Time to look in the Mirror and see what we’re made of!!!
Hey, Sorry, I couldn’t find any photos of Gabriel w/o his shirt on… 😀
Sometimes–even at Arsenal–it’s actually the football and what happens on the pitch that tells the whole story.
This Sunday, in a fixture which has been moved from Saturday at 3 to Sunday at noon, inspiring all sorts of protests and ire, Arsenal must defeat surprise league leaders Leicester City if they want a legitimate shot at the league title.
It all comes down to this one, and, if Arsenal, like Manchester City a week ago, or Tottenham a month back, lose to the Foxes in front of their home support, they will find themselves eight points behind. A win cuts the gap to two while a draw would keep it at five. After the match there will still be twelve games to go and, mathematically at least, anything could happen (hell, even Aston Villa are still in it by that reckoning…) but, if Leicester complete their sweep of the other Top 4 clubs–on their home grounds–or even just manage to stay undefeated in those games with a draw, they would appear deserving champions. Arsenal supporters, never full of belief to begin with, would have even less if we cannot beat them.
Concepts like “Deserving Champions,” and “Belief,” of course, are questions of perception. At bigger clubs, expectations are higher and anything less than guaranteed success irks. Managerial changes at defending champions Chelsea (not to mention Liverpool), the impending summer switch at Manchester City and the increasingly unsustainable situation at Manchester United all speak to such demands. Given all that turmoil elsewhere, the narrative goes, this should be Arsenal’s season.
Yes, Arsenal have had injuries but manager Arsene Wenger also chose not to buy any outfield players in the summer and bought only one–Mohammed Elneny, from well off the radar–in January. Elneny has yet to feature in a league match, so this one seems an unlikely debut. Gooners who have wanted Wenger gone for a decade could be licking their chops. News that we may (finally) see the long term injured (Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla) returning to action will not mollify that section of the support if we fail to close the gap on Leicester.
That it all hangs on getting a result against a club which has only been in the league for two seasons–barely staving off relegation last spring–makes the match even more of a crucible. Sure, it could be seen as an argument that spending money isn’t what makes a champion, but try telling that to an angry supporter if Arsenal, just as they did at Liverpool and Stoke, or at home vs Chelsea and Southampton, ALL in just the last month, fail to take the full points. Instead, of course, they will point the finger at the manager.
Talk about Pressure…
Back in the day, as Chelsea were just beginning to spend the riches of new owner Roman Abramovich, Wenger mostly had his way with Claudio Ranieri, now at the helm with Leicester. One big one, however, stands out. Arsenal’s Invincible team, cruising their way to that historical undefeated league campaign, met Ranieri’s Chelsea in the quarterfinals of the Champions League and lost. Like this year–our proverbial best shot at the title (before the huge money clubs revamp and retool)–2004 was probably Arsenal’s best chance to win the one trophy which has eluded Wenger and the club. Ranieri stopped him and he stands in the way again.
Make no mistake: despite all the humble proclamations about just getting to 40 points, Ranieri has this Leicester team believing they can win the league. It’s not rocket science: they dare the more expensively assembled teams to try to break them down, knowing they can pounce on the counter-attack and, more often than not, they have made them pay.
It all starts with Jamie Vardy and Riyadh Mahrez, the two players in everybody’s fantasy football squad, but don’t forget about hardworking and highly skilled Shinji Okazaki. Vardy is the late bloomer, a guy from Sheffield who has had disciplinary problems (including, ironically, recent troubles for using a slur toward a person of Japanese descent) and had never played top level football before coming up with Leicester. He’s already in the PL record books with his goals in eleven consecutive matches. 24 year-old Mahrez, the left footed Algerian who starts on the right, is a lean, live-wire player who, like Vardy, seems to do everything at full pace. Okazaki, acquired from FB Mainz over the summer, scored 29 goals in two seasons for the Bundesliga club. Arsenal defenders who forget about him to focus on Vardy and Mahrez do so at their own peril. Rainieri can also employ the bigger figure of Argentine Leanardo Ulloa. Bringing him on later in matches, with defenders tired by the pace and trickery of the smaller attackers, seems Rainieri’s usual plan.
The mobility of the front three is critical in pressing opponents into errors which are pounced upon by midfielders Danny Drinkwater, Marc Albrighton and N’Golo Kante who along with fullbacks Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs can move the ball forward explosively. Further back, the imposing figures of Wes Morgan, Robert Huth (and goalie Kaspar Schmeichel) have conceded 27 goals, the worst total of any team in the top 5. They make up for it by getting some at set pieces the other direction, as Huth did twice a week ago at Manchester City; Leicester’s +20 goal difference is impressive.
Arsenal, in fact, wouldn’t mind chipping away at that stat as well as the points total that separates the two clubs. Goals have been hard to come by lately, so channeling the experience of the reverse fixture where we scored our season high (five) would be very welcome. In that one, after Vardy put the Foxes ahead–and shot one off the crossbar–Arsenal stormed back on the strength of a Theo Walcott opener and a hat trick from Alexis Sanchez. Vardy did get another in the latter stages to make it 4-2, but Olivier Giroud, on for Walcott, also scored in added time.
Walcott or Giroud (or both) up top is just one of several choices for Wenger this time around. My hunch is that the big Frenchman gets the call as he has in recent matches. Both have been struggling for goals–Theo hasn’t scored in the calendar year and Giroud only did so in the match up at Anfield. Similarly, Alexis has yet to notch a league goal since returning from injury, but maybe he’s got something planned. The timing of his agent’s statements in the press are interesting. He appears to be demanding both a bigger salary and shows of ambition from the club ahead of contract negotiations. Balls in the back of the net would indicate he’s ready to do his part.
Then there’s the question of who plays on the right side of attack and at the rear of our midfield. When we traveled to Leicester we had Cazorla and Francis Coquelin (behind Mesut Ozil) in midfield with Aaron Ramsey over on the right. Coquelin is back from injury but has yet to start a league match. Will Wenger start him or stay with Mathieu Flamini, who made an ill-advised, studs-up challenge early in the match a week ago at Bournemouth and might have been sent off? My hunch is that Le Coq starts alongside Rambo while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain goes on the right. The Ox got a surprise run out and even more surprising goal (his first ever away goal for the club) in that match. That positive experience plus his rugby player physique, I think, makes him the most logical choice here, leaving Joel Campbell (not to mention Theo) as bench options should we need goals late on.
Finally, there’s the back line. Nobody enjoys the sight of Per Mertesacker trailing runners on the counterattack and the Big Friendly German hasn’t played since his sending off vs Chelsea. Do we need his organizational skills in this one or does Gabriel Paulista get the start? I’m stumping for the latter, as both of Vardy’s goals from the earlier match come with images of helpless Per watching them go in and, I figure, Wenger would have played Mertesacker by now if he intended to use him in this one. Thus, the predicted starting 11 looks like this:
Subs: Ospina, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Flamini, Elneny, Campbell, Walcott
There are other ideas being bandied about: start both Coquelin and Elneny (or Flamini) centrally, while putting Rambo on the right to try to draw Leicester forward and play more on the counter ourselves. Or we put all our cards on the table by using Theo and Giroud from the start and go for the blitz, etc., etc.
This is such a big match, however, that I wouldn’t expect too many surprises from Wenger (nor Ranieri) beyond the choice of youth (Coquelin and Gabriel) in place of experience (Flamini and Mertesacker). Even those changes might be too radical for our manager.
We shall see, and, obviously, these are just one Gooner’s thoughts. Please share your own.
No matter who Wenger puts out, this one is big–given both the league table and the expectations at our club. Very, very big. Even if we win it there will be further mountains to climb but win it we must.
Go on then…