ANOTHER TRIP TO WEMBLEY

Written by Alasdair Read

Arsenal beat the team second from bottom by a single goal. Hardly a headline to turn the season around is it? Last time we beat a poor side was our 3-0 win against West Ham, I thought this may kick start a run of form – look how that turned out. A win against Middlesbrough certainly hasn’t changed any minds on our season or manager, neither has the performance. The same worrying defensive frailties we have experienced all season were present. The same lack of offensive ideas since Santi Cazorla’s untimely injury. One marked difference however, was the return of some fight. It may only be the tiniest speck of life within the team, but I don’t care – I’m taking it.

 

Quality wise we just about edged a team in a relegation scrap, yet make no mistake – matching them in a scrap is exactly what we needed. Middlesbrough players were absolutely desperate to win this game and they showed that in every single tackle. They were fighting for their premier league lives, and for the first time in a long time we matched this them. Watching Mesut Ozil sprint the length of the pitch to dive into a slide tackle was reminiscent of flying pigs for Arsenal fans – yet this did actually happen and was twice as exciting. It was a far cry from the game against Crystal Palace in which our captain of the day Theo Walcott openly admitted that “they wanted it more than us”.

After the win, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain told us that they went back to basics, elaborating that this meant “making sure that our commitment levels were right to play for this football club”. The players were finally shocked into a reaction when the travelling fans turned on them last week at Selhurst Park. Aaron Ramsey divulged that this resulted in a couple of days off to clear their heads and culminated in a team meeting at the training ground to discuss the dire situation. Maybe this was one dreadful performance too many? Maybe the change in target for the frustration felt by Arsenal fans resulted in a change in thinking? No more hiding behind the manager, they realised they must shoulder as much responsibility as the man who puts them on the pitch.

 

I really do hope something has changed in the last week at Arsenal, and I want it to be more than the number of centre backs in our starting 11. With this hope in mind I want to talk about three big decisions Arsene Wenger has to make before a massive, exciting and nail-biting trip to Wembley on Sunday – which I am lucky enough to be making myself.

 

The Defence

The big question mark over the defence centres on the formation. Was our trip to the North-East of England the start of a revolution at Arsenal? Or more simply a tactical decision to combat the number of balls that Middlesbrough were going to punt into our box? I suspect it will be more of an evolution.

It was exciting to see the width we had with Oxlade-Chamberlain and Monreal bombing forward as real wing backs, something that will surely be emphasised (both excitingly and worryingly) against a Manchester City team more open and willing to attack. The formation change also pushes Ozil out into the front three again, removing the concern that he doesn’t provide enough steal or muscle in the middle of the park.

What it does do is keep Gabriel in the team at centre back. His decision making and organisational skills are reminiscent of the injured Mustafi’s, which is to say they are poor at best. Maybe I’m being harsh? Although I do believe if our club captain Mertesacker had played even a minute of football this season there would be a real case for him to start as the leader between the more nimble Koscielny and Holding.

With Bellerin’s reported season-long injury struggles and the absence of Mustafi, I think once Arsene picks the formation here the personnel simply slot into place.

Central Midfield

The centre of the Arsenal midfield really is a curious place without Santi Cazorla. The individual quality is high with each player bringing a contrasting set of strengths, yet pairing those up seems to yield no control or balance whatsoever. The fact that no new partnership has come to fruition after months of experimentation since the Cazorla injury really suggests there is no cream ready to rise to the top. Whose turn is it to give it a go this week?

Have Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka done enough? Xhaka has the best passing range of the available players yet can seem so frustratingly immobile at times. It could be argued that Aaron Ramsey is the most talented of the bunch and can provide the type of individual brilliance needed in a cup semi-final – I mean he has done it in the final, right? On the other hand we are yet to see the scintillating form which saw him in the best 11 of the tournament at the Euros. Arsene may well opt for more protection from his midfield against a Manchester City team who can be devastating going forward, would this be in the form of the out of favour Coquelin or the efficient and steady Elneny? Whatever the decision I certainly don’t envy the man making it. We have any number of possible combinations to play, with none proving effective thus far.

Striker

Another tactical conundrum for our maligned manger to make is who to play as the central striker. If you’re reading this Arsene, I would like to make a case for Olivier Giroud.

The tall and preened Frenchman must be an absolute nightmare for any centre back. The way in which Giroud fights for every single ball that enters his airspace means the opposing defender cannot have one lapse in either concentration or bravery. Sure, his well-documented lack of pace may provide a short respite when a frustrated Alexis tries to slip him in behind; however the scrap to win at every set piece or cross into the box embodies exactly my point at the start of this blog.

It sounds like Danny Welbeck may well be back in contention and our other option is Theo Walcott. I could write an entire blog on what Walcott does or doesn’t provide. Personally I think Welbeck will be a fantastic option as an impact substitute and that Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez deliver buckets of creativity and pace either side of Giroud. This front three provides a best of both worlds scenario for me– it gives Alexis and Ozil the fluidity and freedom they need and ensures the City defenders are busy looking after our big man up front.

 

So there you have it Arsene, start Giroud and I’ll let you make the other decisions. Joking aside, whatever the formation or team that is selected on Sunday I will be there to fully support the team for 90 minutes – I don’t get to go too often so I cannot wait. Any tactical or performance issues can (and I’m sure will be) discussed to no end after the game, but for 90 minutes on Sunday we must all play our part in the fight – fans, players, manager.

 

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