Bournemouth pitch up at the Emirates as the season goes into the hibernation of an international break. Since the last unwanted interruption, it’s six unbeaten with a win today sending us to the giddy heights of third place.
Quite what the line-up will be is anyone’s guess. Unai Emery isn’t sure; he’s “waiting on the other players to be ready” which can be interpreted any number of ways. Presumably, it’s Emery-speak for no more injuries reported beyond Alexandre Lacazette’s absence?
It makes his team selection for this afternoon all the more interesting. The only clean sheets we’ve kept since the last international break came in cup competitions which put pressure on the defence.
Kieran Tierney made his Premier League debut at Old Trafford so the question is who joins him from Thursday night? My suspicion is no-one else. “Hector Bellerin,” Emery declared, “needs more time to be 100 per cent” while Rob Holding is “closest” to featuring in the first XI.
Bizarrely, Emery appeared to forget that Tierney played at Old Trafford by including him in with those players who are coming back. Two games in week put him firmly in possession of the left-back slot. Whether the medical advice is to rest him today is the unknown given how long the Scot was out.
All of which adds up to a reprieve for the back four which stumbled through the first part of the season. Calum Chambers is in at right-back given Ainsley Maitland-Niles played on Thursday night.
Quite rightly so. Chambers is vastly improved on the youngster who went on loan to Fulham. His performances this season demand his inclusion in the starting line-up. Preferably at centre-back but for the moment, full-back must do.
But what of Sokratis and Luiz, the experienced pair whose performances betray their years?
Young Guns, Go For It
Holding is unlikely to feature today leaving the dynamic duo in situ. And they are universally unconvincing.
Emery tried his best to spin it positively. “I think we are progressively getting better,” is his view of the defence. He mentioned the clean sheets but seemed oblivious to them being in the cup. Shkodran Mustafi has more clean sheets to his name than Sokratis and Luiz; interpret that how you want.
In Emery’s mind, he wants the team to be an attacking team. “To have the ball and control the matches,” is his way of doing it. Something is lost in translation between himself and the team; we cede possession too cheaply and aren’t aggressive enough in retrieving it.
Most of us, however, will agree with his belief that we need to keep the ball as far away from our back four as possible. “Defensively we want to keep more of the ball and be further away from our goal and pushing them,” is how he put it.
Of course, the defensive side of the game isn’t just down to the back four. The midfield must be snappier in the tackle and mindful of the spaces around the penalty area. McTominay found himself in space because he’d been bundled over as he ran toward our goal.
As we continued to play the ball he stumbled to his feet and found himself unmarked. We did not pay enough attention to the game. It’s little details like that which cost us so much.
Few issues on team selection are more divisive than Granit Xhaka as captain. Mostly, it’s down to his performances. Like Wenger, Emery views him as a defensive midfielder or the midfielder with the most defensive role.
I believe that’s a mistake. If he’s playing Xhaka, a freer role in the centre of the pitch is more suited to his game. Torreira is by far the better defensive midfielder yet played in a role which patrols the right flank.
The situation smacks of a square peg in round hole solution. Emery wants a certain formation but doesn’t have the players to fulfil it. Or, more accurately, persists in selecting players not suited to the roles. That’s his choice but it hampers his chance of building something solid at Arsenal.
The Spaniard sort of defended Xhaka. “I have big confidence and trust in every player, the captain and not the captain,” he said.
All Xhaka can do to win people over is putting in good performances, a consistency which eluded him previously so I wonder why I would expect it now? Maybe he will start today.
Bournemouth is a decent footballing side, neat and tidy in possession. But they are a team we need to be beating and comfortably so if we are to instil confidence and belief that we can finish in the top four.
Everyone we consider is imploding and we must take full advantage of it. Putting the points on the board now while they endure a poor spell is vital. And an insurance policy for us when we stumble once again, which we inevitably will.
The line-up I’d expect today is:
Leno; Chambers, Luiz, Sokratis, Kolasinac; Xhaka, Guendouzi, Ceballos; Pepe, Aubamenyang, Saka
It’s good enough to take the points and finish this spell on a high. A fortnight off and they’ll learn all these bad habits with their national team which drag us down…
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.