So here we are folks. After a season of slogging towards the finish-line – an adjective that I feel is certainly fitting for our season – we find ourselves with five days to win two games and stake our claim to continue to eat at European Football’s top table.
As Macaulay Caulkin said famously in Home Alone: “This is it; don’t get scared now”.
Tonight it’s Wigan at The Emirates with, I think it’s fair to say, a lot riding on the game for both teams. I watched a bit of the Championship Play-Off semi final between Brighton and Palace yesterday, to which the annually trotted out line of “the most expensive match in world football” is often used, but I wonder how much tonight’s game is worth to both teams – just putting that into terms that Stan Kroenke and the Arsenal board might understand.
An Arsenal victory will condemn Wigan to a life away from the trimmings of the Premier League (albeit with ‘Parachute Payments’) for next season, whilst a Wigan win will all but end our hopes of a Champions League qualification slot for next year. And with it the possibility of added investment to the playing team (or at least a reduction in what could have been budgeted for) I don’t think I’m being too overly dramatic when I say that – there is no way Sunderland will do us any favours at the weekend against the Spuds – you can be sure of that. A draw does nothing for either side. It means a win on the last day for Wigan needs to be by about 12 goals and Arsenal have to beat Newcastle whilst waiting to hear from news from White Hart Lane.
Yesterday I spoke of how much more nervous I seem to be this season compared to seasons past – well, that tension and stress has now hit fever pitch, such is the worry that the team fluffs their lines tonight. We have looked shaky at times during this winning streak we’re on, and if we show any sign of psychological ‘handbraking’ as Arsene might put it, then you can be sure own opponents will capitalise.
For Wigan the threat to us is all to clear: Kone, Maloney, McManaman and the ball winning abilities of James McCarthy. They are the offensive threats and will attempt to catch Arsenal on the counter. Martinez is not stupid and he knows he won’t control possession for the whole match, so he’ll most likely set up with three at the back, look to catch Arsenal on the break with his wing backs and snatch a goal or two. That’s how Wigan beat us last season and that will be their game plan tonight. The decisions Martinez will need to make is how much rotation he can legitimately hand to his players. They have played three games in eight days where Arsenal have played none. If he is going to concede possession then he’s going to need his fittest players to be running their guts out tonight. He’ll also want a quick start. Last season they got two first half goals that stunned us and they managed to hold on through some shocking offensive play by Arsenal and some heroic defending. Martinez will know that his team will tire in the last 30 minutes or so, so his game plan will be to hope he is at least a goal up at half time.
As for us, well, I’ve got no idea how Le Boss will line up his side. He admitted yesterday that Jack is currently on painkillers and will undergo an operation on his ankle in the summer, so I’d be surprised if he’s anything but on the bench tonight. That means I suspect we will either see Cazorla dropping into midfield with either Gervhino or Podolski on the left, or the diminutive Spaniard will move across to the left to accommodate a starting slot for Tomas Rosicky. My personal preference would be to have Cazorla in the middle with Arteta and Ramsey, with Podolski up top and Gervhino on the left, and The Ox on the right. I know Theo has stepped up in his last two games and scored both of our goals, but at home against a team that will probably sit deep (especially if they are a goal up) his threat is nullified and so we need tricky players that can beat their man. Gervhino beats himself half the time, but the other half he can beat his man, so we might get more joy from him starting.
Whoever does get the nod from the manager needs to be up from this from the off. We steamrolled Manchester United for the first half a couple of weeks ago and our high pressing, intensity and desire got us up quickly and only a defensive mistake on Sagna’s part stopped us from winning the game. We need that same level of intensity from the first minute tonight. If we pour cold water on Wigan’s hopes early in the first half, they will tire enough for us to finish them off in the second, so we have to start quickly.
I think my nervousness about tonight stems from what happened to us at home against Wigan last year. We went into the game in form and a win would have all but secured Champions League football, yet we got our noses bloodied. I was confident before that game last year and was dealt a real reality check. Wigan had, and have now, the tools to damage us and we can’t – nay, mustn’t – let them do it again. There is more riding on this game for us than there was last season, just like their is more riding on it for them, so the pressure is on both clubs.
It’s never easy supporting Arsenal, it requires the constitution of a professional chilli eater, and it is going to be tested tonight. Let’s hope The Arsenal players can pass with flying colours.
See you on the other side my friends.