For some it was a dream, others pie in the sky. At best, it was a symbolic gesture but Manchester City’s return to scoring form killed the hopes some had of Arsenal topping the table. Dreams crumbled with the Newcastle defence and whilst Chelsea’s defeat offers an extra incentive, three points would put Arsenal above United in the table – provided there is enough of a margin of victory – and eight points clear of them which, as we found last season, is a big gap at this stage of the season.
Winning today is all that matters. The players, dishevelled in Tuesday night’s defeat, have to hit their peak once more. Thierry Henry offered the view that they won’t need motivating because of the opposition and the history of the match. He’s right, they shouldn’t need inspiration but they probably do. This is a big match for us and Henry spoke in a supporters words when referred to wanting to see the players prove themselves as title challengers but also put his ex-pro hat on, talking of the match from when he was a player.
Both clubs are in reduced circumstances compared to those halcyon days. Both were seen as top four challengers before the season, Arsenal seemingly in better shape. Roles are reversed at present although if City regain their form, it’s going to be a media procession to the title.
Both sides need victory today for ostensibly the same reason – three points – but to me, Arsenal need it more. Following Tuesday’s shambles with another defeat, especially to United, will be hugely damaging on the pitch and in the stands. Confidence is a brittle commodity in footballing terms and we’re reaching a point where the start of the season ends and the slog begins.
That some are still optimistic of qualifying for the Round of Sixteen in the Champions League is brilliant. I like that even if my view is entirely opposite; it’s someone else’s ‘right’ to throw away not ours to win but I’ll happily take that profit from someone else’s misery. This is football, after all.
Talk this week of retirement by the manager will only intensify the pressure in the aftermath of defeat. A more instinctive decision is entirely in keeping with the last contract renewal which, despite having been on the table for months beforehand, felt as though it was impulsively signed following victory over Hull. I don’t know the man but if it were me, I’d say too much ebullience in the future hinged on the result of a match which we had worked hard to throw away and then shown huge character to win. Euphoria in victory plays as many tricks on the mind as the despair of defeat.
Van Gaal’s season has moved in the opposite trajectory to Wenger’s. Ridiculed for his idiosyncrasies, the Dutchman has steadied the ship which was listing and taken them to the top of the table. Spending money in the summer saved his relationship with the media to the extent where the talk of Arsène leaving is discussed with the same fervour as a new contract for today’s opponent.
Arsène reportedly told the team what he thought of them this week. Glenn Hoddle recalled his time playing under Wenger at Monaco and maybe that is what is needed but also that it was a two-way street. Wenger wants the players to perform but they also require him to be adaptable, to understand his way isn’t necessarily always going to work. Plan B, mythical yet pragmatically introduced on occasion, needs to be more of a weapon at home, as well as away. And when they are working, send Jason and his Argonauts to find Plan C; should be easier than the Golden Fleece.
Being Arsenal, injury dictates the XI. Koscielny is out for this match, perhaps more who knows? Gabriel has been an able deputy and looks to be settling in for the long haul at the club whilst Francis Coquelin, sacrificed in midweek as Arsène chased a point at least, has been passed fit. Just as well, Flamini and Arteta are knacked to the point where Calum Chambers is the only other genuine option.
Wenger must be on the horns of a dilemma. Last weekend’s emphatic margin of victory can mask the need for battlers today but by the same token, he needs flair. A predictable XI but despite his error-prone ways, is there a place for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to give some directness to attack. Despite a tendency to keep his head down – part of his learning curve – the well-drilled United midfield and defence makes me wonder if that ‘variety’ of pace rather than the constant shifting of the ball infield, is better suited to this afternoon?
That would leave the XI (with the expected Arsène choices),
Cech; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Gabriel, Monreal; Coquelin, Ramsey (Cazorla); Oxlade-Chamberlain (Ramsey), Özil, Sanchez; Walcott
Ultimately, a win is required today even more so because defeat and its consequences don’t bear thinking about. It has the same feel in that sense as the trip to White Hart Lane recently. A big game ending in victory from the rancour of defeat? I’ll take that again; Gentlemen, do you think you might deliver?
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.