I don’t have the exact quote but Arsene Wenger has said something along the lines of, “Losing two matches is a crisis, three a disaster.” Arsenal, perhaps already in crisis–or at least a repetition of past seasons’ disappointments–could be facing disaster as they take on Hull City in another Saturday lunch-time match.
A week featuring losses to lowly Watford (on our home pitch) and league leaders Chelsea have seen the high hopes of making up ground in the title race dashed. Arsenal now sit 4th in the table amongst a group of five clubs separated by only 5 points. Some are arguing that Wenger should now be more comfortable managing his club for another top 4 finish given that the leaders (12 points ahead) appear out of sight. Even more cynical types would like to see Arsenal lose out on those Champion League places if it would mean the end of Wenger’s 20+ years in charge. Dropping down (all the way to 10th last season) and getting a new manager hasn’t hurt Chelsea, has it?
Wenger, of course, takes pride in the consistency of his team and will know that the matches are played one at a time and that participation in the Champions League is the hallmark of any big club. Righting the ship against Hull City is even more critical as the team travels in midweek to play the first leg of another Champions League round of 16 elimination against one of the giants of Europe: Bayern Munich. Restoring a modicum of confidence is essential heading into that one.
Hull City, under new manager Marco Silva, will be looking at this match as another opportunity to take down a big club and grab a point (or three) in their ongoing battle to stave off relegation. Despite beating Liverpool (2-nil) last weekend–and drawing nil-nil at Manchester United the week before–they are still sitting in 18th place on 20 points. Three other clubs sit just a single point above them and Silva will sense a chance to gain more at the Emirates. After all, he’s done it before, managing Greek club Olympiakos to a surprise 3-2 victory in Champions League group play back in the autumn of 2015.
In that match, Arsenal played with their “cup-keeper,” David Ospina, who had a very difficult outing. Memories are short, however, and many are calling for Ospina to replace Petr Cech for the Hull match after Cech’s own howler last weekend. His shanked kick allowed former Gunner Cesc Fabregas to score Chelsea’s 3rd, adding insult to injury. That Ospina will likely start at Bayern and could use the game time to forge greater understanding with his outfield players is another strike against Cech.
Cech’s place isn’t the only one in question after the two losses. Hector Bellerin may not be recovered from the concussion he sustained when assaulted by Marcos Alonso on Chelsea’s first goal. Francis Coquelin, another player who many thought under-performed at Stamford Bridge, has a hamstring issue. Luckily, Mohamed Elneny is back with the club. Though surely disappointed that his goal vs Cameroon in the final of the African Cup of Nations wasn’t enough to see his country to victory, Elneny’s presence could be just what the beleaguered Arsenal midfield has been missing. He probably has to play and will likely be paired with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, one of the only senior midfielders not missing through injury or suspension.
The attacking positions offer some room for choice. Alexis Sanchez appears to have joined Mesut Ozil as a lightning rod for criticism after an underwhelming performance at Chelsea. Some Gooners are questioning both players and suggesting that they are merely going through the motions as they get closer and closer to the expiration of their current contracts. Danny Welbeck and Lucas Perez, mostly used as substitutes in league matches thus far this season, might be ready for starts. Then there are Alex Iwobi and Theo Walcott. Both players started at Chelsea but also failed to make big impacts. Finally, Olivier Giroud, who came on as a substitute and scored at Stamford Bridge, could be considered for restoration to the starting group.
These are critical choices for Wenger. A win is imperative given the tightness of the league table and to restore the lost confidence from the last two games. A little bit of rest–and perhaps a shake-up of the squad–ahead of the trip to Munich also seems essential. This one is harder to call than most, but here is the group that I think will play.
Substitutes: Ospina, Holding, Gibbs, Maitland-Niles, Iwobi, Walcott, Alexis
Hull, coming off the two clean sheets against the two big clubs, will surely set up to thwart us and strike on the counter. With the apprehensive–if not downright hostile–atmosphere in our stadium, our team simply must get off on the front foot and score an early goal. Keeping some of our more regularly starting attackers in reserve might allow a late chance to get us the needed result while still getting a bit of a rest ahead of the midweek CL showdown.
That’s just my best guess. Who do you think the manager will play and what would you do if you were in charge? Losing two on the trot tends to bring out those who believe they know better than the man in charge. Have at it, I say, even though, of course, it’s Wenger who will have to make the final call.
As much as we’d like a match like Hull City–in our home stadium–to be a routine outing for the team, recent results should make us realize that there is no such thing. Ahead of the Champions League elimination round AND locked in a pitched battle to get back to that tournament next season, nothing less than a win and a performance that indicates that the club belongs at that level will suffice.
Go on then…