Look at the number of direct balls from their half to the opponents’ half. They are higher than anyone else because they have Vardy on his way straight away when they win the ball – they do it very well. They suck you in and go very quickly in the opponents’ half. At the time they were a bit more all going. Today they are a bit more ‘let’s sit here and use our strengths’ in a very efficient way, which is what they did remarkably well against Manchester City.
We will try of course to stop their counter-attacking. But at home you have to express your strengths and our strength is to have the ball. We have to try to express our strengths and as well try to stop them from hitting us on the break.”
We know what to expect, the question is, how we deal with it when it comes. That’s a question most Premier League teams have been unable to find an effective answer to this season. Indeed, I think only one team can be said to have had some joy against the Foxes in 2015-2016.
That team is Arsenal and that’s what makes me that bit calmer about the upcoming game. Yes, Leicester have evolved since then, Ranieri has adapted their approach, tweaked it enough for Leicester to go on an amazing run of 16 games with only one defeat in it. But it’s still comforting that we’ve already dealt with the Foxes once (efficiently too). It’s a precedent. Which means we can do it for the second time.
So come on you Gunners.
Back with a review