It’s true–as the Anti-Arsene Wenger banners tell us–a Top-4 finish is not a trophy. It’s also true that falling out of the Champions League places would mean relegation from the premier tournament in all of club football. As the beleaguered Arsenal manager brings his troops across the Thames for a Monday night match-up at Sam Allardyce’s Crystal Palace, he might hope for a word of advice from the manager who has kept so many teams up in the English top division over the years.
Allardyce, who has never had a team relegated, has a simple formula: a direct, defense-first style of play and a demand upon his players to never give up. Should Wenger adopt such measures or should he play the attacking football for which his sides are known?
Surely he’ll hope his players won’t let down, and, instead, that they will try to build upon their 3-nil win vs West Ham United this past Wednesday. That one began slowly, but soon Arsenal came to control the midfield play, and, eventually, in the 58th minute, broke the deadlock by way of a Mesut Ozil goal, with a couple more soon to follow. In the end, the scoreline probably reflected the dominance of the performance.
As such, Arsenal should bring a measure of belief that they can win another London derby against another team not far above the relegation places. It’s unlikely, however, to be quite so easy. Palace, although they lost on Wednesday at Southampton, had won their previous four league matches. Allardyce has his team playing without fear, as they surely must, given that they have the most difficult run-in schedule of any of the bottom teams. They have to play five of the top six teams, and, having already beaten the team at the top (Chelsea, by a score of 2-1 at Stamford Bridge), they will fancy their chances against us in their home ground.
Palace’s run to take them above the drop has been all the more impressive because Allardyce has had to re-jig his team due to injury. At the back, he’s lost Goalkeeper Steve Mandanda and defenders Scott Dann, James Tompkins, Patrick Van Aanholt and Pape Souare. He was, however, able to reinforce with a pair of late January aquisitions, Mahmadou Sahko, on loan from Liverpool, and Luka Milivojevic, a deep lying midfielder bought from Olympiakos. Up front, Frazier Campbell, Connor Wickham and Loic Remy have all been unavailable while Yohan Cabaye went off at halftime at Southampton. Replacing Cabaye could be a big problem for our match, but we should beware of other Palace players who have been in good form, especially attackers Christian Benteke, Jason Puncheon, Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha.
So, how does Wenger set up his squad for this one? My hunch is that he follows the, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” school of thought and goes for an unchanged first 11:
Substitutes: Macey, Gibbs, Coquelin, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Iwobi, Giroud
Of course, Wenger might also want make some changes just to signal that it will take the full squad–firing on all cylinders–to pull off his own great escape. Injuries to Petr Cech and David Ospina at goalkeeper mean Emi Martinez will go again, but Wenger has a plethora of outfield players at his disposal; of the regulars, only Laurent Koscielny and Santi Cazorla are out. He could also switch up the tactics a bit, perhaps trying a more defensive look by working Francis Coquelin back into the midfield mix. Or he might choose to give Olivier Giroud a start as a reward for his fine goal as a substitute vs West Ham. I think the pressure Wenger is under probably precludes such options, but I’m just guessing. What do you say, my fine fellow Gooners?
All I really know is that this is another must-win for Wenger and his team. The manager, who still has not announced if he has signed a contract extension, needs a further respite from those sorts of discussions. Moreover, the team needs all three points to keep pace with the other top 6 clubs, all of whom won in earlier matches this weekend. Only 4 of those 6 will play in next season’s Champions League. For Arsenal, not doing so–while it wouldn’t mean failing to hoist a trophy–would be a relegation from that competition and the limelight of top flight European football. Arsene Wenger is no Sam Allardyce (thank Dennis…) but Arsenal need a great escape of their own to meet “minimum requirements.” It may not be possible without a victory on Monday night.
Go on then…