Antonio Conte’s men visit the Emirates today, and somehow I feel even less optimistic about our chances to come out on top than before the Liverpool game.
In part this feeling is down to the turgid performance we produced at the Hawthorns, in part because our growing injury list restricts Wenger’s options. Also, there’s that slightly uncomfortable fact Chelsea won five on the bounce, conceding just once in the process – a last-minute Huddersfield goal which had no effect on the result whatsoever.
I feel the injury update is the right place to start this preview with then.
In addition to the missing Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud and Nacho Monreal we have lost Ozil right before the West Brom game. As if it wasn’t enough, Laurent Koscielny and Sead Kolasinac hobbled off during the game – not in that order.
The Frenchman’s injury comes as no surprise to me. We have been starting our de-facto captain every three days for weeks. His chronic Achilles problems were well-documented, but instead of dipping into rich centre-backs’ reserve Wenger persevered in fielding Koscielny. The end result being his likely omission from the squad against Chelsea, of all games.
“Koscielny is the achilles again, it flared up. Yesterday the signs were not too encouraging. He is 30 per cent available, 70 per cent not.” – Arsene Wenger
Kolasinac has a short-term injury:
“Sead has hurt his ankle, he is out – it could settle in a week, or two weeks. It is not long term.” – Arsene Wenger
However, coupled with the absence of Nacho Monreal, this is a real blow. Both our senior left-backs are out.
Neither Giroud nor Ramsey will be make the game, and it looks like Ozil is out of the equation too, since he wasn’t pictured in training. Of course the Christmas schedule has taken its toll, we are not the only club ravaged by injuries, but what pains me the most is how utterly avoidable Koscielny’s injury was. But I guess there’s no point crying over spilt milk.
Petr Cech will hopefully pick up where he left off, calling Anthony Taylor a c*nt, because that’s what he is. Naturally, Petr will continue in goal, fitness permitting.
Whether he is shielded by a back four or a back five is a good question. Matching Chelsea for shape has worked when deployed and got us one of the more respectable results against the big six on the road.
Of course Wenger will be restricted by injuries, but he can still call Debuchy and Holding into action. When I say Debuchy I have the troublesome left-back spot in mind, Perhaps the Frenchman can occupy Bellerin’s right wing while the Spaniard covers the left side.
Such a scheme will allow to keep AMN out of the firing line, while also scraping the centre-backs for that back three, even allowing to keep one on the bench. As to who Wenger trusts the most of the four guys he doesn’t trust, your guess is as good as mine. I’m going to go with Mertesacker, Mustafi and Chambers.
Ozil’s and Ramsey’s absences make life difficult in midfield, especially considering Iwobi’s poor recent form. He has indeed been so below par even Wenger was quick to drop him, something he rarely does. The sensible thing to do would be introducing Coquelin alongside Xhaka and moving Wilshere higher up to complement Alexis and Lacazette.
A flat midfield looks unlikely with a back five, and I do hope we go with a back five. We simply don’t have the personnel to account for the losses of Ozil and Ramsey at the same time without our midfield taking a hit in the creative department.
I fully expect Lacazette and Alexis to continue in their positions too. Neither Walcott, seemingly on the edge of leaving, nor Welbeck looked convincing recently when called upon.
Predicted line-up: Cech – Mustafi – Mertesacker – Chambers – Bellerin – Xhaka – Coquelin – AMN – Wilshere – Alexis – Lacazette
Player in focus: Jack Wilshere
After steadily improving for four games (West Ham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Palace), Jack has hit something of a wall against West Brom. The entire team was dire, however, plus I’m pretty sure the gruelling schedule took its toll. Wilshere was required to play every three days after not playing in the league at all this season.
In the absence of Mesut Ozil and in the likely event of being asked to play higher up, Wilshere becomes our sole creative presence. He is good at one-twos, good at creating space with his dribbling and is well capable of picking out teammates from the deep too.
I’m positive he will be asked to play a central role in our attacking plan, whatever that might be, and it will be interesting to see how Jack rises to the challenge. Personally, I think he has the required quality to shine and make a difference.
The last word
There are two main reasons why I don’t feel flat-out pessimistic about our chances: we play at home and Chelsea’s main suppliers of goals (Hazard and Morata) have not been convincing at all lately. The Belgian managed just one assist and no goals in the last six league matches, Morata has just one goal in the same period.
Oh, there’s another one: the Gunners seem to rise up to the challenge when tagged with the underdog status. It’s not a rule set in stone, there have been notable exceptions, but generally the underdog status allows us to play with more freedom.
Both Wenger and the players will be well aware we need a win too. Despite actually losing only once in eight league matches, we dropped too many points by drawing with sides we should have dispatched comfortably. We only need to look as far as December 31. This has dented our top 4 chances, further dropped points today will make an uphill battle. And we are only in January.
So come on you Gunners. Wake up and do what’s required.
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