Tonight’s clash with Leicester City marks our first game on home soil for three weeks, with that 3-0 win and performance against West Ham now a very distant memory.
Since then we had the disaster that was Crystal Palace away, followed by Arsene Wenger’s unexpected tactical switch to a 5-3-1-1 with wing-backs at Middlesbrough. Then of course, on Sunday, we were treated to the highlight of the season so far, with the passionate and hard fought FA Cup semi final win over Manchester City at Wembley.
I, like many others, was fearing the worst facing Pep Guardiola’s men on the big stage, but the desire and drive shown to secure the victory in extra time was a refreshing change of pace from some of our side’s offerings over the last few months.
Whilst we may have rode our luck at times on Sunday, it is more than likely that the boss will continue with the formation experiment in N5 tonight.
Team news update
The big news out of Wembley was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain leaving the stadium on crutches. Playing right wing-back, it was 23-year-old’s superb cross that of course got us back into the game in the second half, though his tireless running was vital to the cause right up until the moment he had to be subbed for Hector Bellerin.
Many feel Bellerin will be suited nicely to the wing-back role, and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fitness status makes me wonder whether the Spaniard will get the nod for his first start since Selhurst Park. It would not be a bad idea, given it would serve as a timely confidence boost for our braided-haired youngster.
In his press conference yesterday, Wenger disclosed little about other members of the squad, with no update given on Shkodran Mustafi’s fitness. That said, given the superb displays of both Gabriel and Rob Holding against City, the German might well have to settle for a place on the bench anyway, should he be up to it. David Ospina and Lucas Perez, it should be assumed, will still be absent.
For Leicester, Captain Wes Morgan will still be missing with a thigh problem that has been troubling him for some weeks. Islam Slimani will not feature either thanks to a groin injury, and Nampalys Mendy is out for the remainder of the campaign. It should be noted that the Foxes squad have had ten days off since their 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace, so they will undoubtedly be fresh and raring to go.
There is little doubt that Wenger will stick with the new approach, given that two displays playing with wing-backs have produced two wins. As stated above, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s importance to the system has so far proved key, and if he is injured it may give the manager something to think about. To me, it seems sensible that Bellerin is included from the off, resting the Englishman perhaps with Sunday’s North London Derby in mind.
The back three should remain unchanged. Holding and Gabriel put in assured and committed displays either side of Laurent Koscielny at Wembley and I am more than happy to see that trio continue if they are going to keep that level of effort up. Nacho Monreal, arguably as good as Oxlade-Chamberlain the other day, will likely start on the left.
In midfield, I felt both Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka improved, though I am still not convinced by the partnership long term. Giving them another chance to gel might not be a bad idea however, so we may see a reluctance from Wenger to tinker too much here.
Mesut Ozil, who looked shattered in the closing stages on Wembley’s big pitch, and Alexis Sanchez will obviously begin the game behind the most advanced forward; whose identity does ponder some questions.
Danny Welbeck’s encouraging cameo last weekend should not be forgotten and I don’t think it will be. His mobility changed the game and helped pull Vincent Kompany out of position – winning the free kick out wide that from which Alexis scored the winner. It may well be that Welbeck, who should’ve scored it must be said, may get chosen ahead of Olivier Giroud, with the Frenchman struggling in the new setup so far. He has not imposed himself on either game really, with Welbeck’s introduction adding pace to our offensive game plan. Of course, using Welbeck (or Walcott) in this way from the bench helps tire out already struggling defenders, but I would not be stunned to see Giroud make way tonight.
A quick word on Walcott, who has not featured from the bench in either of our two matches since Palace, where he was captain for the night. Post-game, he faced the cameras and said that the Eagles wanted it more than us, which, given he was skipper, was not the most intelligent thing to say. He said some equally ill-advised comments following our 2-1 loss to Man City in December, with an extended period out of the side over Christmas and New Year being the result. If he is in Wenger’s bad-books, do not expect to see much of our Number 14 tonight or at White Hart Lane. I may be wrong, but it is a theory that may have some legs and it will be interesting to see what happens there.
Predicted line-up: Czech – Gabriel – Koscielny – Holding – Bellerin – Monreal – Ramsey – Xhaka – Ozil – Alexis – Welbeck
Who can forget this game last year? It was a Valentine’s Day Sunday, when Leicester were in the midst of their run to the title. Wives and girlfriends of Islington and beyond were upset to lose their other halves to the Emirates Stadium, but this was a crucial game to win if Arsenal were to go on and press their opponents all the way to the end.
Danny Welbeck’s stoppage time goal was one of the great Emirates moments to date; marking his return from injury and giving us an important three points. Of course, the rest of the season did not pan out quite as hoped, and the troubles of both teams this year make it seem strange that tonight’s game is between last season’s top two.
If Arsenal play with the commitment and fight shown in the second half and beyond on Sunday, we should win this one with relative comfort. Leicester have the third worst away record in the division, with just a solitary win away from the King Power Stadium all season. The Foxes have conceded at least two goals in each away game they have contested since January, and I always fancy us to score a couple on our own patch.
A lifelong Gunner in his late 20s, Joe can just about remember Bruce Rioch and insisting that his dad took him to away games because he had the lightning blue away kit. Quickly grew up to love Highbury and thanks the Arsenal squads of 1998-2005 for making schoolyard banter a delightful experience. Joe quit his job as a teacher last summer to work in the fantasy sports games industry and writes simply because he enjoys it.