Arsene Wenger and Alan Pardew, a pair of managers who have had priors, meet again. This time it’s an early season showdown which holds extra meaning. Arsenal must rebound from a very disappointing 2-nil defeat, at home, to West Ham United, while Palace hope to build on their good play and the three points they took at newly promoted Norwich City.
Matches played in August always beg questions of the transfer window. In our opener, our lone signing thus far, goalkeeper Petr Cech, highly touted as THE signing which would gain us points in the title challenge, backfired in spectacular fashion. The helmeted keeper looked bad on both West Ham goals even if there were likely deeper questions to be asked about defensive organization at set pieces and overplaying out of dangerous situations. In their match at Norwich, Palace’s big summer signing, Yohan Cabaye, a player Pardew (then at Newcastle United) almost lost to Arsenal, played a critical role. Pardew’s off-season re-capture of Cabaye from Paris St. Germain already looks a very canny move, even more so in that many Gooners felt Francis Coquelin had a rough outing in the rear-of-midfield role Cabaye might have played for us.
How will Wenger react? How will Pardew counter? What can we expect–beyond the US style cheerleaders greeting the players as they enter the pitch–in this early test? Will Wenger ring the changes or double down on his ideas? Will Pardew seek to strike early or will he hang back and attempt to absorb our pressure and hit on the counter?
From the manager’s pre-match press conference we’ve heard that Alexis Sanchez and Hector Bellerin are ready and/or recovered. Will both move directly into the starting line-up? If so, at whose expense? Wenger also gave notice about longer term injuries. Jack Wilshere is on track for next month, Danny Welbeck’s return seems further delayed, and Tomas Rosicky, it appears, had knee surgery the week before the opener and cannot be expected until the trees have lost their leaves. Wenger, keen to avoid a sense of panic after the opening week loss, has danced around transfer questions while weighing in on the treatment of medical personnel at another South London club.
As much as we all love Eva, our focus must remain on the club in Croydon rather than the one on the edge of Kensington. Coming off the nice win at Norwich the Eagles will be keen to give 100% in their home opener and reward their always up-for-it supporters. Beyond Cabaye’s solid outing, capped by an injury time goal, they also scored through Wilfried Zaha on the counter and Damien Delaney at a set piece. The match might have been closer but for an equalizing Norwich goal called back for dangerous play. In the end the scoreline was perhaps glossier than merited but Pardew got solid performances from all parts of the pitch which he and his players will want to build upon.
How then should Wenger set up for this one?
In interviews following the opener the manager didn’t single out any players but noted that none of his men had particular good matches. As such, a couple of key changes is all I can picture him making.
My hunch is that Wenger will give Alexis a full hour-plus to show what he can do playing just to the left of center–and working closely with center forward Olivier Giroud and our man in the hole, Mesut Ozil. Although Francis Coquelin struggled in this same fixture last season, having to play most of the match after receiving an early yellow card, I cannot see our rear-of-midfield stalwart being dropped. Instead, he’ll likely be asked to stay on task, keep the passing simple and the positioning shaded toward the back. The big question is who will partner him: Aaron Ramsey (as he did vs WHU) or Santi Cazorla (or possibly Mikel Arteta) in the other holding position?
Another question is who will get the call on the right side of our attack? Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looked bright in attack from that position–and he also scored our most recent goal, the belter with his left foot in the Community Shield. As nice as that goal was, I think he may pay for his mistake on the 2nd Hammers’ goal with a spot on the bench. Or maybe not. It might be a nice birthday present (he turns 22 on Saturday) for the manager to give him a boost of confidence and another run out.
Theo Walcott, now our 3rd highest paid player, is probably also chomping at the bit. Could he get a run in the first 11?
I don’t think he will, too many changes (and perhaps too many all-out attackers) being the rationale. Instead–to a chorus of worries from anxious Gooners worried about players being played out of position–Santi, I believe, will slide back and more central while Rambo will get the call with the right hand position. Of course, once the ball is in play he’ll slide central too, as is his wont. This means the Ox and Theo will have to feature from the bench. Hopefully, whoever plays on our right side of attack will be keen to create better interaction with the selected fullback. Is Debuchy ready for a harder charging effort this week or will Bellerin’s superior pace get the nod? I’ll go for the former.
Bench = Ospina, Bellerin, Gibbs, Gabriel, Arteta, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain,
To me, no matter who plays, it’s all about playing our game and allowing our inherent quality to conquer the occasion and get the first points of the season. Already we’re looking up from the bottom of the table, so, make no mistake, the stakes are high and the pressure is on. By contrast, Palace, having taken the full points from their opener, can set out in a conservative yet opportunistic fashion, trying to gain control of the match with or without the ball. Solidity at the back will be key for both teams as is getting the first goal–something that’s always tougher–in our case–when we’ve yet to score one in league play. Good movement, spreading the pitch and working as a collective seems essential as is remaining disciplined to those priorities–no matter the twists and turns the match takes. Could it be just that touch easier given the disappointment of the opener and the fact that we’re playing in hostile grounds knowing that a less than solid performance will likely see points dropped again?
I think it might but maybe others see things differently. How would you set out the team and what elements are you looking for? Is this match an early season must-win, a true gut-check for the club or one where we just have to play at the correct level and allow our better qualities to shine? Who will you be watching and why?
Go on then (you Gunners)… and have it at, fellow Gooners…