It’s the North London derby today and a start of a very tricky run-in. After playing Spurs away, we face United, Southampton, Stoke, Sunderland and Everton, with only former game and the latter two at home. Can’t remember when we last had a finish to the season so challenging.
However we are totally culpable for having fewer points than we’d like to and playing top four catch-up as a result. Wins against West Brom, Watford and Palace would have seen us 3rd, five points behind Spurs with a game in hand. Even the title wouldn’t completely be out of question. But it is what it is.
We were given a boost this past week with Pool losing to Palace, and the Manchester derby ending in a draw, so a win today would see us a point behind United and two behind City. Liverpool will be three ahead, but they played a game more. So it is looking extremely tight, with four teams battling for just two places.
First we need to get a win over Spurs, though. It will prove hard, as Pochettino’s side are on a streak of 12 straight home wins and are yet to lose a league game at White Hart Lane this season, winning 15 and drawing just twice. A win for them makes it mathematically impossible for us to finish higher than third, but on the bright side, a win for us will likely end their title challenge. A worthy cause in itself to fight for.
And with that in mind, let’s snap to team news.
Team news update
Mustafi will be the only definite absence from the matchday squad. Perez and Ospina trained even before the Leicester game, so I’m assuming both will be alright. The laser-like focus remains on Laurent Koscielny’s knee. Wenger gave our captain a 60% chance of being fit.
Obviously, Koscielny’s absence will be a monumental loss. I like how Holding has played every time he was on the pitch, Gabriel’s recent performances have been reassuring, but Kos is still the best of the three, an example of unwavering consistency and competency. Of course Wenger will have options should he go with the back three again: he can play Monreal as part of the defence and Gibbs as a wing-back (something he trialled against Leicester, whether on purpose or just to rest some players after Wembley), he can reintroduce Mertesacker, he can even play Hector as part of the three with Ox further up. But of all the possible options I would prefer Koscielny and so will keep fingers crossed he makes it.
By now it is becoming increasingly obvious Wenger is likely to stick with a 3-4-2-1, something Tim Stillman looked at in his column. This formation brings out the best from most of our players, but not all of them unfortunately.
With that in mind, and having already discussed the possible back three permutations, it’s time to dissect other on-pitch positions. The wing-backs is the order of the day, and it will be interesting to see what Wenger does.
He seems to have four solid options, two for each position: Bellerin and Ox for the right, Monreal and Gibbs for the left. Arsene’s decision-making will also be subject to Koscielny’s availability: Monreal, a better choice for wing-back than Gibbs, in my view, may have to form a part of the back three. Which will enable Gibbo to start on the left. Ox has done tremendously well against Boro and City, but Bellerin was quite stellar vs Leicester. Swings and roundabouts.
My gut feeling is Wenger will try to start Koscielny, such is his importance to the team, meaning Monreal on the left. I also think Ox will be given the nod on the right ahead of Hector. The Englishman has been really impressive there, and Hector can use a break with an ongoing ankle problem.
Having tried Giroud and Walcott up front to no avail, I believe Arsene will revert to Alexis up top. Who will be in-behind the Chilean is another question. Is the four of Ozil, Ramsey, Elneny and Xhaka secure enough, provided Ox also starts on the right? Is it wise to use all your attacking-minded midfielders up at once, leaving Coquelin and Iwobi the only possible replacements? I don’t know.
Removing Alexis from the “2 behind the striker” equation, while in the team’s interests up front, leaves a gaping hole. No one is a good enough creator to contest this “second 10” role. Xhaka is better-placed in a deeper position, Elneny and Ramsey are not convincing in the creativity department. The only solution I see here is Danny Welbeck. The Englishman is versatile enough to fill in. Ox may be another option, though it would be stupid to move him away from a position he starred in. Can we risk Iwobi, who hasn’t played much recently? Will it be a huge gamble, leaving Coquelin as the only midfielder on the bench?
If Arsene moves Alexis up front, a solution I see as beneficial to both the Chilean and the team overall, it will create another problem: too many square pegs on the bench. Let’s assume Wenger goes with the following:
Predicted line-up: Cech – Gabriel – Kos – Holding – Ox – Xhaka – Ramsey – Monreal – Ozil – Welbeck – Alexis
It leaves us with a bench of Ospina, Gibbs, Bellerin, Coquelin, Elneny, Walcott and Giroud. Only Iwobi, and possibly Bellerin, can strengthen us in-game, while feeling comfortable in their position. Maybe Elneny for Ramsey, though the Egyptian is more conservative. Giroud and Walcott would be ineffective up top. Is it worth it dropping both for Perez and Iwobi? An audacious move, but certainly a better fit for the striker and second 10 roles respectively?
The point I’m trying to make is that quite a few our players would be uncomfortable in their natural positions in this formation. Players that can usually serve as assets from the bench. Something for Wenger to chew on.
Spurs will provide us with a test possibly the sternest of all remaining. I’m fully aware of the Orcs at the gambling stadium and Mourinho’s side coming to the Emirates, but even they seem more manageable.
However, we have an opportunity to end Spurs’ title hopes at their ground. That should fill the players with a sense of purpose and direction. A win will also boost our top four chances, no mean feat. I desperately don’t want to watch Europa League, which is now assured, unfortunately. We are both in the cup final and mathematically unattainable for 8th-placed West Brom.
I think we have a chance to get that much-needed win. We have found some grit to our play, the switch to a new formation certainly solidified our defence and with Alexis rediscovering his scoring touch, we should be up for it.
So come on you Gunners.
Back here with a review on May Day.