So here, Arsenal find ourselves having not played two weeks beginning the ‘annual’ week that defines our season. With three matches in three different competitions in eight days, come March 13th we as supporters will have a good idea what the remainder of the season may hold for us. The reason I have said the 13th rather than the 11/12th is that, assuming we overcome Lincoln we will then now who we face at Wembley for a place in the FA Cup Final.
The Gunners commence their defining period at Anfield tomorrow evening, facing a Liverpool side perhaps even more wounded an animal than Arsenal. If the Top 4 remains important and to some it is the be all and end all, them the first match is the most crucial of the three. Klopp’s faltering Reds suffered a fresh defeat at the King Power on Monday, which, by default, strengthened Arsenal’s position in the Top 4 but a defeat against Liverpool reverses that gain. Arsenal need also to be wary of not only a resurgent Man City, but also a Man United team buoyed by a Wembley triumph. Momentum is everything at this stage of the season – Spurs, City, United and obviously Chelsea have it, Arsenal and Liverpool do not. All this makes Saturday huge for both Klopp and Wenger, both coaches are under pressure and only a win will do for both, in my view.
A win over a major rival, particularly one that inflicted a painful home defeat on the opening day of the season, will boost confidence ahead of the visit of Bayern on Tuesday and cement Arsenal place in the Champions League places. I just hope Wenger does not do what he has often select his team tomorrow with an eye on Tuesday. Tomorrow is a win is crucial and his must select the strongest fully fit eleven but I also hope he sets them up in structure appropriate to the fixture.
As I have written many times before and most recently here in December, I really hope Wenger reverts to the 4141/433 system that bought him success in several huge away fixtures in 2014/15, including initially at the Etihad. Whatever Liverpool and Klopp’s problems may be, at Anfield they seem to gain additional energy and are able to maintain their high pressing game for longer, or in longer spells. For me therefore having our fittest and most mobile players on the pitch is crucial and particularly in central midfield, where we should play three. Against Mane if he is fit, it has to be the additional pace of Gibbs over Monreal, given how the Senegalese terrorised the Spaniard in August.
Whilst Ozil may be arguably our best player, if he is not 100% fit and I would sooner be compact and competitive in a 433 and unleash our master creator to exploit the gaps later in the match when Arsenal have taken the sting out of Liverpool’s press. With Ramsey only just back in training and Elneny unavailable, a midfield three of Coquelin just behind Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xhaka is appealing and the addition legs around him will certainly assist the Swiss International. Most of the bookies at FootballBets the football betting tipsters will have Liverpool as marginal favourites at home but the element of surprise with Wenger actually selecting a team to counter their style may give Arsenal the edge.
Given the work-rate and physicality required to play this system, which is a 4141 out of possession and a 433 in attack the work rate of the two widemen is critical. For that reason. I would prefer to see Welbeck and Perez over Iwobi and Walcott in support of a central Alexis Sanchez. This is not necessarily a slight on either the England or the Nigerian internationals, more a question mark over their ability or desire to work back and support their fullback. Walcott was doing it very well early in the season but as so often seems to have reverted to type of late. Iwobi is clumsy in the tackle and lacks the pace to recover swiftly when Arsenal lose possession, not a problem for Welbeck is he has proved his fitness.
All of the above is of course wishful thinking on my part but it was this system that worked for Wenger so well in 2014/15, the system that looks so fluid in transition at Southampton in the FA Cup and the setup he wanted to play at Stamford Bridge before Bellerin’s injury. So you never know, given the potential of having to at least begin without Mesut Ozil he may just opt for this formation again. I sincerely hope so and would love to be proved wrong but my head tells me it will be 4231 with Giroud up top and Alexis, on the left, Iwobi central (if Ozil not fit) and Walcott on the right. I am not sure what Lucas Perez actually has to do to get game time under Wenger to be entirely honest!