I’ve never been closer, I’ve tried to…well, I resisted temptation and left “My Friend Stan” out of today’s playlist which can be found on the right hand sidebar or here.
Norwich City have been designated as sacrificial lambs, heading for the slaughter at The Emirates alter this afternoon. Arsenal sit top of the league, the visitors are in the bottom three with three wins all season and one of them came in the League Cup. What could possibly go wrong?
If you think this is a home banker, I would refer you to the corresponding fixture last season. That too was deemed as three points for the taking. It ended that way but not without a considerable amount of huff, puff and outstanding goalkeeping from Lukasz Fabianski as Arsenal were made to work hard for their 3 – 1 victory with all the home side’s goals coming in the last ten minutes. The relief which greeted Mikel Arteta’s equaliser that sunny April afternoon told it’s own story but was the prelude to a frantic series of exchanges before Giroud and Podolski settled matters. The same scoreline without the frenetic ending would be most welcome today.
Certainly Arsène believes he can benefit from another in-form Pole between the sticks today. Wojciech Szczesny’s performance at Wembley was overlooked in the rush to congratulate England on reaching Brazil but it was outstanding in preventing the hosts running away with victory. Speaking about dropping the player last season, Wenger was quick to praise the maturity of his first choice goalkeeper as it capped his annus horiblis,
Every big player has to go through those disappointments and I believe he has matured as a result of what happened last year. I was always convinced he would make it here and the speculation linking Arsenal with another goalkeeper in the summer did not come from me.
He has returned to form, coinciding with the team producing first a solid set of results and subsequently, performances. It is not coincidental that defensively Arsenal improved and the perception of the same by goalkeepers arose. As the team learned to defend more cohesively, Szczesny and Fabianski were not left so routinely exposed by the poor positioning and decision-making of others. They made mistakes and as the last line of defence, the footballing cliche is they will be punished. Now with a more certain pairing at the heart of the back four, a unit that is more settled, the goals against tally is not being troubled so readily. It was something of a vicious circle as the defenders draw confidence from the goalkeeper’s performance and vice versa with the opposite holding true. The problems were resolved and whilst Szczesny may have felt the scapegoat, he took his chance when injury in this fixture robbed Fabianski of an extended run in the side.
The afternoon is set for the return of Santi Cazorla, albeit in the reduced role of substitute as he seeks to recover his match fitness. It won’t be any surprise if he enters the fray as Mesut Özil’s replacement with Arsène hoping to keep the latter fresh for the visit of Dortmund with the former being closer to a starting place. Whilst there is a valid debate over the pairing of Flamini and Arteta in the line-up, surely when fitness permits the supporting trio of Walcott, Özil and Cazorla will prevail and contrive to create the opportunities, as well as burying a few of their own. It is a trio which ought to strike fear into the minds of their opponents as they seek to stifle Arsenal’s attacking prowess. Of course injuries will preclude them from playing frequently in the same side, we know that but you cannot help but lick your lips at the prospect.
Arsène is focussed on other matters. This time last year saw the wheels fall off the Arsenal wagon in spectacular fashion. Against the same opponents. Little wonder he sought to remind the public and his own charges of the dangers posed in matches which are supposedly straightforward. The October international break proved troublesome a year ago, victory at Upton Park was followed by a run of two wins in seven games and some abject performances, notably in defeat at Carrow Road. A fixture against Norwich preceding a Champions League home game against a German side. Wenger could be forgiven for wincing as the realisation of how the run of matches would unfurl. I am sure he hasn’t even given it a second thought; that would mean focussing on the past, something which he is loathe to do.
Indeed, the relevance of such coincidences are to serve only as warnings, measures to prevent complacency. He certainly won’t be using the anniversary of The Invincibles victory over Aston Villa to go 49 matches unbeaten nine years ago, as anything other than a personal memory; that was then, this is now. A decade on and much has changed around Arsenal, it is a different footballing world and whilst we always say things will never happen again, it took more than a century for Arsenal to emulate Preston’s unbeaten run. If you look at the quality of the Premier League currently, it is hard to say that there is an outstanding enough squad who can replicate Arsenal’s achievements. There isn’t even a nascent group that is threatening to be above the crowd, the norm, to suggest a feat being repeated in the immediate future.
For this afternoon, it is difficult to see Arsène making many changes. Quite simply he doesn’t have that many options just yet. Ramsey was highlighted as one who has played a great deal so far this season but it would be a surprise to see him make way this afternoon or before an hour of the match has passed. Jack Wilshere have been underused by England as a result of indiscretions yet it will be a surprise if he is not in the starting line-up. Rotation is a few weeks away, injuries have not yet finished weaving their way through the squad. The line-up will no doubt bear a close resemblance to that which earned a point at The Hawthorns a fortnight ago, possibly Bacary Sagna returning in place of Carl Jenkinson but in view of the opposition in the Champions League next week, it probably won’t be too hard for the manager to give his experienced full back another day or two of rest?
Elsewhere, Dennis Bergkamp has been giving a round of media interviews for you to enjoy during the build-up to this afternoon’s match. You have bought Stillness and Speed: My Story, haven’t you?
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.