Newcastle: a better attack for them, but a better attacking performance from us wins

Ahh match day. Is there a finer thing? I think not. For it brings a sense of hope, of redemption, of anticipation and of a love that you and I know all too well. It’s Newcastle versus our beloved Arsenal and it’s a match that we quite simply must win. 

After last Monday’s draw with Liverpool, we could be forgiven for accepting a point after the first half we endured, but Champions don’t drop points too frequently. Even in this, the most open of leagues in the world. If we truly are to continue the belief that this season isn’t over before it’s even spluttered in to life, today is an away day that comes with the pressure that really, three points or bust has to be the mentality of the players.

Newcastle will be better today than they’ve been against us over recent history. We have a good record at St Jame’s Park and it’s a record in which we’ve won in the last three seasons, but only by a goal margin, so we’ve never made it easy for ourselves. One of the guys that works for me is a Newcastle fan and he and I have spent a couple of days discussing how they’ll line up. He seems more confident in them going forward than defending and they look like they have some good players who will cause us trouble.

Up top will be Mitrovic who, by the sounds of it, is a bit of a unit and will put himself about, so it is incumbent on our two central defenders to marshal him well. The good news is that even if we haven’t got Big Per or Kosciencly, at least Chambers and Gabriel have had a bit of practice with having to cope with Benteke last Monday, so hopefully they’ll be less surprises from a physical presence. 

We also might remember him from such performances as Anderlecht at Home: The collapsening last season, in which he bagged the final goal in the 3-3 debacle.

But behind the Serbian there will also be threats. Newcastle will most likely mirror our 4-2-3-1 formation and choose a trio of Sissoko, Wijnaldum and Thauvin, each a creative player who brings a different threat but an ability to run at defenders. This season, Newcastle look to have a bit more in their locker, certainly in the sharp end of the team.

But it’s in defence in which the Newcastle fans I have spoken to are the most worried. Despite a battling draw away at United, this is where the guy in my team thinks we might get some joy. Their back four of Janmaat, Collocini, Mbemba and Dummett have looked a little shaky at times and away to Swansea they were torn apart. So for us, if we’re going to have any joy today we’ll need to be much better in attack.

Arsène says Alexis is getting there and hopefully that means his accuracy is better, because we could really do with him finding his range, especially if Giroud has another off day. I expect Giroud to start and in his corner he has the advantage of having a good record against Newcastle, but he’ll need players in and around him to be successful. I doubt Arsène is going to mix things up much, so I expect to see the same quartet of Giroud, Alexis, Özil and Ramsey providing the attacking threat. If the Newcastle defence is fallible, then those four need to unlock them with plenty of movement and runs beyond our handsome Frenchman.

Defensively we all wait with baited breath as to whether Koscienly has made it and we all hope he does. But without him we will have a similar line up to Liverpool and a back five of Cech, Monreal, Gabriel, Chambers and Bellerin, with Santi and Coquelin sitting in front.

Newcastle will probably want the first 15 minutes to be about settling down and containing Arsenal, then trying to slowly unlock us I think. As Mike in my team said (the Geordie), “if we try to have a go at you from the start, I worry that we’ll get carved open on the counter”. I’d love a bit of 03/04 style lightning counter attacking, but we have to be more accurate with our ball retention if we’re to take advantage. We can’t afford to be misplacing passes in our defensive third like the first two home games of the season. We have to be dominant and accurate in possession.

An early kick off and an early opportunity to have an enjoyable weekend. Come on Arsenal!

Play Walcott and don’t go back to square one

With Chelski and City both picking up the wins that I expected they would yesterday, it adds a wee bit more pressure on us to perform this evening against a Liverpool team who will be buoyed by their own results, if not the way in which they played in those games.

Liverpool represent a serious challenge to our title credentials, because we need to prove that we can beat all of our rivals, as well as being flat-track bullies by beating the so-called ‘smaller’ teams.

I was at a wedding yesterday and I was asked by a Liverpool fan what I thought the score would be. One of the difficult things about the start of the season is that you have no real form or frame of reference to make an educated guess with a question like that. We’ve seen abject failure in the form of West Ham at home, then redemption of sorts with a strong first half performance against Palace and then holding on to the three points, so it’s hard to really talk about any kind of ‘form’.

I mentioned it yesterday, that this time of the season is more about building momentum and dealing psychological blows, rather than the importance of the three points. I think the fact that I couldn’t properly predict a result to the Scouse fan, shows that too.

I suspect we’ll line up exactly the same way in which we played against Palace. I don’t like seeing Ramsey operating as a wide forward, but I think Arsène is desperate to get him in to the team by hook or by crook, so I see it as inevitable that he’ll play. Cazorla and Coquelin have both been good enough in the middle not to be dropped and with Özil running the show against Palace in the number 10 role last Sunday, he’ll be expected to do the same again. The defence picks itself at the moment and with Alexis now back to a bit of fitness and ready to rock and roll, the only real decision for Le Boss is whether or not he opts for the target man in Giroud, or the pace of Walcott.

To an extent, I hope Arsène makes his decision based on who he thinks will cause the greatest threat to Liverpool, rather than just start Giroid out of some kind of hierarchical based thought process. Liverpool have played with three at the back and wing backs in the last two years at The Emirates and we’ve been pretty comfortable in 2-0 and 4-1 wins, but I doubt Rodgers will play the same way tonight. I suspect he’ll play four at the back and look to win the midfield battle with Henderson and Milner being the chief protagonists, then looking to play Coutinho as a number ten behind Benteke. Defensively they’ll most likely have Lovren and Skyrtel at the back and neither are blessed with astronomical pace. So I do wonder if playing Theo might be a consideration. He will force Liverpool to sit deeper defensively and hopefully that would leave the midfield to drop deeper to receive the ball, which would isolate Coutinho and Benteke. We’ve seen from successive victories against Villa last season that if you isolate Benteke he will cut a lonely figure up top, so it will be important for us to try and replicate that because if we don’t, he’ll inevitably be a handful.

Two wins on the trot would allow us to start thinking about putting a run together. A draw means we haven’t really got anywhere, but haven’t lost, which really would feel like we’re back to square one. I hate square one. Square one sucks.

Stay away from square one Arsenal.

No complacency: title challengers don’t do that

Today is a very important game. Today The Arsenal need three points, because only then will we all breathe a sigh of relief and start talking about the possibility that last weekend’s defeat to West Ham was a ‘blip’ and this Arsenal team can challenge for the league.

Quite simply: Premier League winners don’t lose two on the spot to West Ham and Crystal Palace. You couldn’t see City or Chelski doing it, so if we truly harbour loftier ambitions than qualification for the Champions League, there needs to be a reaction at Selhurst Park.

We have players capable of it. The squad is strong enough and technically proficient enough to go to Selhurst Park and boss the game. But the Premier League is the best league in the world because of its unpredictability, so a defeat or a draw equally would t be unheard of.

Last weekend I was only thinking about ‘when we win’. The thought of us losing to West Ham on our own turf never entered my mind. Perhaps this was the same complacency that washed over the players themselves. If that is true, then I hope they are mirroring my pre-match thoughts this week too, because I am certainly not so blasè about beating Crystal Palace. 

They have a decent team. Pardew has assembled a good selection of players with plenty of pace in attack and they will certainly trouble us at times today. Puncheon, Zaha and Bolasie all have speed and a trick or two, but I suspect we’ll only see two from that three start today, with Glenn Murray up top. What we have to do is to ensure that those attacking threats are nullified by isolating those players when they do have possession. That’s why I am hoping we go for a pacey forward line, because if we have plenty of pace of our own, it will force the Palace defence to drop deeper. If they do, then it will create either a greater gap between their defence and attack, or it will force their attacking players to drop deeper to collect the ball. That will hopefully reduce the risk of us being so painfully exposed by their attack play. 

So my forward three for today would be Walcott, Alexis and The Ox. Giroud is a handful, he has scored a few goals against Palace, but he is exactly the type of player that Dann and Delaney wouldn’t mind playing against. The negative of starting Theo is that he won’t press the ball like Giroud does. If Arsenal are to peg Palace back, the whole of the front three need to be pressing high, not just Alexis. 

Theo also has the tendency to go missing in games, but if that happens then you can rectify it by bringing on Giroud, so I’d still opt for the Englishman.

The big question seems to be whether Alexis is ready to start. He looked a little rusty coming on last weekend, as you’d expect, but he still offers something nobody else in the team does, so I personally want to see him come in. If that happens, a big question needs to be answered, because one of The Ox, Santi or Ramsey doesn’t play I don’t think. One plays alongside Coquelin and one plays wide right and one has to contend with a spot on the bench. Santi needs to resume his role as Distributor-In-Chief alongside Coquelin. That partnership works and the closer those two are together in the middle of the park, the better it is for us, so I wouldn’t hesitate to pick the tiny little Spaniard. Nor would I hesitate to pick The Ox ahead of Ramsey. Aaron is a better player than the Ox at this moment in time, but not as a wide man, so The Ox needs to start. I’m not sure he will though. Arsène likes Ramsey too much and I suspect we’ll see a return of square pegs in round holes with him starting on the right. It’s frustrating for me, but perhaps I need to trust Arsène’s judgement a little more, because as long as we get the three points that’s all that matters.

Today can be the reboot of the season, and climb back into the bookies eyes as a team who can win the Premier League title. Last weekend we looked sluggish and not clinical enough, which is why a little shuffle of the forward line wouldn’t do us any harm, I don’t think anyway. Conversely, despite the fact that we conceded two pretty shockingly defended goals, I’d expect a similar back four to last weekend. Bellerin may come in for Debuchy, but the rest of the side should probably be given the chance to redeem themselves, before any panic buttons are pressed about our back four needing a shuffle or two.

Whoever starts today, they need to show a lot more urgency and a lot more accuracy in finding other Arsenal players in space. No more Hollywood balls please guys, we need to retain possession with our short and quick passing. That’s how we’re designed to be effective and that’s how we’ll win the game – if we win the game -making a verbal offering to all the ‘complacency’ karma gods just in case here.

I’ll be at the Red Bull Air race today and so will be relying on Sky Go and quiet corners. I hope to be getting people to stare at me because I’m cheering at inappropriate moments from 1.30pm.

Come on Arsenal!

A win-win for me and Arsenal? But let’s just win.

Today’s game is a win-win for me I feel. I normally get really wound up before any Arsenal game. Cold hands and feet as my circulatory system begins to re-route blood to my vital organs, set about by a feeling of unease that instinctively my body has told me that there is danger.

When Arsenal play anybody, the only danger is of my own unhappiness and disappointment. So why is today a win-win?

Because it can either mean something or not, depending on the result, so come 7pm tonight when I’m tucking in to my dinner having come home from Wembley I can either choose to brush off the defeat or wax lyrical about the hoo-do that has been undone. Yes, we’re talking about Chelski and their undefeated record over us and yes, it’s something we’d all like to see ended. But with this game elevated only because it’s so close to the actual season curtain raiser next weekend, there will still be part of me that will question “is it really over? Is the psychological barrier really overcome?” After the match if we’ve won.

I suspect we’ll only really find out if this team has overcome that barrier when the teams play each other in the league, so again this game is demoted in my mind to that of something that is relevant or irrelevant depending on the outcome of the result.

I hope we win. I would rather see Mourinho shrug this off as a friendly than see him happy. An irritant such as he should not be allowed to be as happy as he’s been in his management career. He’s an odious character prone to spiteful outbursts and if a win allows him to try to open up more bitter words towards either Arsenal fans or Arsène himself, then we know we’re getting under his skin. Yeah, getting under his skin, because we do things the right way and he represents the all mighty evil dollar in football. Love it.

As for the game itself, this is not going to be the first time this season that I think I’m going to say this, but I have no idea how Arsène will set the team out. I mean, I have a rough idea, but there are a few question marks dotted all over the pitch. We know that Alexis and Ospina will not be available due to their extended seasons for their respective nations in the Copa America, as well as the injury to Welbeck which keeps him out, but how else Arsène unleashes his team is a tough one.

That doesn’t mean I won’t have a go though! 

I think we will surely see Cech make his first Wembley appearance in an Arsenal shirt, which I think he’ll be protected in the middle by Koscienly and Mertesacker, but who plays out wide? Based on last season I couldn’t tell you who is now the first choice right back, but I suspect we’ll see Debuchy get the nod because of his experience. On the left my initial reaction is that Monreal will start, but it’s a new season and Arsène may be taking the view that both the Spaniard and Gibbs are beginning from a standstill position, so he could play either. I would play Nacho. He was the form player from last season and I think we need as many form players in the team against a good Chelski team as possible. Gibbs will get his chance though, of that I’m sure, possibly next weekend against West Ham who will surely set out to defend and so the presence of quicker and more attack-minded full backs might be an option.

Coquelin will surely start in the engine room of our midfield and it will be his job to stop Hazard in his tracks from picking the ball up deep and trying slalom his way through our defensive unit. Hazard will drift of course, but Le Coq will need to be ready, willing and able for when the Belgian comes centrally. Or he can track him for the game. I suspect we’ll see Remy up top against our back four, rather than a two man attack, so Hazard will be the danger man and Coquelin can help to Roy me up on him.

Fresh from inking his extension, Santi must surely get the opportunity to play as the deep lying playmaker and with Cesc probably operating a similar role in Chelski’s side, it will be interesting to see how both players perform. Hopefully Santi has the better afternoon.

That leaves an attacking quartet in which I’d be surprised not to see Özil, but after that it gets tricky. Arsène could play Giroud, but equally he could opt for Theo up top. Both have their positive attributes against Terry and Cahill. Any ball knocked up to Giroud he’ll be better at bringing others in to play, but he’s the type of player that those two love to play against, where as Walcott has pace and will run in behind the two centre halves. The only downside to Walcott, however, is that if Chelski sit deep we will not see much space for at do to run in behind on. It’s a difficult one to call. Personally I’d stick with Giroud and surround him with players that he can bring in to play, like The Ox or Rambo. I do think Rambo will play, probably wide right, but that then leaves just one space left in my starting XI, to which I could fit The Ox, Walcott (out wide), Wilshere, Rosicky or even somebody like Gnabry. Heck, maybe Jeff Reine-Adelaide has warranted a go? 

Probably not. But I do wonder if we might see The Ox starting. I think it’s going to be a big season for him and I reckon Arsène might think the same too. He’ll give the Chelski players something to worry about with both pace and power, but his ability and dribbling on the ball is far superior to Theo, which is why I wonder if Arsène won’t tell him to go out there and do his stuff.

Whatever happens, I just hope we can continue to stay positive. It’s been a good preseason and next week we start the real thing, so I’ll save all my nerves for then.

Catch y’all tomorrow.

One heck of a tour, one Hect of a player

Today will be an interesting test for the team because, as Arsène described at his pre-game presser in Singapore, both Everton and Stoke were really up for their game and there were plenty of ‘committed’ tackles going in.

You hear things like that and the first thing you think of as a fan is “I really hope they go easy. It’s only a friendly” because as much as you want the matches to be a bit competitive so the team can get up to speed on their fitness, the last thing we need is to start the season missing players, we’ve already lost Alexis and Rosicky remember.

So whilst I’m looking forward to seeing a more senior XI playing this afternoon (UK time), I hope everyone remembers the real thing doesn’t start for at least a couple of weeks.

The tour appears – by and large – to have been a success and whilst Le Boss is surprised by the facilities, passion, volume of fans, etc, I don’t think there’s many of us online who had the same amount of surprise when seeing the turn out for the friendlies and the kit launch. Football is big business these days and Arsenal are a global brand with a massive online community – the biggest – so for those fans out there who don’t get to travel to see the real thing in the Premier League, this is a great opportunity that they were always going to take. I salute those Asian fans. We are all one big community and I’m glad you got your opportunity to get up close and personal with the players.

As for those players, Arsène has laid down a challenge for Bellerin and with him about to sign a new deal after an exceptional season, this season could be even bigger for him than last. I’d expect Debuchy to start the season as first choice, but if the young Spaniard manages to de-throne the Frenchman by having another consist set of performances, we could be looking at quite a player on our hands. At his age he has all the potential to become a bit of a Lee Dixonesque style legend at the club. As long as he doesn’t do lobbing his own ‘keeper from 30 yards against Coventry!!

He seems to have his head screwed on right though. He comes across very well in interviews and has said about how he himself still has trouble seeing himself as one of the first team squad. Let me tell you Hect, you better believe it because you have some massive potential, my friend.

So too, if you believe Arsène, does Yaya Sanogo. He joins Ajax on a season long loan which was confirmed yesterday by both clubs and the tall Frenchman was pictured in the Ajax kit signing a loan deal for 2015/16. I admire Arsène’s belief in the player and who knows, playing with a better calibre of players, in the Champions League, as well as being under the tutelage of the Master Dennis Bergkamp, he may turn in to that player Arsène believes. But with rumours of Benzema not going away (much will also be made of the comments by Arsène when he said “not at the moment” when directly asked), you can’t help but think that his opportunity may not be made available at the club. Football is often a game of fortune when it comes to players breaking through – Bellerin and Coquelin the prime examples of that – and you just wonder whether the availability of another megastar might end up signalling the end of Sanogo’s chance at the club. Let’s hope Arsène’s right and he does do the business at Ajax though, because it’s always nicer to see young players come through, in my opinion.

My cup final. Your cup final. Arsenal’s cup final. Make history.

This is it people. Cup final day.

It’s hard to effectively communicate the significance of today to anybody who isn’t a football fan, or even isn’t a fan whose team is in the final, but this is season defining. And I mean that with no sense of hyperbole at all. By 10pm tonight we will have one of two perspectives on how our season has evolved.

First, the bad: We lose to Aston Villa and are looking at a trophy less season in which the only consolation is that we have secured automatic Champions League qualification. It is but scant consolation though, as we know that having waited for so long to get a trophy, then having it delivered to us last year, we have come so near and yet stopped so agonisingly close. The media will portray Arsenal once again as the ‘big occasion bottlers’ and we will take an entire summer of grief from friends, family and randoms online as they dig the knife in even deeper.

But the alternative to this is the good: we win our second FA Cup in as many years. Arsene has delivered another trophy and the team now has a record in which you can say that we are silverware winners on a regular basis. The season is viewed as a success and we go into the summer knowing that one or two top-notch additions will set us up to try to close the gap on Chelski once again. Players who are linked with Arsenal know that they have a pretty good chance of silverware and that strengthens our hand further in negotiations. It’s a perpetual cycle of positivity.

Heck, even the Arsenal Twittersphere might just take a chill pill as a collective and enjoy whatever summer brings.

It is amazing that one game can have so much riding on it, isn’t it? If you think about the Arsenal players, they will have worked their little cottons off from August until May, but ultimately, unless they deliver by close of play today, it will all feel a little bit in vein.

But that’s the beauty of football. That’s what makes the highs so high and the lows so low. If there was another trophy to play for next week and the week after that, we’d be a heck of a lot more blasé about it, wouldn’t we? So would we change it for anything? Nope. I wouldn’t swap all of the nerves in the world today pre-game for not being in this competition and heading over to Wembley early this evening. Because if I did, it would mean my team hasn’t reached this landmark occasion, and I’d probably be out buying furniture polish or doing the Saturday shop in Sainsbury’s. Today’s blog would probably be the start of speculating on transfers and the longer I can go on without talking about that, the better, because it’s not what football is about.

Today is. Cups are. The FA Cup.

Team wise, my pick for the side would be Szczesny in goal, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscienly, Monreal, Coquelin, Cazorla Ozil, Alexis, Giroud and Walcott. It would be harsh on Rambo but I think Theo offers more of a wide threat on the counter than Aaron does and if Aston Villa sit deeper than expected (many are predicting that they will ‘have a go’ at us today), then Ramsey will inevitably drift centrally and we could see more congestion.

However, I don’t think that will be the team. I think all but Theo will be Arsene’s pick for today and, whilst it wouldn’t be my first choice, if that’s the team that I see on my phone just before kick off, then I’d be happy enough with that too. That’s because for all of the lack of width that Rambo doesn’t offer, what he will offer more than Theo will be defensive cover. He’s not the best defensive player in the world, but his engine is such that it will mean that if Villa try to overload the left hand side of their attack, Bellerin will be supported by the Welshman.

That’s what Villa tried to do against Liverpool and Sherwood might take the view that ‘if it ain’t broke, then Tim Sherwood don’t wanna fix it’ – because you just know he’s the sort of person to be talking about himself in third person, don’t you?

So how will today pan out? No idea, but what I do know – which is what I said on the Arsenal Discussion on Thursday evening on Arsenal Fan TV – is that if Aston Villa sit deep and play a pacey attacking trio of Benteke, Agbonlahor and one other, then it might lead to gaps of space in the midfield as the defence and midfield sit deep and isolate those three. If there are gaps in the middle of the park it should play into Santi and Mesut’s hands, so they will need to have big games today if they get enough time and space on the ball.

It’s also time for Giroud to break his goal scoring duck. He doesn’t need to in order to have a good game, but he’s the sort of player that if he gets one in a cup final – hopefully in the first half – he’ll be a menace throughout the game. Vlaar will no doubt be tasked with keeping him company, so it will be important that both Alexis and Ramsey – assuming it’s him that starts – will be able to pick up balls from Giroud’s close controlled flicks and intricate touches when fed up to him.

Arsene is right to pick out Benteke as a threat and as I was speaking about with the guys from Arsenal Fan TV and Moh who pointed this out, the worry is if Benteke has seen what Gomis did to us for Swansea at The Emirates, that deep ball to the back post to nod beyond our keeper. I think Villa will try that a few times and so whoever goes in goal  – and I think that’s why Szczesny should start (think West Ham away for why – he claimed crosses all day) – will need to be commanding. If Villa try that tactic and the ‘keeper plucks the ball out of the air three or four times, they quickly stop it and we’ll have seen a major aerial challenge nullified. But if they get joy with a couple, we could see an entire evening of it, which none of us want to see, do we?

I have already experienced the pain of losing to a midlands team in a cup final in 2011. I don’t particularly want to feel that pain again. Arsenal players need to let go of any inhibitions they might have. They need to play the game we know they are capable of and they need to take that next step on to proving that they are ready to challenge the oil whoring elite of this country with another trophy in the cabinet.

It doesn’t matter if you’re at Wembley. It doesn’t matter if you’re in England. If you are a gooner, then today you and I will be channelling the same spirit of success through to the players. They need every single one of us. Those in the stadium, those shouting at the TV, those listening in on radio and those watching through a live feed. Every man, woman, boy, girl and pet needs to be there for the team in spirit body and mind.

Come on you rip roaring reds.

Up the Arsenal.

Sunderland preview: Breaking down a defence again

A lovely midweek game to keep us occupied tonight, how thoughtful of The Arsenal to get so far in the FA Cup and ensure this fixture was moved to a midweek, where we would have something to talk about. And that something appears to be how likely Arsene is to shuffle his deck a little bit against a Sunderland team who need a point to secure their Premier League status for 2015/16.

We need effectively just a point to secure our third place status and automatic qualification to the Champions League next season, so one could be forgiven for thinking this might be like that Champions League game about five years ago when both Porto and Arsenal needed a draw to qualify, so both teams played out one of the most drab 0-0s that ever existed.

However, I suspect Arsenal will want to get the job done today, not least to absolutely guarantee that we can qualify, but also because it helps to continue the momentum going in to the FA Cup in just over a week and a half’s time. Our last couple of games have seen patchy performances and for that reason, I think Arsene will be telling his charges that there needs to be a bit more swagger injected in to the performance tonight.

We need to see the Arsenal of three weeks ago, swashbuckling passing and sweeping movements that leave teams like Hull and Liverpool trailing in our wake, unable to respond to relentless Arsenal pressure and precision passing. We need to see the hunger and desire of the players manifest itself in more than the lacklustre game at home against Swansea just over a week ago. We need to see goals and three points for the home side.

That’s why I can understand why so many Arsenal fans are calling for a bit of rotation this evening. We’ve looked a little unconvincing in the last couple of games and whether that is due to a long season catching up with a few players, or whether it’s because tactically it has not quite worked out (i.e. Ramsey out wide right) I’m not 100% sure, but one thing I do know is that there will be plenty of players who haven’t been making the match day XI who should be chomping at the bit to put on a good show if they are chosen. Players like Wilshere, Gibbs and Walcott all spring to mind immediately and I’d be surprised if two out of those three don’t play tonight. Arsene won’t want to make wholesale changes to the side – it will disrupt the continuity of the team – but he might want to freshen things up a bit and I’m all for that.

We’ll already see Gabriel come in for Laurent Koscienly, who has the flu, so I think Arsene may not opt to rotate any more of his back four. Similarly in midfield, I think he’ll try to keep it looking and feeling like it did at Old Trafford, certainly in the last half an hour. So I wonder if Wilshere will replace Cazorla. If he wants to, he could look at Ramsey centrally with Walcott out wide, but I think he’ll keep Aaron out wide tonight. I don’t think he should, but I can see it happening because I just have a gut feel that one of Walcott or Wilshere miss out. I think Arsene wants to accommodate Rambo somehow and that’s why I don’t think we’ll see both of the England internationals starting, so we’ll either see Walcott out wide right and Rambo in the centre, or Rambo wide right and Wilshere in the centre. I’d personally rather see Ramsey centre, so that would be my preferred option.

Up top will most likely be Giroud and Alexis, particularly because with The Ox and Welbeck out, there doesn’t appear to be too many natural suitors for the role. Theo centrally doesn’t work, we all know that and with Mesut performing so much better at number 10 than out wide left, I hope that Arsene’s experiment with him playing out wide left has been put to bed long ago.

Sunderland will unlikely be going with three strikers like they did against Leicester, so I’m expecting them to flood the midfield with five and probably play Jermaine Defoe as the sole front man, hoping he can catch us on the counter with his pace. But at 32 he’s not as quick as he once was and unless isolated against Per Mertesacker, I’d hope we have enough to cope with the Mackems attack. I have seen Conor Wickham deployed in midfield before and so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him operating as a midfielder-cum-striker when Sunderland do venture forward, but I suspect they’ll come looking for a point like Swansea did and I would be surprised if they didn’t look to sit deep and soak up pressure. The difference between Swansea and Sunderland however, is that Swansea are built to counter a lot better than Sunderland, but also have the confidence of having had their best ever season under Gary Monk. Sunderland are down there and scrapping for their lives – which certainly means they’ll be harder to beat – but they also have a bit more weaknesses to expose as a result and I think that providing we’re not going to fire pot-shots down the throat of Pantillimon all night, we should have enough to score goals against this side.

It’s one of two of our final home games of the season and two wins would take us to a decent points tally and third place, putting us in a good position to go in to the cup final riding high. Come on Arsenal, you can do it!

United preview: play with width and stretch an average back four

United at Old Trafford. A game in which historically has had extreme significance, but in very recent times has not been as intense as the early Arsene Wenger years. Neither side is competing for the league for one thing, which inevitably results in a reduction of the pressure, but at least both teams have something to play for today. I remember watching the drab 0-0 draw about five or six years ago when United had won the league and I’m pretty sure we were just about there in terms of Champions League qualification. It was horrid to watch and felt more like endurance training than anything else.

It won’t be like that today though I don’t think. On that day United were just out not to be beat and have a stroll in the May sunshine before parading the league trophy. Where as today they are hunting us down for the automatic Champions League place. We too want that spot quite badly, so it won’t be an Arsenal side prepared to just lie down and take a beating. I hope.

We’re two points clear of United and so a draw would not be the worst result in the world as it would mean that probably a point – with our superior goal difference – should see us just scrape over the line, but we want to do more than that in our next three games. We want to win all three and set up a bit of a confidence booster before the FA Cup final. Just look at Aston Villa yesterday. They were a shambles at the back and it looks like, with Premier League safety secured, they were just coasting on the south coast yesterday. Another performance like that next weekend from them would hardly be the best kind of preparation for an FA Cup Final, so the same must be said about us today, on Wednesday and against West Brom on Sunday next week.

The positive news for us coming out of Manchester is the notable absence of Wayne Rooney. Injured last weekend against Palace, he won’t feature today and given he has a Drogbarian habit of getting goals against us, it can only be a positive thing. Of course the down side is that That Dutch Bloke is back and fit to face us and aside from the game at The Emirates earlier in the season, he’s already bagged a few goals against us in the short time he’s been at United. One has to just hope that he has as forgettable game against us as he did earlier in the season.

Which by the way, I have still not forgiven the footballing gods for. I know we won the FA Cup game at Old Trafford and so perhaps some parity has been restored, but given the nature of the domination we had against United at home, it still doesn’t feel like we’ve been given all of the revenge we deserve. We smashed United that day and they scored with two out of the three attempts they had that day. Oh, and one of those attempts from Valencia wasn’t even going on target!

Yes I’m bitter. I’m bitter because we had so many years of being inferior to United, that when we finally clearly had a better team, they relied on some sort of mega spawny counter attack to win the game. Ok, it wasn’t spawny in so much as it was one of Big Per’s ‘I think I’ll be a winger’ moments for one of the goals, but it just felt like we weren’t getting the rub of the green that day.

I want us to have all the green today. Each little corner of it. Slopes, dips and undulations, I want us to beat United at Old Trafford in the league and bring balance to the force. Arsene alluded to it in his presser – that the victory would represent a symbolic significance to the team – and I think as we draw this season to a close, a perfect way to lie the ‘big-game bottlers’ tag finally to bed will be to win in Manchester once more this season.

Who will be charged with that responsibility? Well I’ll be shocked if it’s anybody other than the team that played on Monday night. We laboured all evening against a Swansea team that didn’t really want to come out of their own half, but today’s game will be almost completely different to that one. I hope, anyway. So I suspect Arsene will charge his players with popping the ball around confidently, being difficult to break down like we were away to City and also to some extent against United in the FA Cup, whilst hitting United on the counter. Just like they did to us.

It’s their last home game of the season and they can still see the possibility of finishing third if we eff it up today and then against Sunderland on Wednesday night, so I’m not expecting anything other than a very difficult afternoon of football watching. I promised myself I wouldn’t have a jar or two this morning, because I’ve been drinking enough alcohol lately, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see an Estrella in my hand come 4pm.

If we’re going to win this game, we need more from Giroud, Alexis and Ramsey. If we’re going to counter we need to do so with Ramsey actually adopting more of a wide man’s role, because if we flood the centre of the park I think it will slow us down and make us too lop-sided. We need to have a good balance going forward to stretch the United back four, a back four that really isn’t that great. But if all of our counter-attacking play is spread to the wide left position where Alexis is, then it will be easier for the likes of Valencia, Smalling and Jones to double up on the Chilean and stifle us. So having width gives us options when breaking out from the back. It gives Mesut and Santi the ability to spread the play to either flank and divide the defenders, giving the opportunity to isolate players like Rojo and increasing our chances of getting in beyond them. That’s where I see us getting joy and that’s where I hope Arsene will be telling Ramsey to be spending a bit more time doing today.

If you’re going, have a good one and I hope the weather holds up for you, if you’re an armchair gooner like me for today, see if you can hold out without resorting to booze. I bet you can’t. I probably won’t.

Laterz.

Swansea preview: negate a high press and keep an eye out wide

Liverpool’s draw with Chelski mathematically secured the top four for us yesterday, but on a day where QPR were supposed to be giving it the last hurrah by at least holding Momeychester City to a draw at he Etihad, I was expecting better than a 6-0 thrashing. For us, in terms of trying to get second, it’s the worst possible type of score line, because it will probably mean that City’s goal difference is a little bit too far for us to catch up with. Before yesterday it was two – by no means insurmountable – but at eight and with just four to play, I can’t see us matching or beating them.

Ultimately it shouldn’t matter, because second or third means nought but a few extra million by finishing higher up by one spot, but still it would be nice to be seen to have out performed a side built on a foundation of refineries and dollar bills. 

If we do want that second spot it is still within our hands. We probably have to win all of our home games to finish level on points with City, starting this evening with Swansea at home. 

It’s an interesting one for the manager because if he chooses to keep the same XI he’s played over the last few weeks, you’d have to wonder about his desire to engage in any kind of rotation at all unless forced. Swansea represent a side that has performed well this season, have already beaten us on their own turf, but who should have a distinctly ‘end of season, nothing to play for’ look and feel about themselves. I’m not sure we’ll get that, but it’s what I’m hoping for anyway. 

I hope Arsène does rotate. I’d like us to be keeping players like Gibbs, Wilshere and Walcott topped up with match sharpness in case they are needed and that means they need to be given chances to show what they’re capable of from the start. I doubt Arsène will go for any extreme levels of rotation, like bringing in Szczesny, Debuchy, Gabriel, Gibbs, Flamini, Rosicky, Walcott, etc, but one or two of his deck shuffled should still give us enough to overcome the Welsh side.

We know that Swansea will try to retain possession and out pass us. They work on a higher press and try to win the ball back further up the field, where as when they have the ball they build from the back very patiently. It’s worked too. I remember seeing them Michu us a few years ago, then frustrate us last season with a late goal to nab a draw, so we cannot afford to show any kind of lethargy in our build up play tonight. It will be a warm summers evening but none of us want to see sloppy transition from defensive possession to attacking threat. 

To be fair to our current crop, I don’t think we’ll get that, because form and confidence should dictate that we are on it tonight. We’re playing well and all of the players know that competition is intense enough to see any of them lose their place and with an FA Cup on the horizon, there is plenty of motivation for them all.

Swansea will be reliant on Batefemi Gomis to be a threat on the counter and if they go with nippy wide men like Montero and Dyer then I expect them to look to counter us with pace on the flanks. If we are too hung ho in pushing our fullbacks forward like auxillery wingers rather than actual defenders, that’s where we may find an Achilles heel for ourselves.

In the middle of the park they will use Jonjo Shelvey to build up play and providing we offer him little space, it should stifle and frustrate him. If he’s trying pot-shots from 35 yards plus then Ospina should back himself to keep any rogue ones on target out, but it will mean we’ve stifled his supply line and that will do just nicely.

I am hoping for another masterful display from our midfield maestros Santi and Mesut, because these are the sort of games where they tend to do quite well. If Swansea press hard all over the pitch it will mean those players who can operate best in confined circles will be the most successful. So that’s why I’m looking for those two to potentially be the difference tonight. 

Let’s hope so and hope that three points are ours come the final whistle. Come on you reds!

Exploit the width against Hull’s formation

Today the good lord Bergkamp could see fit to bless upon us the day of St Totteringham, in which we celebrate the mathematical certainty that Arsenal will finish above the other team in North London in the Premier League. Ideally a draw yesterday coupled with an Arsenal win would have made this weekend just about as good as it can get – given the other event that happened at the weekend that I think i’ll just refuse to acknowledge its existence – but at least we now face Hull tonight with the prospect of all but securing Champions League football for next season. Winning will put us nine clear of Liverpool, 12 clear of Tiny Totts and 13 clear of Southampton.

But we still need to do the business because we want to finish second, maintain momentum and win the FA Cup, which won’t be easy. Hull have picked up a few wins lately to practically all but secure their top flight status for next season and I suspect that they will be a tougher opponent tonight than they might have been about a month ago.

We know them well enough from last season’s FA Cup final and they will want to get a bit of revenge on their home turf. They nearly did that to us on our own patch earlier in the season, when we came within but a few minutes of a 2-1 defeat to them, only for Danny Welbeck to pick up a point for us in the dying embers. It was a performance that was symptomatic of our early season start; we were lethargic, not very cohesive as a unit and conceded some pretty sloppy goals. It was at a period in the season in which we were dropping points like they were going out of fashion and at the time of all of those early season draws I have to admit I could not have envisaged that Arsene and his charges would have been able to turn it around so dramatically. But we must acknowledge their hard work to get us in to this positive position, because if any Arsenal fan would have been told after that Hull game that we’d be on track for second with an FA Cup final, after laughing ironically and then whimpering a little bit, we’d have said you were mad. But you wouldn’t have been mad, you’d have just had one of them crystal ball thingy’s, or a time machine. If you do, can you let me know if we win it at the end of May? Would make my disposition decidedly sunnier for the next few weeks.

Anyway, back to today’s matters and the game we have in store this evening. We know Hull will play with a back three, which is what they did in the cup final and is what we’ll see this evening, as well as a bank of five in midfield and two up top. Steve Harper will continue to creak his way around the goal line, which is an opportunity for us, but Olivier will most likely have his hands full with Dawson the most likely to be grappling with us. That will leave Chester and McShane to keep an eye on Alexis and whoever plays wide right. I know this is a little out of the trend, but I suspect Theo would be perfect for a game like today. His pace up against McShane will see him win every time and if Hull are playing wing backs with Elmohamdy and Brady, they’ll want to get forward more than play a defensive line. It could lead to pockets for our attackers and so I hope Arsene’s thinking is to play Walcott – or even Welbeck – in that wide position rather than Ramsey.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Aaron is playing well, but he likes to drift in field too much and if he plays wide right today that will – in my opinion – play in to Hull’s hands. They will sit Huddlestone deep along with Livermore and probably look to somebody like Meyler to also put in a shift. But it’s all in the centre and the net effect could be a level of congestion that doesn’t help any of our midfielders. Get width, exploit Hull’s formation and pick up the win that keeps us on track for second spot, that’s what I say.

To do that, I think we’ll see Ospina, Bellerin, Monreal, Koscienly, Mertesacker, Coquelin all make up the defensive third of the team. The creativity of Cazorla and Ozil will be retained, whilst I’ve already mentioned my preferred front three. Hull have won their previous two games and whilst I think they’ll stay up, their form at the moment – similar to Leicester – coupled with their still precarious position in the league, makes them a very difficult opponent. Apparently, we’ve won our last four Premier League away games by a one goal margin and if I was a betting man I’d put some cash on a similarly close encounter tonight. But we should have enough to beat the Yorkshire side. They are down the bottom of the league for a reason and we are towards the top for a reason – we win more than we lose and they lose more than they win. So we need to pick up the points. Liverpool have struggled there, Chelski relied on a ‘keeper error there to win them the game a couple of weeks ago, so let’s not be fooled into thinking this will be a stroll on a MOnday evening, but let’s make sure we pick up the points by hook or by crook.

Have a good bank holiday and hopefully let’s see it finished off with three-point loveliness.