A slight shock emerged at 11:45 on Saturday as Arsène Wenger named his starting XI and plumped for Danny Welbeck ahead of Theo Walcott.
Walcott has, along with Mesut Özil, recently returned from injury.
Welbeck was making his first appearance since the turn of the year, and Arsenal’s attacking force of the season so far, Alexis Sánchez, is set to return shortly from a muscle issue.
Arsène Wenger’s latest vision for Arsenal plans assaults down the flanks, with three midfielders and a lone striker to hold up the ball.
Too many men?
As such, the team has the aforementioned options out wide but there are only two wings on a football pitch.
Which begs the question – who misses out?
As long as Wenger keeps starting with three central-midfielders he will have more options for the two wide roles than anyone could ask for.
It’s one of those ‘positive selection headaches‘ you hear about.
There are four overlapping ‘categories’ that Wenger will choose his wingers based on as he tries to provide his team with balance.
We are likely to see a mixture of one wide playmaker with a licence to roam inside used with a more direct player who offers more width on the other side and doesn’t join in with play in the first two thirds quite so often.
The other way the options in the wide roles can be characterised is in their aptitude when the team doesn’t have possession.
This is likely the reason we saw Walcott dropped for Welbeck. In bigger fixtures the manager will almost certainly have at least one ‘hard-working’ wide player who will naturally put in more of a shift.
So which players offer which attributes?
Despite a tendency to lose the ball, Alexis can offer everything – goals, creativity, work-rate, defending.
He’s more or less certain to start when fit.
Also approaches a tag of ‘undroppable’ when available.
Unlikely to defend too much for the team – he’ll get back but won’t put many tackles in or force turnovers but ut he is our best creator of chances.
I expect to see Mesut and Alexis occupying the flanks for us more often than not.
Walcott is tricky to talk about.
Arguably our best finisher, he’s predatory in front of goal.
It’s impossible to defend against his pace and even on an off-day he pins defences back.
However, he isn’t the most switched on defensively and his future at the club is far from certain.
Arsène Wenger sees him as a central player, and that could help his cause a little but the central midfield positions are also congested.
With all the qualities to be a real winger when played wide, he’ll get more space (and maybe more success) on the right if he wasn’t so eager to join in centrally.
Then again, it’s difficult to blame him as he’s often been superb, if a little clumsy, when playing in the middle.
Direct and explosive, he’s a huge player for us and has a massive future wherever he ends up playing.
Another Englishman with incredible pace.
Out wide he’ll provide pace, intelligence, and a goal threat.
His assists against Swansea and involvement in Özil’s goal yesterday showed great intelligence, pace, and strength.
Trusted massively to work hard defensively, even though he didn’t stick wide enough in the NLD.
Welbeck is a potential first choice option for Wenger up front in the near future, as long as he improves with his back to goal.
An added bonus is that, when on the pitch with Olivier Giroud, Welbeck gives us have an extra physical player who is capable in the air.
On the fringes of the squad (presumably) but injury has set him back.
Gnabry is a really intelligent and talented player capable on either side, and hopefully he’s fit soon and gets some first team football next season.
A loan to a Premier League team would suit everyone.
Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky
It is currently unlikely that any of them would be used out wide, but they do provide further options and depth.
They could even serve as typical ‘wide playmakers’ in a Wenger team.
None of this means we will never see a combination of Walcott and Özil (for argument’s sake) again.
In games against less dangerous opponents I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arsenal start with two players less recognised for their defensive work – both Özil and Walcott scored in both games (Brighton & Villa) that they recently started with each other.
In matches like that, particularly at home , Arsenal will generally play the game on their own terms, dictating the tempo and attacking whenever they like.
The onus on defending is not so huge against such teams.
…and the big ones?
The style at Manchester City worked well, with Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain able to launch quick counter-attacks.
What they lacked was the close control and decision making to really take advantage of one of those counters.
It’ll be tough to find a balance between a robust ability in transition and the vision and calmness to ensure those moments are as effective as frequently as possible.
I can’t help but think we would have looked much more dangerous with Özil playing in Manchester last month, but what would you lose from the games of Alexis or Oxlade-Chamberlain?
It will have to be a really fine balance, and finding the right mixture of intelligence and physicality will surely prove a challenge.
Plans A, B, C
Two creative players, three strikers, two wingers, two wide goalscorers. The possible combinations go on and on.
Regardless, it is great to have so many options.
Wenger can choose his team on a game-by-game basis, deciding what is required on a certain day.
Earlier in the season Alexis, Giroud, and Welbeck formed our front three a number of times.
Perhaps forced by injury, they never seemed to click.
Wenger certainly prefers some variation, and he does now have plenty of options.
Walcott is a goalscorer, Mesut a creator. We will have more fluidity with Welbeck in the middle – he could play and let Alexis (for instance) occupy his central position from time to time.
Moreover there will be huge quality, and yet more variation, available to Wenger from the bench.
As long as the manager uses his squad, more rotation should mean less injuries. Keeping a big squad happy is no mean feat, but having a smorgasbord of options is no bad thing.
This squad has huge attacking potential. Probably more than any Arsenal squad since the move to The Emirates (though you could argue a case for 2008) but many of them haven’t really played together, or have barely played in Wenger’s new tactical ideas.
A few performances have shown glimpses of what’s possible, enough to suggest to me that we could really click given time and an actual pre-season.
Use them properly, find the right balance, and we’ll be laughing.