It’s arrived. The latest in a seemingly unending line of ‘must-win’ games is here. That we are in this position is at once baffling and unsurprising. Typically Arsenal, you might say, of recent years. It is what it is, we face up to today’s task and save questions for another day.
Leicester topping the Premier League is a modern-day fairy tale and one which Arsène thinks is good for the game generally. Not for him personally or Arsenal; in that sense, it’s an indictment of the squad’s failure to find any sustained title-winning consistency thus far. Five points behind the leaders, they need to do so beginning today.
It’s a fixture that Arsenal have traditionally won. It must be thirty years or more since Leicester won in this part of north London; I certainly don’t readily recall them doing so. In fact, I’m struggling to remember the last time we failed to beat them in a home match, it really has been that much of a home banker in the past.
Not today. And being Arsenal, injuries seem to have taken their toll once more with Gabriel reportedly succumbing to a thigh strain that is likely to keep him out for several weeks. If true, it offers Per Mertesacker a quick opportunity at redemption following his dismissal against Chelsea. The same dangers apply today as that Sunday; counter-attacks are Leicester’s potent attacking weapon and the German will need to use all his experience to compensate for his lack of pace.
The basis of Leicester’s success lays open an interesting question. At the King Power, Arsenal used the same tactic with great success eventually, romping home 5 – 2. Should Arsène employ the same ‘rope-a-dope’ plans which have proved successful against United, City and Bayern at home this season? A hint on Friday was that Arsenal will play to their strengths as the home side which is open to some interpretation.
We may get a better idea when the XI is announced. Francis Coquelin seems certain to return to the side today and his midfield partner could prove decisive. If he has returned to training, I would partner use Elneny to give a more disciplined barrier to the back four, shifting Aaron Ramsey back to the wider role where he was arguably more effective in the earlier part of the season. A more functional element, aimed at neutering an effective opposition ploy.
However, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scoring and putting in a decent shift last week, today is the chance to build on that and restore some of his confidence and self-belief. He also has the pace to cause problems in attack and support Hector Bellerin in defence, more so than Joel Campbell in my view.
There is then the question of which forward is best suited to such a line-up and frankly there are drawbacks to Giroud, Walcott and Danny Welbeck being employed at kick-off.
The latter seems unlikely having been out for the best part of a year through injury. It’s just inviting a hamstring twang to push this hard this soon and in fairness, contrary to how Arsène has nursed others back to full match fitness. A pity because his pace could have caused Leicester problems. Which leaves Giroud and Walcott.
Both are out of sorts in front of goal with Giroud not scoring for a month, a point Arsène sought to deflect at his press conference. An assist, he proclaimed, was as good as a goal in his eyes. The problem with Giroud is that he scores in bursts, followed by equally long fallow periods. It’s been a month since he scored at Anfield and in that time, as if to underline the problem, we haven’t scored in three of the four Premier League games. It isn’t title-winning form from the XI or the individual.
However, Walcott is hardly inspiring any more confidence. Since injury and being forced to play the wider role, he has been fitful in his form, underlining his desire to play centrally and undermining those aspirations at the same time. Neither leaves me thinking we will find the net through the lead striker today. One has to be chosen though.
It leaves the line-up:
Cech; Bellerin, Mertesacker (Gabriel if fit), Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Ramsey; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, Sanchez; Giroud
I’m not sure the performance really matters today; Arsenal have to win and that’s the reality of the situation. Failure to do so leaves them in a battle for third of fourth, defeat completely ruling the title out. It shouldn’t have come to this but it has so we get on with it.
And I think we will win. Arsène will have seen their win at City last weekend, a good performance from today’s visitors allied with City being equally poor. Arsenal have to avoid that trap and show the hunger, the desire to challenge for the title. Win with a ninety-minute performance matching the stunning ninety seconds which saw off Bournemouth last weekend. But three points no matter what, at the final whistle; no mistakes.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.