Morning all, happy Saturday to you, and here’s a quick round-up of what’s going on today.
There’s some early team news ahead of tomorrow with Arsene Wenger ruling Shkodran Mustafi out of the trip to Southampton. Some will ask if this ruling out is the same ruling out he did with Mesut Ozil ahead of Huddersfield:
Certainly he will be short for Wednesday.
Or the same kind that saw Alexandre Lacazette ruled out of the Man Utd game:
Lacazette has a groin problem and he will be out certainly for Saturday’s game. He might be out for a while.
I guess we’ll wait and see, and while you couldn’t rule anything out with the manager and his cunning, wily, ruling out ways these days, my suspicion is that the German will be missing tomorrow because of his ‘small thigh problem’ which was so hard to diagnose in the aftermath of the United game when Wenger said ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with him at all.’
Both Calum Chambers and Rob Holding got some playing time midweek, while Per Mertesacker was rested completely, I assume to ensure he was fresh for tomorrow, if the manager decides to use him. Having started with a back four against BATE Borisov – the first time he’s done that since the 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park last season – Wenger has gone on record to reassert that this is his favoured set-up at the back.
Speaking ahead of tomorrow’s game, he said:
It’s my preferred system, four at the back, but I adjust always to what suits the players best, the quality of the players, the balance of the team. I changed against Man United, because we were 2-0 down and put an offensive player on because we had to come back. But it can change.
I’ve long been of the opinion that sooner or later he’d revert to what he feels most comfortable with, although right now you can see a number of pretty solid combinations when we use a back three, but a stand-out central defensive pairing is not quite as easy. Koscielny and Monreal, perhaps, or we could see one of Holding/Chambers take the chance if it were given to them, but it feels as if we’re not quite there with the personnel to shift back on a regular basis.
However, I suspect Wenger will have looked very closely at the last two performances and thought about the balance of his squad overall, not just the defence. With a back four you can put an extra man in midfield, an area which has been problematic for us throughout this season. You can also put an extra man further forward which makes us more of a threat from an attacking point of view.
Even taking into account the context of the United/Borisov games, the fact that we had a total of 56 attempts on goal in those two fixtures playing with a back four can’t really be overlooked. And the Europa League game showed that there are players in the squad who can still contribute when we play in this kind of formation but who really don’t have a place when we use a back three.
For example, Mathieu Debuchy could be the back-up we need to Hector Bellerin if the cover he provides is at right-back rather than right wing-back (Debuchy drew some praise from the manager for his somewhat redemptive performances so far this season). Whether you’re a fan of Theo Walcott or not, it’s hard to argue that he functions better in the system we used against BATE Borisov, and the sames goes for Jack Wilshere too.
Although Wenger spoke of him as a player who would now be considered as part of the front three, I never really bought into that. I don’t see how you get the best from him playing him out wide, even if you do give him some freedom. On Wednesday we used him centrally, the tip of the midfield triangle, and lo and behold he put in his best performance in ages.
Regardless of their long-term futures, this formation changes gives us more options and that’s going to be very useful going into what is the busiest and most hectic period of the season. We potentially have 15 games between now and the end of January, that’s a lot of football, and there’s no doubt that we’ll lose a few here and there through injury, suspension, fatigue etc.
Putting square pegs in round holes can work but only ever temporarily, and it’s down to the manager now to consider the balance of the team in general. I don’t think the back three has made us any more defensively stable, although the change last season helped get us out of the rut we were in.
We’ve had some good days with it, no doubt about it, but I don’t believe our issues last season were down to the formation. There was so much other stuff going on – not least the constant uncertainty over the manager’s future – that he had to do something radical to shake up his team, and that’s what the move to a back three was.
We might not yet have the exact partnership you’d call ideal if we go back to a central defensive duo, but I do think it would allow us to get more out of the squad in general. It would allow us to plug the hole in midfield which could also be seen as addressing defensive issues given how much of what hurts us comes through that area, and overall I think the players understand and function better with a back four.
Anyway, we’ll see what he does. It sounds like he’s angling for a return to that, but quite how quickly it happens remains to be seen. It’s something we discuss a bit on the Arsecast this week, so if you haven’t already had a chance to listen, check it out below.
I also would like to say thanks to everyone who listens, to James, and all the contributors, for making us one of the most downloaded sports podcasts of 2017 according to Apple Podcasts. I really appreciate it. You folks are allllllll-riiiiiiiight. Back tomorrow with a Southampton preview and all the rest.