“I do not make of this game a competition between two managers. It’s between two clubs and two teams and I think I can understand that people want to create controversy, but it’s not that that makes the audience. What will make the audience is the quality of the game.” – Arsene Wenger
Perhaps of all our recent defeats the United loss in late February hurts the most. It hurts still, to be honest. But 9 months ago it was unbearable. The loss came exactly two weeks after an inspiring win over Leicester, in what was the next league game. The defeat was as deflating as it was inexplicable. In fact, I nearly stopped watching games and definitely remember taking a break from writing because of it.
The more surprising it was for me to find out this loss remains our only away loss in 2016 calendar year. There were quite a few home defeats, but not one away from the Emirates.
What makes the upcoming game of even higher importance, than an obviously weak record at Old Trafford (I’ll get to it in a second) and a need to respond both to our last league game and that encounter in February, is Jose Mourinho’s presence. It was never easier to genuinely hate United since Ferguson left. A concentration of highly paid footballers with overly-inflated egos (the biggest ego misses the game, though), spearheaded by that despicable excuse of a human being, who is the benchmark for a huge ego embodied.
Of course it is about Arsene Wenger vs Jose Mourinho first and everything else after that. It’s the good vs evil, class vs classless, decency vs bullying. The fact the evil prevailed for so long is just another demonstration there is something inherently wrong with this universe. Almost like Diego Costa being a successful footballer, when had he behaved off the pitch the way he does on it, he would have been jailed long ago. But the bubble must burst. I hope it will do so in spectacular fashion.
Our away record vs United is piss poor, however. Our last away win in the Premier League came in 2006, courtesy of an extremely late goal from Emmanuel Adebayor. In 9 games since then we’ve lost 7 and drawn only 2.
Mourinho at the helm obviously further complicates things. In 11 league games against the objectionable one, we’ve lost 5 and drawn 6. The pattern we all know: a standard 2-0 away from home vs a rope-a-dope side (mostly 10 vs 11) and a 0-0 at home against a parked bus. In fact, the last goal Arsenal scored against a Mourinho side, Gilberto Silva was still a Gunner. He scored that last goal, in the league at least.
I can’t be bothered to look it up, but my gut feeling is Gilberto left us in 2008/2009. Meaning we are without a league goal against the Special Once for something like 8 years. Not pretty.
The bright beacon of hope? We have lost only one league encounter in the last 21 and suffered only one away loss in 2016, as I’ve said above. Plus, this year we finally smashed Chelsea. Not directly related to Saturday’s game, of course, but knowing we can thoroughly steamroll big teams is helpful.
Team news update
Unfortunately, the hopes of Arsenal getting through the break unscathed and getting Cazorla back shattered to pieces. Not only will Cazorla NOT return:
“Cazorla is still out. I don’t know exactly how long for. He’s still not even out in training yet.”
… we have also lost Bellerin to an ankle injury:
“Hector is out for four weeks. He got injured in the last 10 seconds against Spurs after a very strong tackle by Danny Rose.”
I’m not even sure which loss hits us harder. Probably Bellerin’s, as both Debuchy and Jenkinson look a step down in quality. With Cazorla we at least have Xhaka and Ramsey, who are good footballers in their own right. Yes, not ambidextrous deep-lying dribblers with a great sense of humour, but at least quality players. With Debuchy and Jenko I’m not so sure, with all due respect to either of them.
Alexis Sanchez will also be assessed:
“I haven’t heard a lot [about his fitness] because we were in doubt 24 hours before the game against Uruguay.
“We didn’t know if he’d play or not. In the end they decided to play him. He texted us to tell us he’s in good shape after the game. He came off after 84 minutes and now we have to wait. I see him tomorrow [Friday] morning and then I will see if he can be involved in the squad or not.
“What I will consider is the risk of injury because he played while recovering from a hamstring injury. I’ll consider the way he feels as well. On that front you depend on the honesty of the player, how they feel and how they recover.”
I’ll be surprised if Alexis doesn’t feature, but then I’d rather he missed one game, then the rest of the year or even worse. Yes, he played, he scored twice, he texted he’s ready, but his hammy looks dodgy regardless. It was bandaged in training, it was bandaged after he came off and I’d be just as surprised if he’s completely fit. Which brings us to who can play on Saturday.
The only up-for-grabs positions are right-back and central midfield. Giroud will play at centre-forward if Alexis doesn’t make it and it’s not even a debate. Without Welbeck, Perez, potentially Alexis and with Theo back on the wing, Giroud is our ONLY option. Which doesn’t make him a bad option, obviously, but also doesn’t contribute to debate of who can start up front.
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Hector’s absence makes right-back a lonely place. Actually, it makes the world overall that bit sadder and not worth living in. But we have to battle on. A year ago I would have said Debuchy was the obvious next in line, however I’m not even sure the Frenchman is still with Arsenal. I haven’t seen him on training photos this season at all and he hasn’t even featured in the poll on dot.com! Which makes me think we’ll see Jenko for the foreseeable future.
The only position of dispute is central midfield. Xhaka’s commanding last performance and his overall set of qualities makes me think he is the best player to deputise for Cazorla, so the question is who we pair him with. Personally, I’d go for Coquelin. The Frenchman gives us defensive security and urgency in the final third by aggressively winning back the ball, while Ramsey … Really, what does he add? When he came on against Spurs, we actually looked a worse side.
One last thing to bear in mind is our left wing, which looks leaky. I’ve felt this for a while now, but Adrian Clarke confirmed my gut feeling in his latest breakdown: of the 8 goals we’ve shipped from open play, 7 came down the left, 5 of them were crosses. I don’t think you have to be a genius to understand why we concede so much down the left: Iwobi. The lad is brilliant further upfield, however his inability to effectively tuck in and help Monreal/Gibbs is proving very costly indeed. I thought he was much better in this regard against Spurs, and I’m not sure Wenger will be willing to sacrifice Iwobi’s flair to add more defensive security, however this is worth pointing out anyway.
Predicted line-up: Cech – Jenkinson – Mustafi – Koscielny – Monreal – Coquelin – Xhaka – Walcott – Ozil – Iwobi – Alexis
I can’t overestimate the importance of getting the three points vs United. It’s been way too long since we’ve done that at their place, while Mourinho’s misery is a jolly good reason to try and do pretty much anything, let alone win a game of football.
We don’t approach the game with an ideal squad, yes, that bit is clear. Missing 5 first team players is never ideal. However, United are hardly in perfect shape either: no Bailly, Smalling and Ibrahimovic, with question marks hanging over Fellaini, Shaw, Valencia and Rooney. As you can see, they’ve been hit pretty hard defensively, which might just give us the edge we need.
Fingers crossed we’ve learnt our lessons, regained our hunger to win over the break and figured out a way to break down Mourinho’s team. Come on you Gunners.
Back with a review.