Soon the international break will finally be over and Premier League football returns and the upcoming encounter with Southampton will tell a lot about the way Arsène Wenger wants the team to play, this season.
Against Liverpool, Leicester City and Watford it was mainly the fitness levels that dictated the line-up, with some key players still recovering from their Euro 2016 duties and others battling to be fit after a summer disrupted by minor injuries and niggles; now that we’re three weeks into the new season, it will be all about tactics and team chemistry.
We have Lucas Pérez and Skhodran Mustafi ready to make their debuts, Olivier Giroud battling to win his place back and Rob Holding pushing to retain his spot in the starting XI after two solid performances against poisonous strikers like Vardy, Deeney and Ighalo – Arsène Wenger already has some big decisions to make.
Southampton is an extremely well-organized team, they might have lost a great manager in Ronald Koeman but Claude Puel is highly rated in European football and will surely give continuity and consistency to the team, possibly enhancing the defensive part of their setup, compared to the former manager.
The Saints are still without a win but I wouldn’t write them off too quickly: they lost important players like Mané and Wanyama so they need time for their new arrivals to gel but I don’t question the ability of Hojberg, Austin, Boufal and Redmond to make an impact in the league, so the Arsenal should really not underestimate Claude Puel’s men when they arrive at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
Anyway I digress so let’s get back to the Gunners. So far, Arsène Wenger has continued his on his three-years on and off experiment of playing Alexis Sánchez upfront and, while the initial results weren’t really encouraging against Liverpool and Leicester City, the Chilean was in scintillating form against Watford. Surely he was helped by the presence of Mesut Özil behind him and the continuous movement of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and especially Theo Walcott on each side.
What happens now that Olivier Giroud is available for selection and shone for France against Italy? Will he get his place back?
It’s a big call because our game would change drastically: against Watford we’ve seen a very dynamic front line composed of players always willing to attack the space behind the defensive line, always looking for a long-ball from Granit Xhaka and constantly exchanging positions and roles; with Olivier Giroud as part of the attacking trio, that wouldn’t be possible as the Frenchman would be the target man we know very well, the catalyst of any ball hitting the final third but surely not the marauding forward running in behind and ghosting across the whole attacking line.
We’d gain physical presence and aerial ability but lose unpredictability and pace – what would you choose?
My feeling (and wish, to be honest) is to see the same trio that tore Watford apart, the same pace and intensity upfront and possibly a more confident version Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the one we usually see during pre-season; the boy was very wasteful against Watford but possesses all the qualities to be a valuable asset to the team and hopefully have a big performance against Southampton.
Perhaps he’s the most at risk once Alex Iwobi is back from injury and Lucas Pérez will be ready, he must make the most of the chances he’s been given at the moment.
Talking about Lucas Pérez, I’m not including him in the equation as it very unlikely that he will start against Southampton, he only had a few training sessions with the team and will surely come off the bench to begin his Arsenal career.
Once fit and integrated with the team, though, he will surely be a serious contender for a starting place and the current crop of forwards should really be looking nervously over their shoulders.
Arsène Wenger brought him in for his intelligent movement and quality finishing, my guess is that he’ll be our main man and swap positions with Alexis Sánchez and Theo Walcott in a very fluid 4-3-3 formation.
Unlike Lucas Pérez, the other new boy Shkodran Mustafi has a big chance to make his full debut with the Gunners against Southampton but his place alongside Laurent Koscielny is far from acquired: the young Rob Holding has been impressive against Leicester City and Watford, Arsène Wenger might be tempted to give him another chance to gain experience in the Premier League before implementing what will be the centre-back pairing for this season and beyond.
As unfair as it might appear though, Arsène Wenger could start the German international over the England U21 defender against the Saints and take the opportunity to give Laurent Koscielny and Skhodran Mustafi some playing time, before we play Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League on Tuesday. It would be a wise move, in my eyes, and Rob Holding will surely have a lot of chances to grow and become the top defender we all wish he’ll be.
I expect a lot from the team this season and even more from Arsène Wenger, who seems to be building a more aggressive, quick and direct Arsenal, compared to what we’ve seen in the past two seasons: it is likely that we’ll play more counter-attack football and rely less on possession, trying to make the most of our pacey forwards and Mesut Özil and Granit Xhaka eye for through-balls; also, a defensive line composed of Laurent Koscielny and Shkordan Mustafi – both very quick and good at interceptions – suggests a higher positioning on the pitch and a more regrouped team, instructed to closed down opponents and try to win the ball back as quickly as possible.
The blueprint must be the memorable win against Manchester United at home last season, when our midfield was outstanding in suffocating their opponents and our attacking trio created havoc during one of the most entertaining and exciting performances I can remember.
Get your replica wall clock here
The big loser of this change would be Olivier Giroud, a striker I never really rated but who’s been exceptional in his attitude and desire to improve; never he complained, never he replied to abuse and critics, he always worked hard on the pitch and – in all honesty – he’s been quite successful in each of his seasons at the Club.
Could he have done more? I don’t think so. I feel he did the maximum given his strengths and gave his all, he deserves a lot of credit for that.
Nevertheless, I feel that he was never the first-choice striker in Arsène Wenger’s mind: the manager first tried to sign Luis Suárez, then got Alexis Sánchez and spent the last transfer windows trying to sign Alexandre Lacazette and Jamie Vardy, before finally landing Lucas Pérez.
It’s not hard to see that the manager was looking at someone whose profile is completely different from Olivier Giroud’s – meaning that he wasn’t looking on an upgrade in that area but someone with a different set of skills.
That doesn’t mean that Olivier Giroud won’t come good throughout the season, he would be a great option off the bench and an important resource in a specific kind of games but would somehow be our “plan B” – which I think was Arsène Wenger’s “plan A” since the beginning.
I can’t wait to see what choices Arsène Wenger will make and if we’ll finally see the aggressive, direct, pacey and skilful Arsenal I miss so much.