More Premier League action, and another away trip. It’s not a big trip tonight, in fairness, but it is still away at West Ham.
After the draw with Southampton, Arsene Wenger has a couple of big decisions to make about his team selection tonight. First up:
With Shkodran Mustafi still injured and Per Mertesacker unconvincing against Southampton, the manager can call on Rob Holding or Calum Chambers if he decides to stick with the back three. However, he could also shift to a back four, something he’ll probably give more consideration in the wake of the injury to Aaron Ramsey and the lack of a like for like replacement for him in midfield.
In the last three games we’ve played more minutes with a back four than a back three, and while circumstances dictated that to a certain extent, it feels more and more is if Wenger is defaulting back to his preferred defensive system.
We used it after 11 minutes against Man United, a decision forced by the fact we were 2-0 down and had to make a substitution, and in terms of the how the team played – if not the result – it worked. He played with a back four from the start against BATE Borisov and won 6-0; and finished the Southampton game with the same system – which in some ways helped rescue a point.
Whenever we’ve had trouble in games, or have had to try and overturn a deficit, he generally take one of the defenders off and puts an extra attacker on, reverting to a back four. And I think we’re now at a stage where it’s fairly obvious that a back three, despite the veneer of solidity it has given us, makes us no more defensively secure than a back four.
The issue, of course, is which central defensive duo he selects if he does go that way. My money tonight would be on Koscielny and Monreal, with Bellerin and Kolasinac as full backs, but long-term that’s an area which will require some serious thinking and, most likely, some investment in the transfer market.
Which brings us to his second decision of the night:
There’s no Aaron Ramsey tonight, and regardless of of what we do defensively, Wenger has got to think hard about how he replaces him. The Welshman’s role in the team is quite specific, he interchanges with Xhaka at times, but generally is tasked with getting forward and providing support for the front three.
When you think of the available replacements – Jack Wilshere, Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin – that’s not a role that any of them can really fulfill. Wilshere is certainly at his best playing further forward, but his game is about close control and breaking through the lines rather than the relentless athleticism and running of Ramsey.
The other two are, with all due respect, water carriers. Players who can sit, use their stamina to break up play and help keep things ticking, but basically they’re tasked with giving the ball to someone who can do something with it.
An extra body further forward, if we do go to a back four, could see one of them slot in alongside Xhaka with Wilshere at the tip of that diamond, but that system also allows you to move Mesut Ozil in his his preferred central position, and also think about players like Danny Welbeck, Alex Iwobi or even Theo Walcott on the right hand side.
Wilshere could also come in for Xhaka, playing deeper in the midfield but it remains to be seen if the manager is ready to play him there having been so unwilling to do so any time before now. All in all, the issues at the back and in midfield will give Wenger more thinking do than usual when it comes to his team selection. It’s been pretty obvious up until now who is going to play our Premier League games, so it’ll be interesting to see what he does tonight.
One thing he will do, it seems, is tell Alexis Sanchez to stop dropping so deep. Whether or not that’s the significant contributory factor to his recent wastefulness in possession is up for debate, but clearly he wants him more on the end of things than trying to make things happen:
I believe in games like Southampton he came a bit too deep. We play against teams that play very, very deep and I feel he loves to touch the ball so when he doesn’t get it as much as he wants he comes deep, but when you come deep you can’t score.
It is as simple as that so maybe he has to find a better balance in his positional play.
Which is fair, and the way he’s given up possession in the last couple of games has been frustrating, but I also think we need to look at the context of the games. Perhaps if we don’t do stupid stuff like conceding early goals due to our own carelessness, he might feel less like he has to get involved and create things. There would be less desperation to how we played, and a bit more fluency to our attack.
It’s not to excuse it, but against United and Southampton we were trying to break down packed defences who were protecting a lead, and I do think that played a part as Alexis tried to create opportunities. Cutting out the early concessions ought to be right at the very top of our list of priorities tonight, and if we do we might well see a more efficient attacking performance and a more efficient Alexis Sanchez. We’ll see.
As ever we’ll have all the pre and post-match stuff over on Arseblog News. Catch you later for the game.