Wenger Worries on his Welsh Warrior and Welbeck; Who Will Wow us at (w)Right Wing: Wilshere or Walcott?
Last time Arsenal played Swansea I went with alliteration in the match preview, using many a word which began with the letter S. That one ended in another S word, so I shall not repeat that style for the return fixture. Hopefully, a little Monday night football in front of the home support–and against a team securely in mid-table and struggling with injury issues–will be a chance to continue our fine run of recent form and get right back to some of the irresistible attacking football we played up at Hull City.
With Chelsea already crowned as league champions, Manchester United losing and failing to score in their last 3 matches (before yesterday’s game) and Liverpool 5 points behind us with two less to play, some might argue that Arsenal look very secure for a Champions league spot and also have nothing to play for. I would respectfully disagree.
We may be safer than usual for the top-4 and also out of contention for the major trophies, but the team and individual players will want to lay down a marker before our trip to Old Trafford in a week and before the FA Cup final at the end of the month. Additionally, all but the most jaundiced Gooner will have noted the pure fun the players were having in their last outing. Jack Wilshere was positively bursting at the seams to get in on it in a substitute’s role, while Aaron Ramsey looked sore at being pulled off so Jack could do so. Others will want a chance, and the team will be itching to get back at it. Unfortunately, again, they–and we–must wait until Monday night.
Sitting nine places and 19 points higher in the league table, Swansea should represent a tougher challenge than Hull, who were perhaps looking ahead towards more winnable matches in their struggle against relegation. While Arsenal were weakened through injury when we lost to them in the aforementioned match back in November, Gooners who watched it will know that the Swans are an unselfish group who balance patience with a measure of quality and attacking flair. Both teams were cautious in the first half of that one but it came to life in the 2nd, especially after Arsenal scored a lovely goal on the counter. Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain got us ahead of their lines and fine work from Santi Cazorla, Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez capped it off. Unfortunately, Swansea responded in kind. A beautiful Gylfi Sigurdsson free kick made the score 1-1 and, just three minutes later, Jefferson Montero crossed for Bafetimbi Gomis to seal the defeat.
Swansea will bring that same sort of quality and resolve into this one. They will also bring former Arsenal goalkeeper, Lukas Fabianski, who, on the strength of a fine first season with his new club, will be keen to show what we gave up when we allowed his contract to run down. The Swans greater struggle will be up front. Gomis will likely return to action after a hamstring strain, but Wilfried Bony, the true fulcrum of their attack, is gone, having transferred to Manchester City in January. Nelson Oliviera has held down the position in recent matches but he hobbled off after 40 minutes vs Stoke a week ago.
This means it will be more about Swansea’s excellent midfield men. In addition to the quality always on display with Sigurdsson, Jonjo Shelvy loves a belt from audacious distances and is an imposing physical presence. Sung-Yeung Ki is quietly putting together a fine season and is one who is always on the move, specializing in finding spaces between defenders and pouncing on poorly cleared loose balls. Leon Britton and Nathan Dyer should not be underestimated due to their diminutive statures as surely Montero will not, having tortured Callum Chambers down our right side in that earlier match. Wayne Routledge will miss out through injury, but the bigger worry for Gary Monk’s team will be finding four to field in front of Fabianski. Kyle Naughton and Jordi Amat are both out. Still, Ashley Williams, a player many have stumped for at Arsenal, and, perhaps, former Arsenal trainee, Kyle Bartley, who played very well in the earlier match, will provide resistance. No matter who plays, we can count on Monk’s squad to give a solid effort over the entire 90 minutes. At times this season, especially in January after they sold Bony, observers have expected a let up from his group. Monk must be doing something right as none has yet to be seen.
Arsenal should not let down either. The easiest way to get up for 2nd in the league–which would be our highest finish in a decade–will be taking full points from our three remaining home matches. We also have the FA Cup final looming on the horizon and players should be keen to lock down their positions for that one. Most of all, we are a much improved side since that earlier match. Not only are Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud back and anchoring our attack, but we’re also a rebuilt squad at the rear. Laurent Koscielny has returned to partner Per Mertesacker, meaning Nacho Monreal will play as left back rather than alongside the big German, as he was forced to do in Wales. Likewise, the pace of Hector Bellerin on the right should present more of a challenge to Montero than Chambers was able to muster. Moreover, on either side of this back-4 will be the calmer presence of our new #1 keeper, David Ospina, while Francis Coquelin will take the role Mathieu Flamini played as our deepest lying mid-fielder. All told, these seven positional changes (six new faces) have made for a group which gives Gooners a more solid sensation, with a record of results to back up the feeling. Nine wins and a draw from our last 10 in the league is nothing to be sniffed at.
Up front, in addition to Ozil and Giroud, Alexis has re-found his goal scoring form and has his sights set on Thierry Henry’s tally of 17 league goals from the legendary striker’s first season with the club. With some of the scoring burden lifted, Santi Cazorla is showing off his full array of skills from a deeper lying spot alongside Coquelin. Ramsey, having taken that knock at Hull, has not been training, so he will likely be held out of this one.
Will it be Wilshere, who made many remember his qualities in his cameo up there, or Theo Walcott in for the former Cardiff player or might Wenger go wild and give Tomas Rosicky a run? Mathieu Debuchy, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will not go, but fears that the latter two were done for the season were allayed in comments from Wenger this week.
My hunch is that the injuries in our squad are not so desperate and that most players could play if they were needed, as they may be for the ManUnited match or in the Cup Final. At full fitness, many fine players in our squad must be left out of our first-11 and even the subs bench.
Here’s my best guess as to who will make those spots:
Subs: Szczesny, Gabriel, Gibbs, Flamini, Arteta, Rosicky, Walcott
In truth, it’s a more conservative bunch of choices than I would have expected a couple of weeks ago. My hunch is that Wenger will go with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” mindset. Additionally, it may be irresistible to try and play the best football we can, especially in light of other teams, notably Barcelona, doing likewise in their 3-nil Champions League win this past Wednesday vs Bayern Munich. Both teams played to a very high level but the deadlock was broken on the superiority of Lionel Messi late on. Wenger, I think, might want to see more of what his best group can produce so as to assess his squad and think about tactics for getting the very best out of them–all the while considering tweaks for the off-season. As much as many believe he’s overly indulgent with his current players, I sense a ruthless streak as he nears the end of his coaching career. Individuals must show what they’ve got and suffer no May-laise (sorry). With good players waiting in the wings–and plenty who wouldn’t mind joining over the summer–this is no time for a let down. Swansea might appear to have nothing left to play for, as perhaps some might believe we also do not. I think a deeper look reveals plenty.
Go on then…