Safety in numbers helps Arsenal return to winning ways, despite notable absences.
With festive fixtures following thick and fast on the heels of a disastrous week in the north west, the home games against West Brom and Crystal Palace were vital victories, though hardly surprising ones.
We know that Pulis’ teams are always meat and drink for us in north London, and despite much media credit to the contrary, the same has always been the case with visitors under the stewardship of the tabloids’ fallen hero, Mr. S Allerdyce Esq.
As well as expected results, the score lines were hardly shocking, with almost pathologically defensive opposition largely delaying the inevitable whilst looking to set-pieces as their only significant attacking threat. Though, it has to be said, if Benteke worked as hard for his team as Rondon does for West Brom, it could have been a rather more challenging New Year’s Day for our back four.
The crucial difference to recent seasons is how those victories came about.
Although there was undoubtedly the core of the first choice team in place, we saw the rarest of things under Wenger – sensible squad rotation!
With Giroud this season largely relegated to the role of focus shifting super-sub, his effectiveness in that role was always going to be rewarded with a starting berth at some point.
Back to back home fixtures against deep sitting defences were always going to lend themselves to his qualities, and this selection question-mark was made a lot simpler by the short-term absence of the re-born Theo Walcott. As it turned out, despite sacrificing a little zip in our build up play, the presence of our Gallic penalty box presence proved vital.
Ironic that having somehow missed making contact with incredibly inviting low crosses in both games, he scored a brilliant centre-forward’s header in one, and followed it up with an astonishing falling trailing leg flick into the top corner in the other.
Although the second goal was hardly his usual meat and drink, it was a further illustration of what had been long suspected. When not relied upon to relentlessly lead the line all season, Giroud is an incredibly useful tactical alternative who can help us win games in a way no other striker at the club in the past two decades has been able to.
Elsewhere, minor muscle problems to Walcott and the Ox cemented the already likely inclusion of Alex Iwobi, and the Anglo-Nigerian youngster’s progressive play was rewarded with another goal on Sunday, having been denied by an extraordinary array of blocks in recent fixtures, most notably by Seamus Coleman in the dying seconds at Goodison Park.
With Ozil out against Palace, he was the logical choice at number 10, rather than rushing the returning Ramsey into the fray. As the manager said post-match;
“I believe he is always available, quick in his movement, wants the ball, can hold people off…His quality of pass, of availability, is exceptional for a young boy.”
Arsene also weighed in on Iwobi’s goal-scoring potential, something that had been clear at u21 level, but less so in the first team.
“He lacked a bit of quality in dangerous areas and I hope that these goals he scores now will give him the taste as well to go where he can finish it off.
“There are always signs when a guy starts to score goals in training that they’ll come in games, and he has that. Now in training he starts to score goals…I’m sure he will score as well in the games.”
Elsewhere, Kieran Gibbs came in against West Brom, which was a change entirely sensible for reasons of form, fitness and the tactical profile of the match. Unfortunately, a largely self-inflicted knee-on-knee-knack cut short his attempts to steal Nacho’s spot, but it seems to be a short term injury. Likewise, Wenger was equally sensible against Crystal Palace in squeezing out the last drop of Elneny prior to his African Cup of Nations departure. The Egyptian’s willingness to cover a lot of ground probably made things a little easier on Xhaka, who was able to primarily focus on his “exceptional distribution” rather than defence.
We also saw a raw substitute appearance and then start for summer signing Lucas Perez, whose future involvement will be vital for keeping the squad fresh. At present his interventions seem to alternate wildly between the incisive and indecisive, but his off the ball movement and understanding with our key players suggests a more fruitful few months for him are on the horizon.
With the likes of Mustafi, Cazorla, Mertesacker, Welbeck and even Akpom all to come back into the squad, it seems extremely unlikely that we will see new faces in January. The only plausible signings would be if someone of exceptional quality suddenly becomes available (very unlikely) or if he can simultaneously find a reserve right-back option happy to watch Bellerin own the position, whilst simultaneously finding a taker for the man who doesn’t talk to him (or stay fit) anymore, Matthieu Debuchy.
Both scenarios are undoubtedly long shots, so short of another youngster taking an Iwobi-esque step forward in performance levels, or (heaven forbid) a serious injury in a key position, the squad we see now will have to carry us through until May.
So no matter how many news outlets decide to scrape the transfer window barrel with stories of ex Blackburn and Stoke powerhouse Steven N’Zonzi pitching up from Sevilla, I wouldn’t hold your breath. Particularly as the last week has reminded us, for what flaws the team has, this remains the deepest squad at the club in years.