Most Assuredly, We Shall All Hang Separately.
That’s Benjamin Franklin, folks, the same guy who (supposedly…) flew a kite (with a key on the string) in a thunderstorm in an attempt to capture electricity…
Arsenal need to find some of that same stuff or at least we need to dig deep—and dig deeper into our squad—to find a way to beat the Black Cats.
It’s all unraveling quickly, or so it seems. First Francis Coquelin and a loss at West Bromwich Albion, not helped at all by the quick substitution, due to another injury, of the man who came in for him, our Captain, Mikel Arteta.
A midweek revival against Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League engendered hopes that maybe (just maybe) we could cope.
The trip to Norwich, however, put paid to that idea. Laurent Koscielny came up hobbling in the first 10 minutes and Alexis Sanchez went down holding his hamstring on the hour mark. We held onto to a 1-1 draw, but as bad as dropping more points felt, it was worse knowing our talismanic Chilean would be out for a while.
Now comes the shocking news that Santi Cazorla finished the match with ligament damage to his knee and will miss at least a few months. Our central mid-field pair—the very heart of Arsenal’s revival in this calendar year—are, barring miracle recoveries, out for at least most of the remainder of the season. What’s a Gooner to do?
Many, of course, turned on the manager who should have foreseen such injuries and bought reinforcements. Benjamin Franklin is also the guy on the $100 bill over here. If only Arsene would spend a few…
Note, those are $1 bills AW is tossing around. Even those bills would’ve bought somebody…
Hindsight is the privilege of the pundit and the punter not to mention the ticket (and ale) buying public. (And it gets closer to 20-20 with each pint…) The bottom line is that the true depth of manager Arsene Wenger’s faith in (or gamble on) his players will now be explored.
Some, including fullback Hector Bellerin, have suggested that Arsenal have youth players who might do a job. Twenty-year-old Glen Kamara and Krystian Bielek (who turns 18 in January) would seem the primary options, at least until January when some of our players out on loan might be recalled. Both played in the Capital One Cup loss at Sheffield Wednesday and Wenger was harsh in his assessment, suggesting that none of his youth players were at the appropriate level. Wednesday is a club which aspires to Premier League football; Sunderland already know what it takes to play in our league.
They showed their mettle, in fact, the last time this fixture was contested. That one, in May, was played to a nil-nil draw and secured the Black Cats Premier League survival. Images of former Arsenal trainee Seb Larsson playing through pain (or time-wasting while acting as if he was trying to do so) and manager Dick Advocaat weeping as the whistle blew still linger.
Neither Larsson (injured) nor Advocaat (resigned) will feature in this one. Former Spur Jermaine Defoe, who scored the winner (and only goal) two weeks ago at Crystal Palace is also out.
That doesn’t mean Sunderland won’t be eager to snatch whatever points they can in our match, another trip to a hostile London ground. The win at CP plus the home win vs Stoke last weekend indicate that new manager Sam Allardyce has got his group playing together. They’re up and out of the relegation places and will surely be smelling blood against an Arsenal squad that, if not literally leaking the red stuff, certainly could use some better lubrication. Gone is the well-oiled machine which won home victories over Man United (3-nil), Bayern Munich (2-nil) and Everton (2-1). Our last home match in the league required a late bundled goal from Kieran Gibbs, forced forward as a makeshift left winger, to salvage a point from the old enemy just to our north.
As they did in May, Sunderland will hope to frustrate whatever squad Wenger puts out. If Allardyce and crew can return to the Stadium of Light with something from our game, they will feel like they have truly turned a corner.
We should already know that our league has quality from top to bottom after the frustrations at WBA and Norwich. We need to beware well traveled types like the ancient but ageless (he’s just 28…) Stephen Fletcher up top and former ManCity player Adam Johnson. Fullback Patrick van Aanholt got a goal at Stoke, while US National Andre Yedlin (on loan from Spurs) will bring additional pace. More agricultural sorts like Lee Cattermole, former Manchester United players John O’Shea and Wes Brown, Sebastian Coates (acquired from Liverpool) and another former Spur, Younes Kaboul, will set-up to thwart us and tend to play right on the edge of the rules. Yann M’Vila, a player heavily linked with Arsenal back in 2008, anchors the midfield.
It’s that part of the pitch where the battle will likely be won or lost. Who will Arsenal play and can they move the ball quickly and accurately enough to stay ahead of Sunderland’s tacklers? It’s a game of inches and we have to hope referee Robert Madley (who?…) gives our guys the benefit of the doubt. If the match is allowed to get dangerous our need to avoid further injuries could turn against us.
As much as new faces might be welcome to some, experience in these matters counts, so I reckon we’ll see the Flam-Ram combo in for the wall of Coq-zorla. It will be different, but Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey will somehow have to forge a partnership to make us forget Coquelin and Cazorla. It won’t be easy. Ramsey in particular will have to curb his tendency to run with the ball and abandon positional discipline. Moving it quickly, filling spaces and providing easy outlets for the fullbacks and more forward attackers will be as critical as killer through-balls and getting into scoring positions.
Theo Walcott, supposedly, is close to returning to the squad, with a final decision to be made on game-day. If he’s able to suit up, my guess is that he only takes a bench seat, leaving Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil as the heart of our attack. Who will play out wide? My bet is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, also just back from injury, on the right, while Joel Campbell might use his extreme left-footedness to try and fill the massive hole left by Alexis on that side of the pitch. The two could also switch sides and come inside onto their favoured feet, leaving the real width to our Spanish fullbacks Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin. Gibbs, the last hero seen in that spot– in league play, at least–might also get the start, much as he did up at West Brom.
Further back, we look slightly better. The injury to Laurent Koscielny was not as bad a first feared (thank dennis for small blessings)… Like Theo, he’s another match-day decision but I’m guessing he might be asked to return to action. Gabriel, however, could be given a vote of confidence and the start despite being wrong side of the attacker for Norwich’s goal and almost scoring an own-goal with an inadvertent header. Here’s my best guess at Wenger’s first 11:
Subs: Ospina, Debuchy, Chambers, Gabriel, Gibbs, Reine-Adelaide, Walcott
I’ve diagrammed our formation as a 4-2-3-1 but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it morph into a bit more of a 4-1-4-1 with Ox and Campbell, especially if they play as inverted wingers, looking to combine with Ozil and Ramsey around the forward pivot of our big man, Giroud. This puts a lot of pressure on Flamini, and Ozil, in particular, will want to use those big eyes to help fill abandoned positions and contain anything Sunderland might try on the break. Allardyce has a reputation as a Route One sort of manager so look for balls over the top too. Mertesacker and whomever he’s paired with must remain alert. Defensive rotation will be critical, I fear. Getting that first goal will also be extra important; if Sunderland were to nick one, it could be a mountain too high. That said, we cannot have the lapses in focus we saw in the recent road matches after we took the lead.
As always, that’s just my take and others may differ. Please share.
Regardless, this match, one we once might have been tempted to look at as an easy home win, will surely be much tougher. The opponent is playing well, our squad is racked with injuries and, for all intents and purposes, our season is on the brink of real trouble. It’s time for the team (and supporters) to give it their all (hang together…) and turn it around.
Go on then…