Welcome back. We’ll get a first glimpse of a reconfigured Arsenal when we host Sunderland in the 3pm kick-off tomorrow, as we adjust to life without the injured Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez for the foreseeable future.
Taking centre-stage in midfield alongside Mathieu Flamini, will no doubt be Aaron Ramsey, and for the Welshman, it’s a chance to start showing why he deserves to be first pick in the middle of the park, even when everyone is fit again. He’s a different player to Cazorla of course, but what Aaron perhaps lacks in ball control, passing and vision compared to the Spaniard, he can make up for through his greater stamina, goal-getting capabilities and overall dynamism.
The team will need to adjust, either by playing more directly overall, or ensuring Mesut Ozil drops a little deeper to dictate our play in Cazorla’s absence. I read somewhere that no two players in the Premier League have passed to one another more than Cazorla and Ozil, with the Spaniard assisting the German’s assists, as it were. Kind of like Alexander Hleb used to do for Cesc Fabregas several years ago.
Yet when Ozil first arrived at Arsenal near the start of the 2014-15 campaign, the player he seemed to ‘click’ with more than any other was actually Ramsey, and that period coincided with the Welshman enjoying the best form and goal-scoring run of his career to date.
At the time Mikel Arteta was chief distributor alongside Ramsey in the middle, with Ozil ahead of them, so it won’t be quite the same, but if they start to combine as they did in that spell, we might not miss Cazorla as much we think. Ball circulation remains my main concern, as Flamini’s more Gennaro Gattuso than Andrea Pirlo, which is why I’m expecting a slightly deeper Ozil to pick up our Santi-less slack.
In term’s of replacing Sanchez’s qualities, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain needs to start showing the kind of form he did in pre-season and the Community Shield, because to be completely honest, he’s been awful by his standards when given an opportunity to play so far this season.
The boss said a little while ago that the Ox was too critical of himself but he needs to banish the self-doubt and produce what he has shown he’s capable of, which is being a nightmare for opposition fullbacks and an energetic, effervescent, penetrative, goal threat. He also needs to put in the sort of work-rate Sanchez does and show more defensive awareness.
The other options on the left are Joel Campbell and Theo Walcott, although my guess would be that Theo will be eased back into competition with a place on the bench tomorrow. We should be at full strength at the back, which at least gives us a solid base on which to build a slightly new style/system, given the changes in personnel compared to the majority of the season so far.
I’d say my overriding feeling about the team right now is anxiety tinged with excitement. I’m worried by our big-name absences but excited by what the likes of Ramsey and the Ox might produce. And Arsene Wenger highlighted the fact Arsenal remain close to the top of the table, despite being without a win in the league in three matches, and suggested our injury woes were ‘a challenge’ to the rest of the squad to show we can cope. He said:
We have gone through a little bit of a bad spell in recent games, but we are two points off the top. The great opportunity for us is that, despite that bad spell, we are very close. That’s why it’s important that we keep our confidence and our determination very high, and start winning again. It’s always a disappointment to lose players at an important moment of the season. But on the other hand, it’s a great challenge for the team and a great opportunity to show that we are ready for a fight and can deal with it.
The boss also discussed the Black Cats and the impact of their new manager Sam Allardyce, saying:
He has made them much more solid defensively, and much more difficult to beat. That is always very important when a team has a lack of confidence. With Sam Allardyce, you know that you will be confronted with a resilient team, who are quick on the break. They used that well against Crystal Palace for example, when I saw the game, and they have made results recently.
Getting the first goal is always important in games against teams like Sunderland, even more so when they’re managed by arch-pragmatists like Allardyce, because it forces them to come forward once in a while, as opposed to spending the whole game in their own half, time-wasting, spoiling, fouling and hoping for a lucky break from a set-piece to win them the game.
So a fast start and an early goal would be perfect and set us up nicely to hit them for six, which would send us top after Man City succumb to Stoke, United get hammered at home by West Ham, and Swansea burst high-flying Leicester’s bubble thanks to a Jonjo Shelvey-inspired supershow …
Back after the game.