Sometimes your mind wanders. Who for instance would have thought Chelsea and City would have dropped points unexpectedly having been offered the opportunity to put Arsenal out of the title race. Well, not entirely out of the race but certainly on the back foot. Now, West Brom and Norwich City have offered Arsenal the opportunity to return to the top of the Premier League.
The headline applies to both sides. Arsenal need three points to keep the title destiny in their own hands, United’s need is to win a place in next season’s European club competitions. Worryingly for them, at least three of the top six will have exited the FA Cup come the sixth round draw closing off the route of extra Premier League places in the Europa League being available. Victory for Sunderland in the League Cup final would leave United with the very real prospect of weeks when midweek games are the sole preserve of other clubs. It is important that Arsenal do not forget the strong need for points they share with tonight’s opponents, that the presumption the club is more wounded does not become counter-productive mentally to the extent of complacency.
Pressure does strange things to people, Mesut Özil was near the infamous ‘Red Zone’ according to reports at the weekend. Arsène countered that with the view that he had ordered the German into the gym to prepare him better physically for the English game. There is no doubt he has looked out of sorts recently but he isn’t the only one either but they didn’t cost £42.5m. The price tag is being offered as a burden by the manager, one immediately knowingly undermined by Wenger’s observation that he ought to be used to pressure having survived the Real experience.
Some of the criticism of Özil is over the top – The Mirror’s betting expert referred the midfielder as being “as useful as a cyst” – but there is no denying a drop in his performance levels. Struggling with the demands of the English game is nothing unusual but sometimes expectations on our part are too high as well. The German has never been prolific in front of goal and at the moment is keeping to his average in that respect. There is however no denying his effectiveness as a creator has diminished since December. With the tag of the club’s most expensive signing, consistency was expected of the player but that does not recognise he is adapting to a new life off the pitch as well as a more ‘robust’ game than before. Like many others, I am convinced he is treading the path Robert Pires followed, struggling in his first campaign before the stratosphere beckoned but it takes time, a precious commodity at the moment.
Wenger himself noted the player needed a rest before Christmas, that he was used to a winter break. England has never taken the sensible course as far as that is concerned and Wenger knew that; if the player needed a rest, it suggests his preparation is not correct for the rigours of the English game. That situation should have improved by now so it is strange to suggest he actually needs a different conditioning; surely that was apparent in September and why wasn’t it tackled then? If it was, why has it been so ineffectively dealt with as the problem still exists five months later?
Against this backdrop, the commercial team has once more com as Arsenal have announced a new partnership with Cooper Tyres. It is another example of the club’s thoughtfulness; when visiting teams park their bus across the penalty area. All they need to do is sign up with a firm of mechanics and a full service can be offered. Arsenal refused to quash the rumour of a deal with NCP to charge teams for bringing their vehicles with them every week.
Not that I expect United to do so entirely tonight but Arsenal will need guile. Moyes’ teams have never been flamboyant but Everton were always well-drilled when they visited The Emirates, I would expect United to be the same. Arsène is hampered by the lack of changes he can make. The manager observation yesterday,
“After a big disappointment like that you always sit there thinking: ‘Do I make five or six changes or do I give them a chance to show it was just an accident?’ And most of the time you give the players a chance, especially if they have done well before. If there is a continuity of a bad patch you have to change things but, if it is just one game, most of the time you give the players a chance to respond.”
That’s a tough call because too many of the players were off-key to allow an unchanged side to take the field. Of course he is limited by injuries with Tomas Rosicky the only likely change in midfield and Kieran Gibbs an obvious defensive change to counter the likely recall of Valencia for United. Podolski and Gnabry might come in but I doubt it. It begs the question of who drops out: Wilshere, Cazorla or Özil? Wilshere is the obvious candidate but to me it would be the wrong choice. United will seek to stifle in midfield and I think Arteta will benefit from Wilshere and Rosicky meeting their opponents snappy tackles with their own. The Spaniard is not going to make way in such a high-profile game for an experiment with a Wilshere / Rosicky axis underpinning the team. Personally I would take the German and rest him for the reasons above; it is a big game but if he is struggling physically, Arsenal can ill-afford a passenger. Cazorla is more attuned to the English game and as such better prepared for the battle.
It leaves the line-up,
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Rosicky, Arteta, Wilshere; Cazorla, Giroud, Oxlade-Chamberlain
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the line-up is, what formation is employed. Tonight is primarily about the result but also the performance. Arsenal have talked the talk about the response to Saturday, now they have to walk the walk. Reprieves have been issued, it’s time for the jaws of the gift horse to be opened wide.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.