Ahead of a huge game on Sunday at the Etihad there will be 2 players in particular desperate to play and prove their readiness to their international managers. Jack Wilshere has already featured briefly for the Arsenal first team after 10 months out but only for 6 minutes. Santi Cazorla has been out since November and will also be anxious to be involved in the last 2 matches of the season to earn hi selection to the Spanish squad. I am sure Roy Hodgson will be one on many seeking tickets for this cup final style winner takes all clash.
So that is one interesting backdrop to the match but the bigger picture Arsenal and consequently Wenger has to be the battle with Sunday’s opponents to secure the 3rd spot, or in Arsenal case perhaps even 2nd and secure automatic Champion’s League group phase football without August qualification. As intimated in this piece yesterday securing the knowledge of top table football now is more crucial for Arsenal as you sense a need for fast pre Euros transfer activity. City with the combined package of Pep and deeper pockets are certainly in a stronger position so the certainty and head start is critical to Wenger and The Gunners.
With this being the case it is hard to make a case for Wenger to start Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla but both will no doubt be on the bench praying for an Arsenal performance from their team mates that allows him to introduce them. Of course the Etihad last season was a match that should have defined a new Arsenal. A mature, cautious away win with a new playing structure for such games seemingly heralded a new Wenger. One who admitted past mistakes and confessed to listening to his players. He used a similar structure away at United in the superb FA Cup victory but sadly this season he has reverted to type and has predominantly used his staid 4231 which was working with Santi and Coquelin but failed without them in the main.
Man City will be hurting after their meek exit from Europe this week and it remain to be seen which City we see on Sunday but there must be a strong argument to set up in a similar fashion to set up as we did in those crucial away wins in 14/15. Against United in Match we played with a 4141/433 with Danny Welbeck working a solo front line and I would hope to see the same. For this match and this match alone just ensure victory I would leave out Alex Iwobi. The young man has played a lot of first team football in a short space of time and is looking a tad jaded. I would like to see Coquelin sitting with Ramsey and Elneny working in partnership as Cazorla and Ramsey did at the Etihad last season. Leave Sanchez on the right and play Ozil in the wide left role. The alternative is to allow Ozil centrally as at Old Trafford and play Alexis and Ramsey in the wide box to box role. Either would work well.
If this system works and the game is going according to plan Cazorla slots in seamlessly for one of the 2 central positions in the 4. Wilshere could also come into one of this two positions or indeed wide. Win this game and Cazorla, Wilshere and even Tomas Rosicky in this last game for the club can play a full part against a woeful Aston Villa side already on the beach
I am not going to dwell on the media’s absurd fascination with Arsenal’s failure this season although failure it is. I will just point out that in relative terms to Wenger I think Manual Pellegrini has come of very lightly. This is probably been due to the unceremonious nature of his advanced dismissal and the announcement that he was to be replaced by Guardiola. However in August Arsenal would have been cast as one of a few teams that ‘could’ with a fair wind, threaten the stranglehold of City and Chelsea. No one truly believed we had a chance, even us after we failed to add any outfield players.
Man City on the other hand with the amount of money they spent and the perceived quality of their additions, were ‘Champions Elect.’ After the first few games of win after win in September and Chelsea’s sluggish start the press had crowned them. Now as we approach what is a crucial match on Sunday at the Etihad the backdrop seems very different. Arsenal’s season has been written off as an abject disaster whilst City have some silverware and gloriously went out in the Semi Final of the Champions League.
We can argue the relative success of failure of both team’s seasons all day. Largely it will depend on your views on Arsene Wenger as much as anything but a fans perspective the Blue side of Manchester have something shiny and new to look forward to and Gunners do not. For those lucky enough to be going to Manchester the need is there more than ever to be in good voice because for many reasons it has become a winner takes all match.
A win for Arsenal will secure 3rd spot and even make second a possibility dependent on how a shell-shocked Tottenham fare against Southampton. Both teams at the Etihad will know the result as The Saints visit The Lane at 1.30 on Sunday. A win for City takes the season for both teams to the final day but would need Arsenal to have to score a bucket load of goal to better a goal difference that is currently 3 in City’s favour already. Anything could happen but for Arsenal a draw with a demoralised Villa to play would almost certainly secure 3rd place but all the bets and possibilities are fascinating.
Yes it is depressing to be talking about the third placed trophy and I am not writing this excited at the prospect BUT this year more than any other the significance if avoiding the Champions League qualifier is critical. With the Euros taking up much of June and July and it being potentially Arsene Wenger’s final season the club have to be able to move swiftly and decisively ahead of the Euros in the transfer market secure in the knowledge that they are offering possible signings top table football.
With Arsenal not having an effective Director of Football and Dick Law seemingly having to get everything signed off by his controlling manager time is more of the essence for us. I sense for the first time that there is pressure from the board on the Frenchman to spend some of the cash sitting earning interest. This is something that has not necessarily been there in the past but Wenger himself has patently lost patience with some of the players he has stuck by for too long. He may have described the strength of this squad favourably and lauded their mentality but his selections, body language and lengthening nose suggest different.
I am convinced this will be the most active summer for the club in years with many first team regulars until recently being surplus to requirements, including some surprise exits. Most will say this would be un-Wenger like and yes it would be but he and the board have to be acutely aware of the strength of the other giants who have had worse seasons than Arsenal. New managers arriving and big war chests exist and Arsenal’s activity in early June could determine 2016/17’s outcome.
Many seem to have decided that Pep and Conte (at the Euros withy Italy,) will wave magic wands over their aging squads but I am far from convinced their jobs are that easy. Both City and Chelsea need 4 or 5 first team players which perhaps Arsenal do not. The rise of Mo Elneny cannot be underestimated and with one more addition the central midfield options look very strong. The key for Wenger and Law seems to me to be to find the 2 remaining members of the spine, namely a mobile top notch striker and a partner for Koscielny. The Gunners need 3 key additions but others need more.
Well that is enough of my rambling thoughts for today. Sunday is huge and as billed the battle of the losers where winner takes all. One final controversial thought from me….
In a season where City have seen that big bucks can but a gem like KDB or a liability like Sterling how interesting that when it came down to it on the Premier League run in Pellegrini turned to Samir Nasri. In only 11 appearances in the league only 4 of them starts in the latter stages the unpopular Ex-Gunner has 2 goals and 2 assists from some impressive displays. In 30 appearances Sterling has 6 goals but for a creative wide man on 2 assist which is scant early return on £46 million. If Guardiola really want does to take The Walcott at 27 to Manchester I wonder how many Arsenal fans would take back Samir Nasri at 29 this summer with 2/3 good years and a wiser head on him in part exchange? It was rumoured last summer that The played had asked Wenger about a return.
I know there are many Arsenal fans that don’t follow the fortunes of England team and would rather our players did not play thus summer at the Euros. I actually love seeing our lads pulling on the Three Lions and feel immensely proud when they do. After missing out on the 1974 and 1978 World Cup I vividly recall how chuffed I was when Rixy got the nod ahead to start against France in Spain in 1982. After the disappointment of the last World Cup I was genuinely looking forward 2 years to this June Euros anticipating a strong Arsenal contingent. At one point early in 2014/15 an Arsenal fan could have had a strong argument for suggesting that in the summer of 2016 there could have been 6 Gooners in the Euro squad. Now a free bet on the Euro’s could be that there will be only 1 Gunner firing for England in June.
Kieran Gibbs was and FA Cup winner and firmly the first choice left back at the Emirates having seemingly fought of the challenge of Nacho Monreal. He must have been confident that having had so many knock backs he could finally challenge the established Leighton Baines. 18 months down the lone he is out of the England reckoning and probably behind Luke Shaw, Danny Rose and Ryan Bertrand. He has played only 381 minutes of Premier League football for Arsenal due to the brilliance of Montreal and virtually all the minuets have been as a substitute of the left of midfield. I would be stunned if Gibbs is not sold this window. He has conducted himself well and deserves to play but he will not be in France.
Theo Walcott suffered the heartbreak of missing out in Brazil due to his injury. He returned hesitantly but seemed to find his feet again when moved to the central role he craved at the end of last season. He should be looking forward to playing for his country as one of the senior statesmen of the squad like Rooney and Cahill but instead he will most likely be looking for a new club. He is a shadow of the play he was 4 years ago who was an assist machine for RVP and not only has he not progressed he has regressed. Wenger in my view is being exceedingly generous keeping him on the bench ahead of Joel Campbell. However he has only played 1342 minutes in the league. I genuinely believed the sky was the limited for Theo but now I actually want him sold and I am confident he will be.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when he scored that wonderful goal in the Maracanã in the summer of 2013 was another who seemingly had the world at his feet. He was played centrally for England on the day having been preferred to Walcott wide in the previous Euros. The lad has so much talent and he always gives me a buzz when he has the ball at his feet but every time he gets a run in the side and seems to be finding his Arsenal form he gets injured. Ox should now be delivering consistently for Arsenal and England but disappointingly that is not the case. I feel his natural game is curtailed by the way Wenger has Arsenal playing. I long to see him taking on the full back and whipping in crosses but our wide men are not encouraged to do so. He has only played 924 minutes for Arsenal in the league and his latest injury will cost him a place on the plane. Another who will be watching England from his sofa, whilst calling his agent asking him to find him a new challenge.
Calum Chambers in the autumn of 2014 was a regular starter for Arsenal and his club form had earned him a Hodgson call up. I think many, myself included thought that a Chambers and Stones partnership looked to be England’s future pairing. They may still be but Wenger seems to have lost faith in him and the purchase of Gabriel set his cause back further. He is a centre-back and not a right back and he needs to play there alongside a senior pro like Koscielny but I suspect the pressure on Wenger this summer will be so intense that an experienced defender will be brought in setting Chambers back further. The young former Saint has gone from being a regular starter at the beginning of last season to barely a bit part player this season. He has played only 312 minutes of Premier League football and is another who has had his international ambitions thwarted by Arsenal.
Jack Wilshere is undoubtedly firmly in The England Manager’s plans if he is fit and well. He stared 5 of the 10 qualifiers and was Man of the Match in four of the five. Hodgson plays a system when Wilshere is available that suits Jack but England have so often suffered by talking players who were not truly fit to major championships. Owen, Beckham and Rooney spring to mind but the current England coach is on record as saying he won’t make the same mistake. So far Jack has a few minutes of first team football under his belt and a manager who is under pressure and who can’t afford to make sentimental team selections for players hoping to go to France. Wilshere, Ox and Santi are all in the same boat. Whatever Wenger says in public I am certain he would prefer Wilshere to miss out and have a free summer and strong pre-season. However if he gets and more minutes in the next 2 league games I think because Hodgson gas lost Henderson he will select Jack. 50/50
The man who won the man of the match in the one game that Wilshere played that he did not get the accolade was Danny Welbeck when he scored twice in Slovenia. At that point if I recall correctly Danny was the top scorer in Euro qualifying taking advantage of Daniel Sturridge’s absence. Hodgson is very loyal to his players and Welbeck has consistently performed for him in and England shirt. Danny can play anywhere across the front line, left, right or centrally and has been in good scoring form for Arsenal since his remarkable return against Leicester. Welbeck is the only one of the 6 who is a certainty to be in France with his country in June and along with the returns of Rooney and Sturridge it is he that will end any lingering hope Walcott may have had I feel.
So Arsenal may have 1 or possibly 2 players pulling on the 3 Lions and I would not be surprised if only 3 of the 6 are pulling on the Cannon in August.
There is already much talk of potential transfer targets for Arsenal this summer and considerable leakage from ‘sources close to the club’ as to which players might be allowed to or encouraged to leave and which to stay and fight. I have no issue with this in particular but there is one aspect that has been bothering me about the supposed targets. Bothering is probably not the correct expression – more, set me thinking in truth.
In the perhaps vain hope that Wenger might once again be more flexible in his approach to formations as our 4231 that surprises nobody formation, should we only thinking about targets that upgrade our current positions. Is the view that Xhaha is an upgrade on Coquelin or that Morata is an upgrade on Giroud ,not us and the media limiting our thinking? Should we not be thinking further and think about who might come in to change the way we can approach games and give us alternatives to what we have? Might we not consider how new signings can allow us to vary the style and tactics we employ (again Wenger jokes not required here!) instead?
I have written twice this season on how just possibly employing a 4312 system might not best suit us at times, allowing us to pay 2 mobile strikers ahead of a playmaker. If this were the case it may change one’s thinking on the need for a fast wide man, as the full backs would provide the overlapping width. Michael Keshani wrote a piece on this formation only this week and my last article on it was ahead of the NLD. That thinking, if adopted plays into the hands of Alexis and Welbeck for sure but it might give Walcott a reprieve also. I am know I am bonkers for suggestion a 2 striker system has any place at all in a team looking to win the Premier League!! (Er Leicester.)
Similarly the emergence of Iwobi has certainly changed many observers’ minds on how the team might play. The extra mobility and the fact that he is a play-maker, giving us two play-makers in the 3 behind the striker has added a new dimension. Take that a stage further and consider the idea of a wide play-maker. Our supporters will argue long and hard how they might fit Ramsey into the 2 and the need to have a certain type of partner to do so. Coquelin and Elneny seems to be working and giving us a firm base but if we want Ramsey in (for the record I do not) we have to play him wide again. Of course playing Ramsey wide has worked for us at times but you have to move Alexis back to the left and lose Iwobi. Oh who would be a manager?
The above is another example of how imagination and a change of mind set can open new possibilities. What if Ramsey played in the middle of the three behind the striker? Dave you are mad, he is not a play-maker he cannot play at 10! And after all as all Arsenal fans will tell you our 10, Ozil, the world’s finest 10 has to play at 10 doesn’t he? I don’t now anymore – Does he?
I hate to bring this up, with them being who they are and all but Tottenham’s season turned around and they climbed to the heady heights they are so unaccustomed to,by doing what exactly? It seems to me that accommodated their best box to box central midfield asset and goal threat, Alli, by playing him centrally and moving their play-maker 10, Christian Eriksen to the left? Behind them sit a ball winner and a distributor in Dier and Dembele. Now I am not saying Arsenal should or will do the same but surely we must consider it. Have we not seen the damage a play-maker like Iwobi with a handful of games can do from a nominally wide position? If we accept that we have to believe Ozil can do the same. If, that is, we want to find a role centrally for Ramsey or even Wilshere without disturbing the secure base.
Extending this thinking can we not also consider additions required if we again want to employ the 4141 or 433 employed in 14/15. The argument against it, even though it worked so well in Ozil’s absence was that we could not possibly consider using it when the German was back because he has to play at 10 in a 4231. Well I see no reason why the 15/16 Ozil model could not play wide in that formation now or even centrally in the 4141 as he indeed did at Old Trafford in the QF win in March 2015.
Just a few musings really but I guess the moral of this ramble is to think beyond just those that can play better than who we have in the exact same position and same formation. All we can do is hope our esteemed leader is doing the same. I am sure he is as he has 20 years’ experience you know!
I have some time on my hand and feel the need for some therapy so writing about Arsenal usually does the trick. Hard to know where to start however after the tumultuous week or so the Gunners have had. I am ready for change but can’t envisage that happening anytime soon so there is little point dwelling on the Wenger debate at this time. After what can only be described as a disaster in the FA Cup and non-surprising exit from Europe all we have to focus on are the last 9 games in the Premier League and the slim chance we still have of winning it.
I am not sitting here typing with any confidence in that aspiration but we all know stranger things have happened in recent years. What is critical now is that Arsenal gets as close to the 27 possible points available to then beginning with 3 points at Goodison Park tomorrow. A visit to Everton has traditionally been a tricky fixture and they will be confident after their progress to the FA Cup Semi final but their home record this campaign has not been the best.
BetHut recently described the Camp Nou as one of Europe’s Football Fortresses, so to go there 2 goals down and face that atmosphere was always going to be daunting. If the exit was inevitable the level of performance we expected from our team was not. In reality we have seen Arsenal at their brilliant best, at their stubborn best and more often at their capitulating and naïve worst in the last month. Therefore what transpired on Wednesday evening was actually a pleasant surprise. Yes there was a continuation of a lack of confidence in front of goal but huge positives to be taken from the performance of the team, key individuals and in particular our pressing and build up play. It is the positives I am sure Wenger and his players will be looking to build on ahead of tomorrow when anything less than 3 points is failure.
So what are the lessons and the factors to consider ahead of Saturday Lunchtime’s opportunity for the Gunners to send out a signal to Spurs and Leicester that they have not yet thrown in the towel?
Alexis – There were definite signs that our Chilean talisman of last season may be getting his mojo back. I am certain this comes with instructions to play with more freedom, get closer to the striker and in essence go out and be a nuisance. On Wednesday we saw him ostensibly from the right which many have called for. It removed the predictability of him continually cutting on to his right foot to shoot of that we can agree. If he is given this free roaming role tomorrow how he plays it may depend on how the Toffee’s line up. Last week in the 3 behind Lukaku with Lennon on the right there was no natural width of the left with Ross Barkley and Tom Cleverly but of course we know Baines will be overlapping continuously. In conclusion Sanchez cab drift and get closer to his striker but will have to show the old work rate to support Bellerin when we lose possession.
Other Flank – If Alexis does stay on the right or actually even if he does not the next decision is who plays on the other side? Of course this is also dependent on who starts up top but I cannot see Wenger selecting anyone other than Welbeck. So the choice earlier in the season might have been between Ox and Theo but now I firmly believe his decision is between Campbell and Iwobi.
Walcott for whatever reason is contributing a fraction of what he has in the past and if not playing centrally lacks work rate, ball retention and most importantly the creativity the two younger players offer. Both Joel and Alex have developed well this campaign as we all search for good news and I think ultimately the young Nigerian will be a long term Gunner. However having not been involved at all in Barcelona I suspect our grinning Costa Rican will get the nod. Primarily because his energy in working back in support of his own fullback and tracking the runs of either Coleman or Baines gives him the edge.
Centre Backs – It was warming to see Koscienly take to the field on Wednesday evening and to last 90 minutes seemingly unscathed. He looked a tad rusty but superb to shake of the cobwebs in a match that we were never going to win but would be competitive and testing. This gives us our certain CB starter back and leaves Wenger with the decision that divides our supporters. Experience, game reading and distribution from Mertesacker on the one hand. Or better tackling, heading, aggression and clearing from Gabriel on the other. Both have their liabilities and I am not as unhappy with the Brazilian’s distribution as some but I honestly can’t call it myself. Based on recent section when all 3 of his first choices have been available it has been Gabriel over Per so Saturday may be the same. Who knows the tackle on Lukaku with which Gab announced his arrival so emphatically may inspire him.
Lennon – Aaron Lennon ‘a particular favourite’ of the Arsenal faithful has found a rich vein of form at Everton with a consistent run in the team. He has hit 5 gaols in his last 8 starts. He is relishing the challenge of facing Arsenal and in all seriousness on his game he needs to be shackled well. Monreal is arguably the best defensive left back in the Premier League and this promised to be a key battle. However he will often seek to cut in and allow Coleman to overlap as well so Nacho will need support from whichever wide man is ahead of him and the left sided holding midfielder.
Coq/Elneny – We were all surprised to see Coquelin rested in the Camp Nou but if he was nursing a sore calf it did not seems to hinder him when he came on for Flamini. Tomorrow he will resume his partnership with Mo Elneny who can be rightly pleased with his contribution and superbly taken goal. This pairing is pretty much all we have until Wilshere of Santi return, hopefully after the international break and fortunately there are signs that the partnership has merit. Both players have fabulous energy and strength but there are definite signs that the Eygptian has an eye for a pass, a shot and a well-timed run accompanied though with the discipline required for this system.
Ospina – Lastly a note on the much maligned shot stopper who has stepped in at a team morale was low, the pairings ahead of him changeable and has done particularly well.
We need Alexis and Welbeck to find their scoring boots to add to the movement and unpredictability which they give us that Giroud does not. Giroud has become Plan B and a good one but the 4231 with him playing with his back to goal made us easy to defend against, Win tomorrow, hope that the others don’t and then say a silent prayer to whichever God you believe in that one of Cazorla or Wilshire can add the missing ingredient after the break.