It’s now or never for the Gunners in a chase for top 4: #NLD preview

It’s the early kick-off for the North London derby today, as Arsenal play what will be their last league game for almost three weeks. Certainly a space oddity if you ask me, but it’s down to cup games in-between.

It won’t be three weeks of rest for the Gunners of course, because Wenger’s men still have two matches against Ostersunds crammed inside one week, plus the cherry on top in the form of Manchester City in the league cup final. However I expect a degree of rotation at least for the games in Sweden.

More to the point though, first we have to deal with Pochettino’s men at Wembley. Right now the Gunners are 4 points adrift the 5th-placed Spurs, and it’s hard to see how either manager don’t view it as an opportunity. Lose, and we are seven points away with 11 games left. Win, and it’s just a solitary point between the two.

Much has been made of our terrible away form recently (and not without good reason too: we lost two in a row in the league), but playing at Wembley shouldn’t feel as much of an away game. It’s certainly much closer to home as Bournemouth and Swansea, and preferable to White Hart Lane too.

I’d absolutely dig this celebration again today

While Poch’s men has certainly improved at their temporary home ground (unbeaten in 12 games, winning 8), the Gunners are no slouches at Wembley either, coming out on top in the last 9 matches there, albeit twice on penalties. Feels like a perfect opportunity to bet on the Gunners, doesn’t it? Go ahead and do so at Team FA, a place for your Premier League betting tips, news and daily articles all rolled in one.

At this point it is stupid to deny there is no issue with how we play away, whatever Arsene may say. With just three wins in 13 games, and six losses, we sit 9th in the away table, behind Burnley, Leicester and even Watford with their exemplary captain. The contrast with home form is stark: just one loss in 13 and 2 draws – only City have a better points haul.

Our issues can only be psychological. Yes, away matches are generally harder for a variety of reasons, but they are not THAT much harder. We can only hope getting rid of Alexis and his histrionics, while acquiring Auba and tying down Ozil will be give this squad a moral boost. And the fact we are not playing at an away ground, strictly speaking.

Those two have certainly provided a boost

Team news update

We are once again edging towards the clean bill of health territory. Barring poor Santi, it looks like everyone else can be available, with some doubts only over Cech’s fitness:

“Basically, we should have a similar squad to what we had last week against Everton. Maybe Danny Welbeck will be back. We had a few problems with Petr Cech, who we are not sure about at the moment because he’s not trained. I don’t know if he will be available. Nacho Monreal looks alright again. It should be a similar squad.”Arsene Wenger

It appears all three of Welbeck, Monreal and Cech trained, though the latter for the first time this week. Which naturally lends itself to the line of thinking he won’t be available. I’m almost hoping he won’t, to be fair, for two reasons:

  1. I don’t want him to go into this game half-ready and make a costly blunder
  2. I’m at a point where I’d really like Ospina to be given a chance before he leaves in the summer. Cech is not going to get better, rubbing Ospina the right way can only make our job easier come June

Big Dave to continue between the sticks?

Squad

I would expect Ospina to start, though Wenger’s trust in Cech is such (misplaced already, I think) that the experienced shot-stopper may still be given the nod, despite only having one day of training at best.

It will be interesting to see whether the Frenchman goes with three of four at the back. Our 2-0 win back in November featured a back three, with Kolasinac at left wing-back, so a case certainly can be made to replicate that.

It was a very disciplined performance from the Gunners and it will be hard to replicate with a back four, in my opinion. We look exceptionally leaky with four at the back, home and away, against big teams and small. The reason for that is, of course, full-backs pushing up and leaving space in behind to exploit, space just two centre-backs have to cover in case of emergency.

So I’d put my money on a back three, with Koscielny. Mustafi and Monreal. Who plays at LWB is another question. It was telling how AMN came on for Nacho against Crystal Palace, plus Wenger has trusted the youngster in big games already this season.

AMN to start another big game?

Personally I’m not sure it’s wise to thrust AMN in the frying pan for the derby, but I just can’t know how ready Kolasinac is. He had an awful run of form prior to being dropped, and occasional cameos did little to convince he has found his feet. I’d back AMN to start.

An extra defender means one of our midfielders will have to make way and this is the tricky part. Putting in Wilshere for Iwobi would be obvious if we are going with a back four, but I’m not sure we are. Also, I’m not entirely sure it’s a game which suits Xhaka. This is the part where I rue Coquelin’s sale.

No one in this current squad can do what he did best. The only way we can add the much-needed security to central midfield is plumping for Elneny, however the Egyptian is just not that good a sweeper as Coquelin.

Moreover, I’m pretty certain that starting both Miki and Ozil is suicide. We can’t afford to have two defensive passengers in a game where we spend a lion’s share of the 90 minutes with our backs to the wall. Then again, who do you drop? The guy who just signed a new contract, or the guy who just SIGNED? Toughie.

Can you drop this guy?

I’m almost tempted to suggest something like a 3-5-2, with Elneny, Ramsey and Wilshere forming a flat three, and one of Ozil/Mkhitaryan playing a nominal second forward out of possession. What are the odds of Wenger doing something like this?

The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t doubt Wenger understands we need greater defensive security, but how he decides to implement it is a different matter entirely. The boss has been hard to second-guess in big games this season. So I’ll poke and hope.

Starting XI: Ospina – Koscielny – Mustafi – Monreal – Bellerin – Xhaka – Ramsey – AMN – Ozil – Mkhitaryan – Aubameyang

The verdict

There’s a lot at stake today. We are already in a really tough spot with regards to finishing in the top four, in no small part thanks to consecutive losses to Bournemouth and Swansea. The only thing keeping us afloat are Chelsea consecutive defeats and some draws from Spurs.

If we lose today, that’s it. In a league as competitive as it is this season, with such a crap away record, we won’t be able to overcome the 7-8 point gap which will invariably open up between us and the fourth team.

A bit like Liverpool with Spurs earlier in the week, both teams come in with a realisation they simply can’t afford to lose, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a draw, however a draw is not much better for us. We somehow have to contrive and win this one.

And look, it’s not that I don’t have faith in this team. I have seen them demolish Palace and Everton in consecutive games. Clearly there’s talent and quality in this squad. We are not as bad as our away form suggests, far from it. We just need to remind ourselves of that.

So come on you Gunners. It’s now or never.

Back with a review

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