Arsenal arrive at St James Park knowing that victory is required to return to the top of the table. Having returned to winning ways at Upton Park, Arsène Wenger will be keen for momentum to build in a run of fixtures in which it will be disappointing to drop more than two points. This is the toughest fixture between now and the visit to Anfield in February and one where Arsenal have fared reasonably well; one defeat in the last fourteen visits to Tyneside bodes well historically and whilst Newcastle are in good form, Arsenal’s is arguably better despite the defeat at Eastlands a fortnight ago.
Last season’s corresponding fixture carried more significance in its immediate outcome, the squad criticised in some quarters for celebrating ‘achieving’ fourth place. It is something which Theo Walcott is only too aware of,
If we had those celebrations for fourth, I would be disappointed as well. We know where we want to be this season. We know how good we are. We are at the top of the League in a tight League where a lot of teams have taken points off each other. We need to make sure that come the end of the season we are up there. Last season, we were a squad which worked so hard and a lot of people put us down before we had that fantastic run of 10 games unbeaten after Bayern. The emotions were felt by everyone and it was important to show it to the fans, of course. But we want this to be at the end of the season when we have actually won something.
Walcott, like Lukas Podolski, has a key role to play in shaping the season. Olivier Giroud’s barren spell in front of goal requires others to step forward to relieve the pressure as the Frenchman works his way out of the rut with the scorers at West Ham the most obvious candidates to provide a solution. It does not alleviate Giroud’s responsibility being the club’s first choice striker but as long as others can compensate for his lack of goals, his unselfishness and hard work brings opportunities for others. This spell however reinforces the need for a second striker; personally I do not believe that Podolski is at his most effective as a centre forward. He has been more effective for the team on the left but until the transfer window yields its secrets, Wenger will have to ‘make do and mend’.
The team will be rotated with injuries at the forefront of the manager’s mind. Combined with the absence of Ramsey, the midfield will be reshaped with Mesut Özil also reported to be rested for this afternoon. In some respects, resting the German for this match is a surprise – Cardiff and Tottenham are more obvious choices – it suggests a pragmatic approach to the formation and tactics today. Having tried to buy Yohan Cabaye in the summer, Wenger is well aware of the pivotal role his compatriot has played in Newcastle’s current run. Omitting Özil creates the opportunity to use Flamini’s combative and harrying style of play to subdue Cabaye’s delivery to others.
For the remaining midfield slot, Wenger has a straightforward choice between Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere to replace Ramsey. Much will depend on how long he intends to rest Özil, whether he will miss the New Year’s Day fixture. If he is to do so, the likelihood is that Wilshere will be selected with Rosicky unlikely to play two games in three days. Which leaves a final decision for the manager regarding the defence; Koscielny or Vermaelen. It isn’t much of a choice, Wenger has made it clear that his favoured pairing is Mertesacker and the Frenchman. You sense that a monumental collapse in form would be necessary for that to change. It is hard for Vermaelen but in the recent games, it is harsh to criticise the Belgian as culpable for any of the goals conceded. A horrible coincidence that some of the defending was reminiscent of 2012-13 at its worst when he has appeared.
That leaves the line-up as:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Flamini, Arteta, Wilshere; Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla
Avoiding defeat must be the first objective for today’s match in order to stay in touch with the leaders over the coming month or so, when the fixtures are kind to Arsenal is crucial to ensuring this season gets some reward for the improvements shown thus far.
As you wait for kick-off, time to relive one of the greatest goals ever scored.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.