A Monday Night in May. Where Does Motivation Come From as the Season Winds Down?
A trip to Hull. On a Monday night. The League Title celebrated the day before in South London. Can this Arsenal team find the motivation to play professionally and put the hurt to a team playing for survival? It’s a real question but one which I think we can answer in the affirmative.
Let’s make no bones about it, Hull will test us. Their recent wins at Crystal Palace and, in their own KC Stadium, against Liverpool, have stopped their late season fall towards the relegation zone. The teams looking for a way up and out of that part of the table have targeted Hull and their very difficult final matches, including this one. With those wins, however, Hull have reversed their slide and now look a good bet to stay up. They can afford to drop points to us, but why should they? The easiest time to play well–and spring another upset–is when you’re already doing so. If you can do it in front of your home support, all the better.
Luckily, Arsenal have enough experience playing Steve Bruce’s team to take nothing for granted. Last season, in this same fixture, also played late on, we survived an early (mostly) aerial onslaught and then won 3-nil on a goal from Aaron Ramsey and a brace from Lukas Poldolski. Hull brought a similar style to the FA Cup final at Wembley and their two early goals from set pieces meant Arsenal needed goals from Santi Cazorla and Laurent Kolscielny to level things in regular time. That got us to extra time, where Aaron Ramsey was able to slot home so that Arsenal could lift its first trophy in almost a decade.
While those matches might be a template for Hull’s approach to Monday’s match, they’ve also shown that they can hurt us from open play. In the reverse fixture played back in October, Arsenal were lucky to escape with a single point. It looked like it might be an easy one, but, after an early Alexis goal, Hull were able to equalize quickly through Mohamed Diame and then frustrate us for the remainder of the first half. Taking advantage of slack defending immediately after the half time talk, a quick cross from Ahmed Elmohamady found the head of Abel Hernandez to make it 2-1. From there, Hull proved extremely difficult to break down and only a 91st minute goal, made when Alexis was able to break through their lines to find Danny Welbeck, grabbed us the consolation point.
That match was a real low point for Arsenal this past Autumn, and we were missing several players who have now become fixtures in our first 11. Since the beginning of 2015 things have been much better and we were able to beat Hull in rather routine and convincing fashion (2-nil) when the finalists faced each other in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. Already, at that time, Bruce seemed to be girding his group for the relegation battle they now face. With their two recent wins they sit on 34 points and cannot fall into the bottom 3 no matter the result of this one. For this we should be grateful. Their fine recent play has come through patience and commitment along with the emergence of a new scoring threat in Dame N’Doye. They will not be easy to break down and we must beware their threat on the break.
They are also very good at frustrating through their use of the entire pitch. Former Spurs Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore can control the ball from deeper central positions and Elmohamady is always dangerous on the wing. Beware also experienced players like Gaston Ramirez and Sone Aluko. We may catch a break as Diame and Nikita Jelavic are listed as injury doubts and the imposing defender Curtis Davies is definitely out. What Hull might lack in pace they make up for in size and graft; they will look to slow the match through set pieces and take advantage of the lack of height our current #1, David Ospina, presents at these opportunities.
Arsenal, by contrast, and for the first time in several seasons, do not seem in particular danger of relegation from our own minimum standard: qualification for next season’s Champions League tournament via a top-four finish. Currently, we sit six points clear of 5th place Liverpool with this match to play and an additional game in hand. With another FA Cup final on the horizon and in a tight race for 2nd place with the two Manchester teams, Arsenal would be well minded to play with full professionalism to find a way through another team set out to stop us.
It’s tempting to believe that doing so against Hull might prove easier than in our last match vs. Chelsea. We must, however, bring a similar effort and not let our guard down, thinking Hull will be a pushover. Against Chelsea, and in other matches against stout defenders, notably AS Monaco in the Champions League, we’ve had trouble maintaining spacing and remaining patient in attack. I think we’ll go with a largely unchanged line-up but there must be a full commitment to using the entire pitch with players moving smartly to cover for others going central or forward in attack and then taking the chances as they are offered. High balls in to our focal point, CF Olivier Giroud, should be alternated with tighter combinations and balls to his feet. Most of all, our remaining attackers must keep running, chasing the loose balls and filling spaces to pounce on opportunities, while remaining committed to preventing Hull from moving with the ball in the other direction. Using the full backs and deeper lying midfielders with intelligence and an eye for getting back quickly will be key.
As such, my guess is that we’ll go with an unchanged line-up from the one used in our previous three league matches, though we may see early subs if Hull are able to frustrate us or if we fall behind. Ideally a couple of early goals might allow a chance to work in players coming off long-term injuries who might need a chance to prove themselves as the run-in continues.
Subs: Szczesny, Gibbs, Gabriel, Flamini, Wilshere, Welbeck, Walcott
As always, that’s just my best guess. Could Arsene Wenger, fearing a let down after the Chelsea match, ring the changes to perhaps suggest that nobody’s place is safe? I believe our ability to play a consistent group has been a key in our improved form this winter and into the spring. Still, given our reasonably secure position in the table, it may be time to start thinking more deeply about the future and give players a chance to contribute ahead of the Cup final, not to mention the summer transfer window. My hunch is that such rotation begins next week, at our home stadium, against a mid-table team with nothing to play for (Swansea).
My opinion, of course, matters exactly the same as other Gooners’, and not at all compared to Wenger’s. Other Gooners may have (very) different ideas: Please share yours. Hull away, I think, is an opportunity to further refine our solid balance between defending and attacking and continue to grow understanding and connection amongst our core group of players. Finishing as high up the table as possible is important, as is preparing in professional fashion for the FA Cup final and showing the best that Arsenal can be.
Go on then…