Football does love a good dose of hyperbole, and this match lends itself nicely to that. If for some bizarre and inexplicable reason, you still think the title is still winnable, this is a ‘must-win’ match.
Apologies if you haven’t taken leave of your senses; this is just another Saturday, albeit one with the added spice of a local derby.
Just think, if we had been bothered on Tuesday, we’d be looking at a six-point gap before kick-off. The full extent of the damage wrought by that defeat may be known at full-time if as everyone expects, we lose today. The gap to the top of the table will be twelve points. A little bit earlier than we fell away last season, a little bit later than usual.
Perversely, it’s probably a game we’ll win. Why? It’s the Arsenal Way, isn’t it? Weakened side, weight of expectation lifted off their shoulders, playing for a top four place; the perfect ingredients for our late season cocktail, where we finish second four points behind Chelsea as they lose their last four games after sealing the title. Oh, how close we came!
Cast your minds back
I was struck yesterday by the thought that this is Chelsea’s 1991. A quick recap for the uninitiated. 2nd February 1991. Arsenal, 23 games unbeaten and top of the table, travel to Stamford Bridge for a match nobody expected them to lose.
Except for the Arsenal support. We knew that we never win at Chelsea. It was something like twenty years since we had. But we were better than everyone else, much more consistent, much like they are now.
And we lost. Now there were extenuating circumstances, not least of which was that we only two fit centre backs for the match and one of them had to be substituted through injury and the pitch was a beach. No, that’s not a spelling mistake, it was covered in sand.
Anyway, the point of that rambling is that a very good side was beaten by one which had just lost to a soon-to-be relegated Sunderland side. A poor result leading into playing the best in the division?
Of course, if we’re to achieve that, we must do it the hard way. Francis Coquelin is the only ‘specialist’ central midfielder in the squad whose fitness isn’t yet in doubt. There’s talk of Arsène having a decision to make about who he accompanies him. Whatever the answer, it’s a square peg in a round hole.
Experience-wise, it’s a no-brainer with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain the choice. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has a bright future ahead of him but it doesn’t start today. And taking Mustafi out of defence? Leaving Gabriel with Diego Costa? Were you watching last season?
That’s the midfield sorted, what of the attack?
Other than that, the decision is whether Danny Welbeck starts and if so, where? Giroud was not alone in being terrible against Watford but we were far more effective with a mobile centre forward. Which today should be Welbeck, with Alexis on the left and Theo on the right. It means Alex Iwobi is dropped unless you put him deeper instead of Ox which won’t work; he and Özil would end up in each other’s way. Welbeck then replaced at 65 minutes by Iwobi, Theo by Lucas Perez, Alexis into the middle.
You’ll notice I haven’t changed the formation; it will be a welcome surprise if Arsène threw a surprise into the mix like that, but I don’t think he will do so. The other issue is that pulling Iwobi deeper is just fitting the players into a system to keep everyone happy.
We need pace in attack if we’re to punish Chelsea on the counter and Giroud won’t add that to the side. If we’re to win today – and it’s a big ‘if’, like the florid first letter in a book by a monk, that’s how big – we are going to have to put in a performance like the first half against Chelsea at the Emirates. No timidity, just belief. Heads can’t drop if – when – we concede; we don’t have the luxury of thinking “here we go again”, it has to be a positive response.
Which is where we fall down, all too often in these matches. We showed character at Old Trafford but it was missing at the Etihad. You don’t know which Arsenal will turn up until the match is under way.
We’ve got to believe in ourselves and be adventurous. Tottenham and to a lesser extent, Stoke, enjoy limited success in their matches by not succumbing to Chelsea’s possession. We have to be strong defensively, clued up from the kick-off.
Which brings the musings to an XI of:
Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Özil, Sanchez; Welbeck
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.