From the far flung reaches of International Football–and, unfortunately, the very epicenter of the ‘War on Terror’–Arsenal players return to the relative calm of English Football.
Arsenal’s French contingent–and not just the ones who were in the stadium–must somehow put the events of a week ago in Paris to the side and focus on the task at hand: taking maximum points from an always stubborn West Brom side in their home stadium.
Even more to the point, Arsenal must use the tightness (some might call it “stretchedness…”) of our squad to push through the after-effects.
The friendlies are over and our support will accept no excuses. Few will forget that it was this fixture last season where some of the travelers sent this message to the manager:
Arsenal won that match 1-nil, Santi Cazorla snaking his way to the end line before crafting an inch-perfect assist for Danny Welbeck’s imperious header.
We won’t have Welbeck–and several others–for this one and any slip up will (as always) be blamed on the manager. After all, it was Wenger who chose not to add out-field players in the summer transfer window. Top Bagman, manager Tony Pulis, will hope to use that pressure against us and instill the belief that his better rested group should have a real opportunity to nick some points–if not knock off–a title contender.
The Baggies currently sit 12th in the still tightly compressed league table on 14 points, 6 points above the relegation places. It would seem a relatively comfortable spot, but Pulis, always one focused on the pragmatic aspects of the game, will be keen to get his charges up and running again in their season-long struggle for survival.
I’d go a step further and bet that Pulis’ eyes get wider for these matches against the top clubs which come just after international breaks (and midweek forays to Europe). Certainly, his teams are never less than well drilled and fully committed to gaining an edge wherever they can.
They also have the talent to hurt any team in the division. Make no mistake about it, they will set out to defend first and win the physical battles.
It’s hard to know exactly how Pulis will set his team out. He may opt for pacy and technically proficient players like Saido Berahino, Stephane Sessegnon, Callum McManaman and Salomon Rondon up front or he may prefer bigger or grittier types such as Rickey Lambert, Claudio Yacob, Chris Brunt and James Morrison.
No matter what, Arsenal will need to be up to the challenge and we might also hope for a bit of help from referee Mark Clattenburg. We will also need to be at our technical best to break down a stubborn West Brom rearguard which has allowed only 16 goals in their 12 league matches. Former Manchester United players, Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans, and former Spur, Michael Dawson, anchor that group. They are still without goalkeeper Ben Foster but Boaz Myhill has been an able stand-in. The bigger miss for this one will be Gareth McCauley who was sent off in West Brom’s last match at Manchester United.
The 6’5″ McCauley (perhaps alongside Dawson or the equally sizable Jonas Olsson) would have been WBA’s best option at set pieces, an area of the game Arsenal have been improving at recently. With our own team short of attacking options we’ll once again have to rely on the big presence of Olivier Giroud up front. With McCauley out, however, this may not be such a bad thing.
Before the break, picking starting 11s and bench players was a rather straightforward proposition when writing these previews. Based on Wenger’s pre-match press conference it doesn’t get much harder. While we had hoped that Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin would all be ready for this one, only the latter appears available. Additionally, Wenger says he will have to talk with defensive stalwart Laurent Koscielny, who, despite a precautionary rest for our visit to Bayern Munich, played 180 emotionally draining minutes with the French team.
The bigger worry for many Gooners is what to do with Alexis Sanchez, who not only had to travel to two different hemispheres (the Southern and the Western…) but had to play two full matches of up and down running vs Colombia and Uruguay with his Chilean mates in their campaign to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. On top of all that he was supposedly carrying a muscle injury.
I saw no evidence of the injury and he looked the only Chile player still at it late on in Montevideo. Take an ice-bath and enjoy the leg-room in First Class, I say. Hopefully the change of scene allows our guy to appreciate the fine (first-class?…) service better rested players like Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla offer. Wenger will have to rest Alexis at some point–and Kieran Gibbs, who took over his spot vs Spurs and found the net, is available–but it might have to wait a match or two or until some of the others are back. As such, here’s my predicted first 11 for this one:
Bench: Ospina, Chambers, Gibbs, Debuchy, Flamini, Arteta, Iwobi,
Of course, that’s just my best guess and others might have different views.
My hope is that Arsenal can shake off the effects of our travels and the high emotions from the events in Paris and its aftermath. We will need to beat the Baggies with superior technique but we must also match their focus and commitment and do all the little things to win at the fine margins of the game. I’m confident we can do just that and that the group is ready to get this long run of Arsenal football (no internationals until March) off on the correct foot.
But, what say you, fellow Kamp(esqu)ers? High hopes, big worries or “if we can’t beat…, we…” Please share.