Congratulations to Pat Rice, this morning announced as the recipient of the MBE for services to sport in the New Year’s Honours List. Unfairly scapegoated when times were tough, his popularity was evident immediately after the final whistle at The Hawthorns last season. The official site has a tribute, I’ll settle for a simple expression of thanks for 44 years service to Arsenal Football Club.
The visit of Newcastle United to The Emirates for the teatime kick-off comes against a backdrop of the usual teasing of the media by Arsène. January, he observed, would be “busy” and I don’t think he was referring to the list of chores that he has to complete at home. The transfer market beckons and proving his point that the media would make up names, this morning’s papers are choc-a-block with stories about how Thierry Henry was back (“he has had a second spell at the Club that was very successful. You have to be cautious that it’s not one time too many“), Demba Ba is on but Arsène does not want to inspire him whilst the Daily Heil doesn’t know if Nani is coming or going. Nothing like hedging your bets. My concern over Nani is not so much the player but the fact that I cannot immediately remember us buying a good player off United. Loads have gone their way – Herd, Graham, Stapleton, Anderson, van Persie – but what of the reverse journey? Silvestre, Leighton? There’s a slight imbalance in those dealings. Andrey Arshavin meanwhile, is not going to Reading this Winter. Well, not unless they talk to Arsenal first.
All this and Chuba Akpom being named in The Independent list of those to watch in 2013 too.
Henry’s return – to me – makes sense from the squad perspective. I am not sure that signing him on a playing contract is a worthwhile venture but to have a player of that experience training with Theo Walcott can surely be a beneficial experience. For others, particularly the younger players, an Arsenal legend in and around the dressing room ought to be inspirational. The Times suggests that Walcott is holding out for £100k. I don’t have a problem with that size salary but only if a chunk of it is performance-related, not on the team but on the player himself. If he wants that money, he’s got to earn it. At a club like Arsenal, we need a 30-goal-a-season striker. There you go, Theo, take on the challenge. If, as Arsène suggested, Walcott plays in central and wide positions on a rotational basis, alter the totals to reflect the importance of creation as well. It won’t happen because despite being repeatedly told football is a results business, when players wages are discussed, it definitely isn’t.
With a full squad to choose from, Arsène has choices to make for the first time in a while. The week’s break has made those choices somewhat trickier in that there should be no obviously tired players having rested since last Saturday lunchtime. The win at Wigan muddies the water all the more, why should he change a winning line-up? The most consideration is whether there are square pegs in round holes or if he has the best options available. The visit to Southampton on Tuesday is a factor to bear in mind but the key focus is three points against a team with an appalling away record.
No matter how the media dress their performance at Old Trafford, Newcastle still lost, threw away the lead three times and conceded in the last minute. When you read any interview with a footballer who broaches the subject, scoring three goals away from home is expected to bring some reward. They had none and as much as they can draw on the positive of scoring three times against the league leaders, they conceded more readily and more often. That is something Arsenal can exploit, particularly with the team news suggesting that they will have a makeshift central defensive partnership.
In midfield, Tomas Rosicky returns to the squad but surely to a place on the bench at kick-off. I was about to offer the proposition that he may get on for half-an-hour or more if an unassailable lead is established but then I recalled St James Park and, more recently, the Madejski Stadium. With Arsenal when exactly is a lead established that can be considered unassailable?
The line-up I would expect this evening is:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Cazorla, Arteta, Wilshere; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Podolski
Being the last match of the day, Arsenal will know where they are going to finish the day. Everton and West Brom are in prime positions to drop points this weekend whilst Tottenham will be wary at the Stadium of Light. Ultimately though, it is up to Arsenal to win their games, to take maximum return from their fixtures and wait for others to falter. It is not must win any more than the matches are anyway.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.