What a difference twelve months makes. Arsenal travel to Manchester early this season in considerably better fettle than the last campaign when an injury-riven squad forced Pat Rice and Arsène to bring their boots with them to make the numbers up on the bench. Yes there are players missing today but the two situations are not comparable. Arguably the only key player missing today is Wojciech Szczesny but given results so far, it is questionable perhaps whether he is the club’s first choice goalkeeper.
The headlines are screaming that Arsène has declared this his best ever midfield (he didn’t) but this is arguing about opinions. It is hard to disagree that for the first time in several seasons, Arsenal have strength in depth in the middle of the park. Like those seasons previously, a proviso has to be added - so long as they stay fit and the injured players return. We have seen the scenario before, players out injured, return are like new signings and then disappear off again injured. Little wonder the manager is never very active in the transfer market if he thinks all of his new signings will be missing for months on end.
It is reassuring to see that there is no rush to get Jack Wilshere back into first team action. Previous seasons have seen pressure requiring a speedier return to action than might normally be expected, this time Jack is looking at a reserve match on 1st October as his target. Dispensing with the haste comes as a result of the form of the current first choice players, the seamless transition of Mikel Arteta into the deeper-lying role, Abou Diaby‘s return to fitness and Santi Cazorla’s introduction.
Consider that for a moment. Three players. Last season’s Mr Consistent in the attacking role changing his position. Mr Injured. Mr New Signing. Three players who had never played together before. You would not believe it from their performances this season. It puts the efforts of previous seasons into perspective, speaking volumes of their abilities.
Key to that is consistency of selection, a luxury rarely afforded to the manager, available because each of the individuals is intelligent enough to realise that they are an important cog in a team rather than being the saviour. Cazorla is catching the eye, living up to the expectations piled on with observations such as these from Robert Pires,
When I got to Villarreal. I saw this incredible footballer. Santi dictated the play, had a great shot and had everything that a really big club would look for. We thought that would be Real Madrid
Thankfully that fell through and this afternoon will bring jarring comparisons between the two Spanish internationals on display. Similar to those faced by Abou Diaby and Yaya Toure. The Ivorian rejected by Arsène Wenger earlier in his career is offering the consistent level of performance that Diaby should aspire to at Arsenal. And I use the word ‘aspire’ guardedly, simply because of the negative impact of injuries. The two are not yet comparable for that reason but ought to fill the same roles in the team. Maybe in this clash later this season – more likely next season – the Frenchman will have been able to deliver a season of performances which justify that expectation.
The biggest question for Arsène this afternoon is defensive. Three of the four positions are surely sealed, Sagna is not ready to resume action so Jenkinson retains his place alongside Gibbs and Vermaelen but does Mertesacker? The German has been a steadying influence at the back but is the prospect of Aguero and Tevez starting enough for Wenger to change his central pairing, to restore Laurent Koscielny whose pace is better than the tall German. Like the midfield, it is a headache that the manager could only dream about in the past. This time, I think Koscielny will return with pace being the deciding factor.
The starting line-up I would pick is:
Mannone; Jenkinson, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Arteta, Cazorla, Diaby; Gervinho, Giroud, Podolski
It means no place for Oxlade-Chamberlain but with Gervinho finding the net in the past two matches, it seems perverse to drop him. But those are the decisions the manager has to make and arguably playing the same line-up and formation which won at Anfield makes sense. I don’t think that will be the case though. The trio above offers a great deal of variety in attack: Giroud is direct and uncomplicated, Podolski is the threat from deep and Gervinho is, well, Gervinho and God alone knows what is going on in the Ivorian’s head at the moment.
Forty-five years ago today Arsenal beat Manchester City 1 – 0 at Highbury with John Radford scoring the decisive goal. A repeat Arsenal win today would be most welcomed.
Enjoy the match wherever you watch it.