So that’s it then. International football is safely ensconced in front of the log fire, hibernating for the winter. Arsenal’s players return to training today with all eyes focussed on Alexis and his hamstrings. A nation of shopkeepers has become a nation of voyeurs.
It says much about the state of the game when the story of the day in some papers is which clubs paid for a private jet for their players and who had to slum it with the mortals on a commercial flight. Arsenal, of course, had an answer to that question with a club spokesman claiming that some players snub private jets because there is more room on a commercial flight. Ahem.
All the while the world’s gaze was on Chile, Santi Cazorla is wondering when his Achilles will heal enough to be able to play again. Speaking on Cadena COPE, a Spanish radio station, the midfield wizard couldn’t give a definitive answer:
I still don’t know the exact time. I am trying to return as soon as possible to be with the team again, but I cannot say if it will be soon or if I still have a few weeks left
Brinkmanship from the club and player, hiding the fact that he is fit from prying Manchester United eyes or genuinely in doubt and unable to put a timescale on it? Probably something Arsène will update on after he’s fielded fifty questions about Alexis at this morning’s press conference.
We know that Cazorla is pivotal to Arsenal’s style of play and against Tottenham in particular, he was sorely missed. It’s probably Arsène’s biggest decision for the team this weekend. Solving the Alexis ‘problem’ is easy. He plays if fit, Giroud plays if not. Midfield? He has options. Elneny, Xhaka or Ramsey; two will stabilise, one will support the attack, with Alexis’ fitness deciding the issue.
Slotting Ramsey on the right only works if Theo is shifted left and Alex Iwobi drops to the bench. We know Arsène will set up to counter-attack so that line-up change is a distinct possibility. United played with a three-man central defence at Swansea and with their injury concerns will probably do the same again this weekend.
Wenger may choose to counter the threat of the wing backs with Ramsey, particularly if as expected, Carl Jenkinson is right back. Capable though he is, there’s no doubt United would view him as the ‘weak link’ in Arsenal’s defence.
Mesut Özil, suitably rested after his omission from the German squad, has a key role to play. A sharp performance from the maestro is needed this weekend if we’re to take three points at Old Trafford for the first time in a decade. According to Özil, we have the quality to win and showed it against Chelsea. A home game is different to this visit to a traditional bogey ground.
We’ve been in this situation before. Arsenal in a good position to take three points, up against a seemingly poor Manchester United side. Despite this, despite different United managers being in charge, we contrive to lose. Or at best, take a point:
- 2013, Arsenal top of the table, United fifth; lose 1 – 0.
- 2015, Arsenal third, closing in on second with United fourth; draw 1 – 1.
- 2016, Arsenal third, knowing a win would leave them just two points behind Leicester whom they had just beaten at the Emirates; lose 3 – 2.
Never mind the Mourinho effect on Arsène’s mind, I think there’s an Old Trafford effect as well. Not just on Arsène either but players as well. We ‘freeze’ to some extent, rarely playing well in this fixture whilst United are up for it – for the most part – from the first whistle until the end of the game.
Some of that comes from the manager’s cautious approach and yes, he can’t go gung-ho into this game because, for the most part, United will pick us off but there’s a danger in going too far the other way. As much as that – and it’s the point Özil made – he needs the players to perform.
The past three seasons, we know we haven’t at Old Trafford and it’s a run which goes on longer than that. Last season’s two goals was only the second time in the last thirty-two years that we’ve scored more than once in a league match there. Thirty-two years! We’ve had some outstanding teams in that time but only scored one goal for the most part, each time we’ve visited Old Trafford.
With that kind of record, you need to be keeping clean sheets to take points. Six since the Premier League came into being; no wonder we don’t get many points, even when they are a pale imitation of the Ferguson era teams.
Much for the boss to ponder ahead of the weekend but fitness comes first.