It’s the usual time of the season; March arrives as February’s debris is left scattered across the horizon. According to Arsène, this is a vital time of the campaign. It is; simply put, everything worth playing could be gone by the end of the month unless the players respond to Wednesday’s humiliation in a positive manner.
Today’s visitors Everton, for all their manager’s platitudes will be looking for the chinks in the Arsenal armour which were so ruthlessly exposed in Europe. Anyone watching the game or reading the comments from Monaco’s coach and players will know where they are. Whether they are able to exploit them is another matter.
Decision day has probably passed already for Arsène; he knows who will be cut from the side which failed so miserably in midweek. Jack Wilshere won’t be fit following minor surgery whilst it’s too soon for Ramsey and Arteta. It limits his midfield options, with Rosicky and Flamini the only alternatives. With talk of Özil needing a rest, it sounded to me that Wenger had already made some of his decisions.
Speaking to the media this weekend, Arsène offered a simple selection rationale,
“We have to find a team balance. When you have the ball in the modern game you have to attack, when you don’t have the ball you have to defend. All the players who can’t do that cannot play.”
None of the players managed that on Wednesday so it will be an Academy side he fields this afternoon.
I did wonder in the aftermath of the defeat whether there was a case for leaving the team intact for the visit of Everton but it seems impossible to make a convincing case for doing so. It’s not just down to Wednesday, Arsenal have been unconvincing since the North London Derby. There has been a fragility evident in their defensive play against Leicester and Palace which although won, were games where they could quite easily have dropped two points.
It is an occasion for wholesale changes, beginning at the back with the restoration of Szczesny and Monreal to the defence. Ospina has been exposed in recent games and I’m not sure whether his nervousness is as a result of the problems ahead of him or part of the cause.
Equally, Per Mertesacker was significantly off-key and was at fault for Berbatov’s goal in the Champions League. It’s not the first time in recent weeks where the German has stumbled and having signed Gabriel from Villarreal, it strikes me that Arsène would be remiss not to rest his BFG.
Elsewhere, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott will replace Özil and Welbeck in the starting XI, although the German’s absence would mean Cazorla shuffling into the central attacking role with Walcott’s insertion on the right shifting Alexis to the left. Wenger doesn’t have any options up front beyond Welbeck so Olivier Giroud gets the chance to see if the Everton defence is more robust than his of Szczesny and Wilshere.
It leaves the line-up,
All of which means that Arsène will probably field an unchanged side…
The licking of wounds seems such a common feeling following what is effectively a Champions League exit. At 1 – 2, Arsenal were still very much in the tie but it was undone by breathtaking naïvety, the like of which is baffling to supporters and for a time left after the final whistle left the manager bewildered.
Whilst the players are in the spotlight, you can feel its’ arc widening to bring the manager back under scrutiny. There is an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, a feeling that we are always going to be in this situation; Arsène needs to inspire the players to an immediate response today, feeding a thunderous end to the season.
Such situations are always testing for the manager but that Monaco are such an ordinary side intensifies the disappointment and despondency. If Arsenal cannot overcome one the weaker sides left in the Champions League, they have no hope against Europe’s élite. The club remains entrenched in its ranking between 9 – 16 in continental football, becoming more synonymous for its wealth that ability.
That’s not a good position to be in for the long-term.
From The Vaults
Today’s trip down Memory Lane takes us back to February 1960. Mel Charles arrived at Arsenal with the tag of the most expensive transfer fee between British clubs weighing heavily on him. It appeared his fortunes may have been looking up as he hit a hat-trick in the previous home game to this one in a 5 – 2 win over Blackburn which lifted Arsenal to the heady heights of thirteenth.
The season had been poor by Arsenal’s standards. Before kick-off they were fifteenth with just twenty-six points from twenty-nine games (this in the days of two points for a win). It wasn’t as bad as Everton’s season though; they were nineteenth but only three points behind. The two elder statesmen of top-flight football were flirting with relegation.
It was a fate they would both avoid. Arsenal finished thirteenth and Everton two places below.
Enjoy today’s match wherever you are watching it.