Alexis and Mesut Özil’s return to first team action could not be coming at a better time.
For weeks now, the Arsenal starting XI, at least in the Premier League, has had the distinct ring of a team being sent out because there are no other options. Okay, this may not be exactly the case at the back where we know that Kieran Gibbs and Gabriel are capable deputies for their colleagues.
However, it is very difficult to look at the last week’s outings at Anfield and the Britannia Stadium as ones in which we did anything but suffer for our lack of attacking options. That may sound like a perverse thing to say when we scored three goals against Liverpool, but having weathered the storm and gone ahead early in the second half, we had thirty five minutes to kill the game off with a 4th goal. Had we been able to call upon players less likely to run into an opposition defender than either Theo Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, I feel reasonably certain we would have done so.
We didn’t and, so, to quote from the BBC’s match report, we “paid a heavy price” with Joe Allen’s last gasp equaliser. It could have been worse, I suppose, it could have been the carthorse James Milner who’d scored. Also, on a personal note, having spent the last twenty minutes of the match just waiting for what felt like the inevitable Liverpool equaliser, I wasn’t sent into the usual paroxysm of rage by this late development. I just felt resigned.
This isn’t to say it was easy to get to sleep that night, mind.
With Leicester grabbing a late win at Spurs, what might have been a four point gap between us and them was instantly reduced to a three goal gap. More pertinently, perhaps, the promise of a five point gap between ourselves and Manchester City had been cruelly snatched away from us. I say “cruelly”, but there is an element of me which thinks we maybe got what we deserved in sitting so deep and – just like last year – inviting Liverpool onto us.
That said, again, this comes back to the personnel we had available to us on Wednesday night though.
Having suffered that last minute disappointment, I feel reasonably certain that the last place we would have wanted to be on Sunday afternoon was the winter wonderland that is Stoke-on-Trent. But there we were. Just three days after Anfield, damn you fixture computer, damn you! And here, with the removal of NeÖzil (explanation if you need it) from the starting line up, our attempts to get back to winning ways were slightly hamstrung before they’d even begun.
It may be that on a pitch that looked, ever so appropriately for our Staffordshire friends, suspiciously more geared towards rugby than football, that the magic man may have had minimal impact. However, when you compare his recent performances to the one put in by the Ox on Sunday, it’s clear to see his input was missed. As Arsène put it post match, “any team in the world would miss Mesut Özil!”
The impact of his absence was clearly exacerbated, as Matthew Wade noted in his excellent column, by not being able to call upon any of our other ball playing midfielders on Sunday. Any of Cazorla, Rosicky and Wilshere might have eased that situation, but despite some positive noises in the case of the Europeans, nobody seems to know where Jack Wilshere is anymore…
Whilst Ramsey and the Ox can get on the ball and pick a pass out (yes, the Ox can), it isn’t really their natural game to do so. They are players much more likely to cause havoc with their running, off and on the ball. Of course, they actually need someone to give them the ball and on Sunday we didn’t really have anyone who could do it.
Despite that, we did manage to fashion a couple of chances, with Olivier Giroud very unlucky to see a great header clawed from the goal line and Joel Campbell curling high and wide late on.
Aside from Giroud and Campbell, we didn’t really show up as an attacking force and so were reliant on some resilience and defensive grit to take a point back to London. Whilst Aaron Ramsey may not have had a great game, he did have the last laugh in front of the baying hordes as he headed what would have been a last minute winner for Jon Walters and Stoke from the goal line.
Incidentally, I don’t know about you, but for me the only thing more tedious than the Stoke fans continued vilification of the Wales international, is their attempts to justify it. A couple of them called into BBC’s 606 show on Sunday evening. Initially, these people sounded rational. Then, when their reasoning was challenged by both Ian Wright and Kelly Cates, their drooling, blood splattered, fangs were exposed. The jist of it being that a man who lost a year of his career deserves to be booed because he didn’t accept Ryan Shawcross’, no doubt heartfelt, apology.
Yes, that’s right. Wobetide any man who suffers a serious injury and doesn’t accept an apology from the assailant. Something about sticks and stones comes to mind here, I can’t think why… These people, it’s been six years, they say. They say Arsenal should let it go, but it’s them doing the booing. Every. Single. Year.
Anyway, I seem to have gone off the point a bit here. My point is that the return of Alexis and Mesut is exciting, not just because of the undoubted quality they possess, but because of the options they give us. We talked about it a bit on this week’s podcast. With Joel Campbell having effectively made the step up from seventh choice winger to an integral part of the first team picture, it is by no means assured that Alexis will replace him when fit. I don’t mean that Alexis won’t walk back into the team, of course he will. I just don’t think it’s a given that it’s Campbell missing out.
Obviously, the Ox will return to bench duty. What happens with Theo Walcott is another question. Out on the left, he seems to be going through one of those stages where you sort of forget he’s on the pitch – for the entire game. The livewire centre forward of the early autumn is but a distant memory. And yet, we all know that, as he showed against Manchester City, he can produce moments of magic to win you the game. Do you trust the ever improving Joel Campbell to start in what will be a huge game against Chelsea? Or do you go with Theo?
And if you do trust Joel, could you start Theo in place of Olivier Giroud in the hope that Theo’s direct running can unsettle a Chelsea defence who have conceded just under a goal and a half per game all season? Or, due to Giroud’s superior hold up play and the fact that he bordered on the unplayable at Anfield, do you leave the Frenchman in?
There’s pros and cons to whichever selection Arsène makes, but I guess nobody would be surprised to see Theo on one wing with Giroud up top and Campbell on the bench. Particularly given Theo’s record against Chelsea.
To be honest, I’m not sure I care too much about who plays up front for us on Sunday. I just want us to win. Chelsea have, now the tramp in a tracksuit has departed, picked up a little. They are unbeaten in six Premier League matches, which is some achievement for a team who have lost nine out of 22 league matches this season. However, whilst we were drawing games at Liverpool and Stoke, Chelsea were doing exactly the same thing. Only at home to West Brom and Everton.
This is not the infamous mean, lean, blue machine of seasons past. It is a team that is sitting 14th in the Premier League with a -3 goal difference, we should beat them.
We must beat them.