13th February 2016: Premier League Preview – Arsenal prepare for Fox hunt

Saturday greetings. Today’s Premier League fixtures felt very much like the aperitif before tomorrow’s top-four feast, when Manchester City host Tottenham and we welcome league leaders Leicester to Emirates stadium.

I mean, it was still as hilarious to see Manchester United lose at Sunderland as it is annoying watching Chelsea take an early three-goal lead against hapless Newcastle as I write this, but these games, along with the rest today, are already pretty much insignificant in terms of the title race. All rather mid-table meek, or pre-crucial survival stuff.

You can be sure there’ll be no love lost in either fixture on Valentine’s Day however, as each of the four clubs strive to cement their title credentials at the expense of one of their direct rivals for the crown. We play first of course, kicking off at noon and hoping to reduce the gap to the top of the table to just two points, having seen ourselves fall eight adrift of the summit this time last week.

Defeat, even with 12 games still to play after tomorrow, doesn’t bear thinking about but for all of Leicester’s surreal success so far this season, in my opinion we’re by far the better team both on paper and the pitch, providing we play to our potential.

Yet as Claudio Ranieri’s men showed last weekend by containing and countering to win convincingly at City, they are a far more intelligent outfit right now than even earlier this season, when they often conceded first before coming storming back, but of course also reversed that trend in late September, when they struck first against us at their place only to eventually lose 5-2.

Their Italian manager has clearly seen his ideas and instructions seep into his side gradually over the course of the season and they now resemble a top side from their boss’ home country – defensively organised and hard to break down in a compact shape, but rapidly efficient in breaking forward and unerringly cut-throat when they get there.

It’s an evolution in Leicester’s playing style Arsene Wenger revealed he’s very aware of having studied the statistics, but as well as trying to stifle Leicester’s game-plan, the boss maintains Arsenal must play to their own strengths and that means dominating possession. He said:

I told my defence after the game [in September], ‘I’m not happy with your performance’ because they created goal chances. We created many as well. It could have been, 5-2 or 8-4. I was already impressed by their offensive potential. But it was a very open game. I watched our game again because I wanted to watch how this team moved since then. There is an evolution in their game. They are more cautious at the moment. They play a lot in their final third and come out very quickly. Look at the number of direct balls from their half to the opponents’ half. They are higher than anyone else because they have Vardy on his way straight away when they win the ball – they do it very well. They suck you in and go very quickly in the opponents’ half. At the time they were a bit more all going. Today they are a bit more ‘let’s sit here and use our strengths’ in a very efficient way, which is what they did remarkably well against Manchester City. We will try of course to stop their counter-attacking. But at home you have to express your strengths and our strength is to have the ball. We have to try to express our strengths and as well try to stop them from hitting us on the break.

In terms of how we’ll line up, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, my guess would be that we’ll see one change from last weekend’s starting line-up against Bournemouth, with Francis Coquelin replacing Mathieu Flamini as our defensive midfielder.

That of course means Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would retain his place on the right of our attack and after he returned to form with a well-taken goal against the Cherries, I think it would be the right call by the boss.

And speaking of the Ox, Arsene says his recent good form – emphasised by a goal and an assist in his last two starts – has hopefully provided the boost in confidence the England man needed to kick-start his season:

He got an assist, then he scored and that sometimes opens a light. I’m convinced that in every career, you have moments where you think ‘I can do that’ and transform your potential into reality. I’m convinced that that will give him appetite to score more, to give more assists and to go more in the final third, where he can be deadly. You cannot imagine when you look at Alex that he will not score goals. He has power, pace, technique, finishing. I believe that only he maybe did not believe enough that he can score. That will convince him and hopefully it’s the start of many more.

I have to say the Ox’s struggles for form this season have baffled me at times. In pre-season, he was our stand-out player as far as I was concerned, and I thought it was a sign he would make his mark on this campaign like never before.

Clearly it hasn’t turned out that way and he’s actually found himself falling further down the pecking order with the emergence of Joel Campbell as a bone fide first-teamer, rather than bulldozing his way up it like I, and I’m sure many others, expected.

But if I’m right about him retaining his place against the Foxes, the Ox has a chance to shine in a huge game tomorrow, perhaps even be a match-winner, and prove that he deserves to start week in week out.

I’m really up for this one. It’s a six-pointer no question, probably pivotal in terms of our title hopes and also has a bit of an ‘us versus the rest of the country’ vibe to it. Leicester are the nation’s darlings right now – it’s up to us to ruin the romance of their surprise rise on Valentine’s Day, and reignite our own charge for the title.

Back post-match.

COME on Arsenal …

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