By curious coincidence Arsenal travel to Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion in the next few days. It’s the reverse order in the scenes of last season’s crimes and we’ve got to avoid it being another criminal performance tonight.
Three points take us to within six of Manchester United in second place. We won’t finish second this season but keeping that gap down doesn’t make me feel as bad as when I look at the 24 point gap to City at the top of the table.
Guardiola’s team are causing some consternation. Not because of how far ahead of us they are; no, it’s nothing important like that. The edginess stems from the possibility of City going unbeaten through the season. It’s the last thing some people have to hold onto; the last vestige of pride in the club.
Yet the real issue is how far ahead City are of us. You can point to the other teams and say it’s more or less the same for them. I don’t care; that’s their problem. Mine is how far and how quickly Arsenal have fallen behind. With Liverpool spending £75m on a defender, I am left conflicted. They are addressing their weaknesses, quickly and are willing to pay a premium to do so.
Are Arsenal prepared to be as pragmatic, although I reserve the right to change that to ‘stupid’ if Van Dijk turns out to be a pup at Anfield? Would we pay a ‘tax’ on a player? Would Arsène sanction a deal where he knew we were being charged a premium because of tapping up or because of who we are? I don’t think the answer is clear-cut. Far from it, in fact. His previous behaviour makes the answer to that more likely to be a ‘no’.
Arsène says he’s expecting to be “busy in the transfer window”; I’ll believe that when I see it. I know what you’re thinking: “Such cynicism in one so young”, but it’s how Arsenal’s words need to be treated.
Time for Action
At Palace last season, we bade farewell to the back four. A week later, it was cast aside for a back three at Middlesbrough. In the north London derby, the quartet resurfaced with Rob Holding ‘rested’, but that defeat cast it to the four winds – or the back four winds if you like – until now. Arsène thinks the back three made our game too “lateral” and switched to 4-2-3-1 again.
It doesn’t look any more successful than using the 3-4-3 variation. We aren’t scoring any more goals away from home than before and our goal difference is barely improving. That point was succinctly made on Twitter this week:
For a team that has kept 9 clean sheets in 19 games our goal difference is fucking pony. pic.twitter.com/GQ5Fn7Hdc3
— WestStandTone (@WestStandTone) December 26, 2017
And it is; there’s no point in denying it. Ours is worth an extra point to rival teams.
The change to a back four brought casualties, the most high-profile of which is Sead Kolasinac. Wenger commented yesterday that the new signing is a wing-back who might be able to fit in as a full-back. At some point. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of his transfer acumen, making the Bosnian out to be another Kallström who we signed because it was better than signing no-one.
It’s not the case, surely?
For tonight’s team, I don’t expect any changes beyond those enforced to the line-up which started against Liverpool. Mustafi will be in for Monreal but that’s pretty much it. Ainsley Maitland-Niles seems likely to keep his place, but I wouldn’t imagine it was clear-cut after Mo Salah gave him the runaround last weekend.
Wenger’s options are limited. I expect Jack Wilshere to start which leaves the choice of his midfield partner between Xhaka, Coquelin and Elneny. The current incumbent is enduring this season rather than enjoying it, but nothing is shaking Arsène’s belief in him. Nor I hasten to add, are Coquelin or Elneny doing enough in the team to usurp Xhaka.
It leaves the line-up:
Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Maitland-Niles; Wilshere, Xhaka; Sanchez, Özil, Iwobi; Lacazette
Three points are the order of the day. Nothing else will do if we’re to challenge for this top four place that everyone tells me is so important.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.