Alexis ready to fire again : Gabriel and Mertesacker compete

Morning. I slept it out, dreaming I was writing an assignment about playing in the Champions League, but strangely the games took place in an indoor ballroom and the referee handed me an unpublished copy of his crime fiction novel just before kick-off and told me he’d be kinder to the team if I considered reading it. Weird.

I suspect it’s going to be a fairly quiet week due to the fact we won at the weekend, and the Leicester game isn’t until Sunday. It is going to build and build throughout the week though as the hype machine goes into overdrive for this one. It’ll be a game that every single neutral will want Leicester to win, and that’s understandable, but it won’t make any less interminable.

The pressure is certainly on from an Arsenal point of view, but interestingly Arsene Wenger referred to Leicester as ‘favourites for the Premier League’ after their win against Man City. Perhaps they can continue to play with the amazing freedom they have shown to get where they are, but equally the realisation that something so incredible is within their grasp may have an impact too, so expect ‘mind games’, if you like.

It’s probably also worth remembering that their biggest defeat of the season came at our hands. We went a goal down at the King Power stadium back in September, but ended up thrashing them 5-2. On that day, an Alexis Sanchez who had gone eight games without a goal sparked back into life with a hat-trick, and wouldn’t it be timely if he managed to kick-start his season again against the same opposition? For those that think lighting never strikes twice, we’ve had more than enough evidence down the years that’s not the case – especially with one player being a thorn in the opposition side.

The Chilean has been relatively quiet since his return from injury. What we’re seeing is a man who hasn’t played for a few weeks getting back up to speed, and not yet a man who has benefited from 2 months+ of ‘rest’ that he really needed. However, he played 78 minutes against Burnley in the FA Cup, the full 90 against Southampton, and 82 against Bournemouth at the weekend, so hopefully that’s enough for him to get going again.

The fact that we beat Bournemouth with two goals from midfield shows how crucial it is for those players to start scoring, and if we are going to beat Leicester and really fight for this title all the way until the end, Alexis is one of the players who is going to have to starting finding the net with some frequency.

Meanwhile, the manager has praised Gabriel for his performances since coming into the side. He had been on his longest run of starts since joining back in October, but then he got Diego Costa-d and that meant the manager going with the Mertescienly partnership that has served him so well. Ironically, Mertesacker then got Diego Costa-d and it’s opened the door for the Brazilian, about whom the manager says:

Gabriel has done well. He has performed well and overall I think the confidence comes with games, which is interesting.

The first thing to say is that it’s a positive that we can even have a discussion about which central defensive pairing to use. For too long the back-up options haven’t been really sufficient, and the two players who have been forced to carry the burden have been affected by it. There have been times when both Mertesacker (post World Cup) and Koscielny, have had dips in form but due to injury, unavailability, or unwillingness to use inferior options, they’ve had to play through that.

Gabriel can play with both of them pretty well, so that’s a step forward for this squad. I’m not yet 100% convinced that he and Koscielny go together as effectively as one of them + the BFG, where the contrast in styles brings out the best of both defenders. The German’s reading of the game allied with the more aggressive, high risk approach of Koscielny or Gabriel seems a better fit.

We hear all the time about how Mertesacker’s pace is an issue, but it’s more a sound-bite than reality. The red card against Chelsea had something to do with that, and a mistimed challenge, but it’s usually very rare that we see forwards streaking away from him. Indeed, we saw that it can happen to Gabriel against Bournemouth, so it’s not as if his presence prevents that kind of issue completely.

What I would say is that we’ve generally been much better as a team in preventing those kinds of opportunities for the opposition. That pass to Costa at the Emirates could have been stopped – where’s your lunatic tackle there, Flamini? – and with a more solid midfield I don’t think that passage of play would have worked out the way it did.  There are teams that have won titles with defenders just as slow, so it’s not all down to how fast you can run. That’s a pretty primitive way of looking at it.

Quite how the manager views it for Sunday will be interesting. He might think Gabriel’s pace against the likes of Vardy and Mahrez could be crucial, especially if we’re going to play a high line as we look to break Leicester down. Then again, leaving them that space in the first place is pretty much playing into their counter-attacking hands, so he definitely has to think about what way he approaches this game and what personnel he uses.

Anyway, I think suggestions that Mertesacker’s time is up because he’s been left on the bench for the last couple of games are ludicrous. On the one hand people talk about how it’s a squad game, and how we need depth, but on the other they’re ready to jettison a hugely important and experienced player coming into the most crucial part of the season. It makes little sense to me. And it was notable that at the end of the Bournemouth game, Mertesacker was one of the first men on the pitch to offer his congratulations to his teammates for the win. No sulking off down the tunnel, no feeling sorry for himself even though I’m sure he’d be aching he didn’t play, and that character alone will play a part as we head towards May.

Right, that’s that for this morning. Remember to listen to yesterday’s Arsecast Extra in which James and I discuss the win over Bournemouth, the Liverpool fans walk-out and ticket prices, billionaire owners, Tomas Rosicky, and lots more.

Find it on site here, via Acast, iTunes, or your favourite podcasting app. Search for ‘Arsecast’ or subscribe via our RSS feed.

Till tomorrow.


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