Ring in the Changes or Keep to the Group Who Steadied the Ship in December?
As much fun as it’s been to find ourselves top of the table and kings of calendar year, this Arsenal team now has to make good on the promise embodied in those accolades.
2016 kicks off with the visit of the Magpies of Newcastle.
It would seem a great opportunity to start the new year on the front foot.
Newcastle, after all, are in the bottom three and are carrying a list of injured players almost as long as our own. They’re coming off disappointing results at West Brom (a 1-nil loss) and at home to Everton (another very, very late 1-nil loss) and Aston Villa (a 1-1 draw). Before that, however, they beat Liverpool (2-nil in Newcastle) and Spurs, just up the road at White Hart Lane. In that one they came from a goal down to win 2-1.
Manager Steve McClaren will be trying to channel that sort of resilience on this trip to the better part of North London. Already he’s called for a high level of physical aggression although he might want to stop short of the straight red card his striker Aleksandar Mitrovic saw early in the reverse fixture for a stomp on Francis Coquelin.
The sending off that day in late August didn’t help the game, nor did the continued fouling by the Magpies. It was somewhat effective, however; Arsenal dominated the match but the 10 men of the Toon almost held out, only conceding when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s shot deflected in off Fabricio Coloccini for an own-goal.
We should expect similar stout defending and attempts to counterattack. Playing on the break should work well given the pace of a couple of players who, over the years, have been linked with Arsenal: Moussa Sissoko and Florian Thauvin. Joining them in attack, Mitrovic and Ayoze Perez generally look composed in front of goal and midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum has already netted seven times this season.
We might also have to worry about the man with the whistle, one Anthony Taylor, a guy we all remember for being akin to a 12th man for Aston Villa on the opening day of the 2013-14 season. Will he censor Newcastle as Andre Marriner did in the reverse fixture?
Regardless, we should expect plenty of cynicism as well as time on the ball. If we can get it through their lines, we may catch a break in having only to beat Newcastle’s 3rd string goalkeeper, Karl Darlow, who let in a Darren Fletcher shot he should have saved at West Brom. First choice Tim Krul is out with a long-term injury, while his back-up, Rob Elliot, who had been playing in excellent form is, fighting illness. Elliot was particularly outstanding in the victory over Spurs, so, if he can make the starting group, his team would get a real lift.
If Newcastle are happy to concede possession, Arsenal will need to start this game with better pace and ball control than we did on Monday when we hosted AFC Bournemouth. There was little fluency in our play for the first 20 minutes as we looked to put the Boxing Day drubbing at Southampton behind us. Eventually, the group steadied, and Calum Chambers, in for Mathieu Flamini as a deep lying midfielder, started moving the ball more smartly from side to side and back to front. As the match wore on, more and more of it was played in the Bournemouth half. Finally a strong solo run by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain down the right won a corner which Mesut Ozil put perfectly onto the head of wide open Gabriel Paulista for the opener. From that point on, Arsenal dominated play, with Ozil pulling the strings. In the end he created an amazing nine scoring chances for his teammates. Hopefully those guys will remember their shooting boots this time so that Ozil doesn’t have to score them himself as he did (on a lovely 1-2 with Olivier Giroud) vs Bournemouth for the second and final goal of the evening.
Even with our extensive injury list, manager Arsene Wenger will have some choices to make. Do the shifts put in by Chambers, Gabriel and the Ox deserve encores or does Wenger go back to the starting group who had good wins at Olympiakos and Aston Villa and hosting Manchester City before getting blown out at Southampton? Your guess is as good as mine.
We’ll have a full week off before we begin defending our two consecutive FA Cups with a home match against the other struggling team from the Northeast, Sunderland FC. That one, I think, will see AW going deeper into the squad and, perhaps, finding some rest for players like Ozil, Giroud, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott, just ahead of away matches in league play at Liverpool and Stoke City. We have to take them one at a time but keeping the group fresh and hungry while also fielding the requisite quality to take the points is nothing short of a juggling act. Here’s my guess at the first 11 vs the Magpies:
Subs: Ospina, Chambers, Koscielny, Gibbs, Campbell, Iwobi, Reine-Adelaide
That’s just two changes (Flamini in for Chambers, Monreal for Gibbs) from the team which started vs Bournemouth. I’m guessing that Gabriel and the Ox keep their places, giving continued rest to Laurent Koscielny and Joel Campbell. My hope is that we’ll have Alexis Sanchez back from injury and new buy Mohamed Elnenny for the FA Cup match to add to the options. We’ll have a full week to worry about that one, however.
First we have to beat Newcastle.
What do you think? Who will Wenger play and how do we go about getting the full points to keep top spot in the league? Please share…
If all goes to plan I’ll try the live-blog approach again as it seems particularly useful for these 3 o’clock kick-offs which not everybody gets on the telly.