Hopefully Hull will arrive at The Emirates tonight and not be captured running loose in Regent’s Park, leading an insurrection among the other denizens of London Zoo. I am sure Dr Allam is looking to discard the name City for the best of reasons – and I chuckled as he denigrated the likes of Leicester and Manchester as common; non-UK residents may not realise how near to the mark he was with that observation. Not only is Hull Tigers a touch too Sunday League cricket for my personal tastes but with their history of financial problems in the past thirty years, is linking the club with an endangered species somewhat insensitive? Some supporters are vociferous in their opposition to the owner’s plans and certainly spurious observations such as those of Rob Shepherd that the club’s name until 1904 are irrelevant as Hull City AFC was formed in that year.
It’s all a sideshow or occupying the outer of the three rings in this circus. What matters is tonight and having tossed aside Liverpool’s challenge on Sunday, Hull will be more confident than they might otherwise have been. Their away form may undermine that, the solitary win at Newcastle should not be disregarded but defeats at the rest of the top five suggest that fortune has not favoured them in their matches against the ‘big’ clubs. They lost at Tottenham as well. Tonight is the ninth league meeting between the two clubs and the visitors solitary win came in their first visit to The Emirates five years ago. The element of surprise may not be so strong this time around but nonetheless, Arsenal’s professionalism will mean that they are not underestimated. On the pitch anyway.
Arsène is more concerned with the pressure and the impact of fatigue. It was a theme he warmed to following the victory over Marseilles when he focussed on the fixtures leading into the trip to Naples. Bacary Sagna’s hamstring ensures that there will be a change at right back with Carl Jenkinson slotting into his place. The youngster has critics, judged harshly considering he has always grown in confidence as the frequency of his starts grows. It is hard for players now; years ago, the Football Combination provided a tougher environment with its mix of first team players and hopefuls. Match preparation was better than sitting on the bench for weeks on end, waiting for injury or form to dictate inclusion. The problem now is that judgement is swift, immediate and that has been passed in some quarters even though evidence before our eyes suggests defenders improve with maturity, regular inclusion in the side. We saw it with Lauren at right back, Koscielny in the defence. It is too soon to take the view that Jenkinson will not be good enough to replace Sagna.
Football is a game of opinions where arbitrary rules apply to judging their worth. It was surprising to hear Arsène takes note of anyone’s opinion before dismissing it, as he rightly should. In most cases, anyway; you would hope that he has fostered an atmosphere where coaching staff are not afraid to voice their view, even if it is at odds with that of the manager. Football has always had pundits and opinions, their number increased with more outlets for those views. The internet is this era’s public bar and media outlets need their advertising revenues. There is a difference in the pundits duty; it is not about the validity of his opinion but the content and the more contentious, the better. Radio, television, print and electronic media; they need viewers, listeners and readers to substantiate their existence in this ratings-mad world, to keep the money coming in. If you are talking about a pundit, his editor will think he is doing a good job although not if you are Michael Owen, obviously. Or Robbie Savage. Or Alan Hansen. Those who dislike opinion, want to suppress others whose viewpoint is different miss the point; that is their opinion and who judges whether it has more merit than others?
It’s a theme I’ll return to in another post for it has no relevance to this evening’s match which thankfully wasn’t yesterday. Wenger’s rotation policy is something the likes of Mourinho is hoping will cause a stumble. Sometimes the Portugeezer hits the nail on the head; four points is not a gap, especially when the two sides meet in a few weeks time. Nine to United, ten to Tottenham as he rightly noted, is a gap. Hands up those who are marking off the Feast of St Totteringham with each passing week? I know I am not alone in working that date out. The pressure, as the manager noted, is always there at a club like Arsenal, shifting from chasing a target to leading the pack where the knowledge of being the prey drives performances, results. Games such as this evening have been the unseen pothole in the past, something which the manager is taking great strides to avoid happening. By the end of the season, who knows, we may look back at the opening day defeat and observe that was it, that was the stupid result. It would be nice to do so but even champions stumble; it is the reaction to those setbacks which sets champions aside from the rest.
The balancing act Wenger has in rotation is not affecting the flow of the side, continuing the momentum which is why it would be surprising if there are wholesale changes each game. Even then, circumstances would be exceptional if those rotated out of the starting line-up, end up anywhere other than the bench. A lot of the pundits opinions are based on the lack of cover for Olivier Giroud and if there was one game this month where the Frenchman could drop to the bench, it is this one.
Rightly or wrongly – and that depends largely on the target of your footballing affections – Hull City are the weakest opponents we face in December. The rest are in European places in either the Premier League or Serie A. The problem is the replacement; Walcott could start in the centre but necessitating a change in the style of play, exploiting his pace but the visitors can quickly negate that by sitting deeper. Home games are not necessarily the best use of Walcott in this position. Akpom or Aneke might come in but if Wenger is going to rotate, Nicklas Bendtner is the likeliest replacement and I am not convinced the manager trusts him enough to deliver the goals required for victory. For that reason, I would expect the line-up to be:
Szczesny; Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta, Flamini; Walcott, Özil, Rosicky; Giroud
Whatever the case, three points is all that is required. Boosting goal difference is nice but points are the first target.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.