Strap on, strap in

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This is the end, beautiful friends, this is the end, my only friend, the end. Of our elaborate plans, the end of everything that stands, the end. Hmmm, Jim Morrison wasn’t really the eloquent poet he’s been made out to be was he? After 9 months of fretting, sweating and swearing, it all comes down to Sunday. The hazy Jaeger fuelled train journeys, last orders at the Euston Tap, the scramble for flights and hotels, the cheering, the jeering, the singing, the clinging, the clenching and the quenching. One final hurdle to complete ‘operation bare minimum.’

Tuesday’s victory over Wigan leaves our destiny in our own hands. Without wishing to be some kind of evangelist for anxiety, there are some reasons I won’t be resting easily before Sunday evening. For a start, I don’t like the loss of Mikel Arteta to injury, not one bit. I think he has been the foreman of our recent defensive solidity. He’s grown into the captaincy in Vermaelen’s hiatus and I think his communication and awareness, alongside Ramsey’s unrelenting energy, has been integral to our shape.

I don’t think he quite gets the credit he deserves, I suspect because the Spaniard doesn’t fit the clichéd mould of defensive midfielder that has become a bit of a fetishism for many. He’s not big, he’s certainly not ugly and he doesn’t rampage around the pitch shouting, “GRRRR! WHACK! SMASH! MEAT!”  His style is much more akin to Gilberto Silva. (Indeed, he does a similar job to a corresponding level of muted appreciation). In a team that has begun to, finally, finally see defending as a collective responsibility, his intelligence, alongside Ramsey’s lactic-tolerant limbs has assumed even more importance.

Essentially, the Arteta and Ramsey partnership perfectly genuflects the Mertesacker Koscielny axis that sits behind it. It’s a pleasing symmetry but one that bears more uncomfortable comparisons. When the BFG is missing, we don’t have a defender to replicate his calm, organisational skills and we have much the same issue with Arteta. Nobody else in the squad offers what he does and one way or another, we’re going to have to compensate with a square peg.

Much of Newcastle’s attacking strength lies behind Papiss Cisse, with the likes of Gouffran, Ben Arfa and Cabaye offering threat from midfield. Without Arteta I worry that we don’t have a shop steward figure to marshal that threat. This article points out that Newcastle’s recent tumble in form has emanated from Pardew’s increasingly negative approach. With the spectre of relegation now removed, it remains to be seen whether that caution will still inhibit them. It might free them. If it does, they have the quality in the final third to worry us.

Many Gooners may have found solace in Pardew’s ill advised “I don’t care if we lose 4-0” quip following Newcastle’s win at QPR. Despite subsequent retractions, such sound bites attract negative attention and there’s a chance he’ll have something to prove now. Pardew will want to atone with a committed performance when chief amongst Arsenal’s desires for the weekend, is that the Barcodes are mentally on the beach.

That said, there are reasons be positive, aside from the obvious that we’re better than Newcastle and really ought to beat them with a good, committed performance. I think Arsenal playing away from home in this scenario is favourable, especially against a team with little to play for. I fear the atmosphere would be very anxious and tetchy if we were playing at home. Whilst the 3,000 of us up in the gods at SJP will get through our share of fingernail sandwiches, the general environment should be a relatively dispassionate one that should allow us to relax and play our game.

The return of Giroud is a tick in the positive column too, particularly for an away match. Walcott has scored 3 and Podolski 2 in the time that Giroud has been suspended, so it feels a tad harsh to say the forward line hasn’t worked in his absence. But we have missed The Frenchman’s ability to knit the frontline together with his hold up play. Walcott and Podolski have demonstrated what we already knew. Put them in front of goal and there’s a good chance they’ll score (which you can’t necessarily say of Giroud himself).

Without Giroud however, there have been very large spells of inertia in the final third. Walcott has shown with his final product that the “winger / striker” hybrid role he has been playing hasn’t simply been a by product of ego. We need Walcott and Podolski closer to the goal because they compensate for the shortfall in Giroud’s finishing. But neither provides any sort of outlet when Arsenal come under pressure. The Frenchman is as much a defensive aid as an attacking one, in that he offers relief for his teammates.

His return also means Arsenal will have something approaching a goalscoring threat on the bench if required. One would assume that Podolski will be restored to the sub’s bench. Gervinho played just 18 minutes of Giroud’s suspension, so we can probably guess where that leaves him in the pecking order. Given Podolski’s current level of fitness, he’s probably better deployed as a weapon in reserve in the short term.

I do really hope that Sunday isn’t the last time we see Bacary Sagna in an Arsenal shirt, though I suspect it might be. I’ve written many times this season that I think the criticism of his performances have been harsh and, in many cases, lacks understanding of what’s been put on his plate. In an attacking sense, having Walcott as close to goal as possible makes sense, but Sagna has taken on an additional burden as a result.

It’s not so much a lack of protection. Since Ramsey has come in to reinforce the defensive midfield, I think we’ve amended that quite well. It’s usually a lack of a passing option in possession that has made Sagna’s job much harder. Leaving that aside, Sagna is very experienced and is one of the bigger personalities in the squad. Even if he is phased out next season with a gradual handover to Jenkinson, I think that would be infinitely preferable to losing him.

A lot will come down to the player’s will of course, but in the past we’ve been a tad hasty to let experience leave and if Bacary goes, we will absolutely definitely need to buy another experienced right back. Jenkinson has developed well this year, but I’m not convinced he has the consistency to shoulder 50+ games yet. At left back, we’ve tended to play Gibbs at home and Monreal in the away matches. I would be comfortable with a similar approach to the right back slot next season.

I was talking about Sagna on twitter this week and a few of us concurred that his display at centre half versus Sunderland was probably the best individual performance from an Arsenal player this season. It would be one of the mini tragedies of the Emirates era if Bacary Sagna left Arsenal without winning a trophy. For now though, sentiment is cast aside and the top 4 “trophy” all comes down to one game. Strap yourselves in, I don’t envisage that Sunday will be much fun . LD.

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