Okay so it has not been the greatest week of our season. In fact in many ways I feel it has been our worst. On reflection we were not dreadful against United, as we were at Anfield, but the game was there to be won and we failed.
I have not been on social media so much this week, certainly after Wednesday because I knew the toxic nature of the arguments that would be there. However one theme I am delighted to see developing is that a majority seem to recognize that Sunday’s FA Cup match is far more important for our season than the mid week first leg versus Bayern. Last season, not so much amongst stadium goers, but with the wider audience of fans, I felt in the minority considering Blackburn a bigger match at the same stage than Bayern last season. This season there is a realization that for Arsenal’s season, for the squad confidence and for the fans a victory over Liverpool is easily the more vital.
There are many reasons why this may be and why the perspective is so different to last season:
– We all know that to win against the in from Premiership side, so soon after a heavy defeat against the same opposition will do wonders for the players and send a message out swift to our rivals that we are still a force
– A victory sees us 2 games away from a Wembley final in a competition that might only have one other big side left in it.
– Lose versus Liverpool and we give up the opportunity to win the FA Cup a realistic target. Lose versus Bayern and we will struggle to reach the next round of a competition considerably less winnable if we are honest.
– Beat Liverpool and the confidence which looks to be wavering in the player domestically will return ahead of three very winnable league games.
– Lose versus Liverpool playing a weakened side as we did last time against Blackburn and even if the players are different the squad will be deflated ahead of Bayern anyway.
Whichever way we cut it Sunday is, for me at least the more significant encounter and one that is we win will set us up for the challenges ahead. Confidence breeds confidence and failing to beat Liverpool, United and then Liverpool and I struggle to see a recovery in the fragile confidence. Conversely a victory, a notable scalp and a step closer to Wembley and the squad will be buzzing again. No pressure then!!
On a purely personal note I love the FA Cup and if that is our first trophy after the long barren spell then that suits me just fine.
So the next big question is how do we change the set up, personnel, or tactics with largely with the same crop of players to select from and without the 2 sparks we are missing badly in Ramsey and Walcott?
From my perspective, given that we all know, depressingly that there is more chance of Bergkamp making a comeback than Wenger changing the system the key has to be to try an replicate some of what we have lost from the 2 absentees.
So what is the key ingredient we have lost with Ramsey? It is undoubtedly the engine and running which allowed him to get beyond Giroud. We all know Giroud will not run after a through ball but we equally know that his hold up play enables our midfield to run beyond him into space. This being the case whoever plays as the advanced pivot on Sunday has to give us that running and the desire to get in the box to score goals. For whatever reason Jack Wilshere singularly failed to do this against United and in addition was exceedingly wasteful in possession. I am not sure is he stayed so deep consciously or sub consciously thinking he needed to support Arteta but either way it took so much away from the side going forwards. That is not to say Jack cannot fulfill the role but right now the energy and forward momentum in that key position is not there from him. This being the case and given what we saw against Palace I would be delighted to see Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain start on Sunday. His passing seems more measured of late and the energy and timing of his forward running will replicate what Ramsey gave us earlier in the campaign.
Alongside Ox and despite the fact that I have not forgiven him for his idiocy that cost us a potential 2 extra points at St Mary’s I would still prefer Flamini. His extra mobility alongside Chamberlain will be crucial against a resurgent and highly mobile Henderson. In addition his extra pace and ground coverage will be required to support the full backs and double up against either Coutinho or Sterling as required.
This extra defensive discipline will be crucial given what I would love to see ahead of Ox and Flamini. This is the more controversial suggestion perhaps but I feel that Podolski and Ozil should start either side of Cazorla behind Giroud. I have suggested this a few times and not surprisingly it has been greeted with uproar – How can you put one of the world’s best No.10 on the right?
My answer is quite simple and practical and it lies in what might be best for the team. In essence we have 2 brilliant central attacking midfield playmakers in Ozil and Cazorla, 3 if we include Mozart. This being the case, one or 2 of them is in my view not playing in their position. I know many disagree and feel Santi is fine on the left but for me his is forever drifting in field and out of position. Lovely when we are attacking but disastrous when we are defending. He undoubtedly has had a rocket from Wenger as this side of his game was better against United but it is far from natural to him and when playing with Monreal our left has been horribly exposed. In addition he hardly ever crosses the ball from the left and it is the ball being whipped in that we require to best utilise Giroud.
This is not anything against Cazorla, more that I prefer him centrally where he can do more damage and with Podolski on the left, we as a team get more crosses in the area and have a left side attacker who will naturally be closer in support of Giroud when the attacking is from the right. Lukas had proved beyond doubt that he does not have the attributes to play the lone striker role in our system but what Wenger seems to have lost faith with him on the left baffles me. (Indeed I would go as far as to say that is Wenger had no trust in Podolski he should have bought in January. Having not bought to then not play the German in a World Cup season is insulting to the player and the supporters.)You only have to see how he changed the whole complexion of the match against West Ham to see what balance and threat the German can give us. Last season from August to January Podolski in this position gave us a combination of around 16 goals or assists in the league.
The last position if of course the one that many object to and it is understandable, but Ozil does drift to the right frequently and when he is there whilst he cannot replace the pace of Walcott he can give is the other dimension we miss. Mesut ,unlike Cazorla when playing wide will overlap with Sagna or indeed try and beat the full back and get a whipped cross into the penalty area. Yes Giroud missed one he should have scored on Wednesday but he has scored many like that for us. My point is that he had one of 2 balls of that ilk in the whole game but if we had Ozil and Podolski operating more in the wide areas that aspect of our game would improve and play to Olivier’s strengths. It is very easy to jump on Giroud’s back and he may well not be the long-term solution but whilst he is the only solution we have to play more to his attributes. Ozil is in the top 5 for crossing accuracy this season and most have been from the right flank.
Some may feel Ozil would react adversely to being asked to shift away from his preferred position but I have it on very good authority that nothing could be further from the truth. He is a team player and will work hard on behalf of the team in which ever position he is asked to play. As a member of Wenger’s staff told me recently “He doesn’t care, he just wants to play football.”
Against Southampton in the second half before and after Flamini’s sending off Ozil worked superbly primarily on the right, both offensively and defensively and I just feel playing him there whilst we have no Walcott gives the side balance. Of course the 2 play makers can still switch and be fluid but with Podolski and Chamberlain They may well have more runners and bodies to find in the danger area on Sunday.
One final observation but an extremely valid one is that the most effective play maker in the league at present, although it pains me to write it, is Hazard. Most games the Belgian is starting in a wide position usually on the left. He influences every match in an attacking sense but when not in possession he knows his role and performs it admirably. I am sure that he would have considered himself a no.10 too. He is still there and flourishing in an efficient unit and Juan Mata is not. A lesson in there I feel!
To emphasize this is not my preferred long term solution but until Walcott is fit for balance and increased goal threat Ozil on the right and Podolski on the left with Ox running beyond represents our best chance to create and score more on Sunday and in the short-term at least. Here is the side I would like to see to win on Sunday, progress to the Quarters and restore confidence and belief both on the pitch and in the stands.
As I finish writing this Wenger has confirmed that Cazorla is ill in bed. If Santi is unavailable I would still be tempted to try the same set up leaving Ozil predominantly right and bring Rosicky into his preferred role at CAM. Rosicky like Ox will also run beyond Giroud and getting behind the fragile LFC back kine will be the deciding factor.
This is a very personal blog, but firmly based on what I believe using the same formation that Wenger prefers might allow us more width and crossing as an alternative to the constant methodical central build up.
Anyway I want to go to Wembley again. 3 years is too long!
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