Tonight will our third time playing in this 7.15 Sunday time slot. Mikel Arteta will be hoping to make it third time lucky following a 1-0 defeat to Leicester and a 3-0 loss to Aston Villa in the previous two games.
Suffice to say, it hasn’t been kind to us. Or, to put it better, we haven’t been good enough. Those defeats have been particularly damaging, sandwiching the 1-0 win over Man Utd which should have been cause for more optimism, but when you drop points like that at home, people are gonna worry, and rightly so.
Last week against Leeds Arteta tried something different. He recalled Nicolas Pepe, and he played Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang down the middle as a way to try and get his shot-shy team firing again. The captain has scored just once in the Premier League since the opening day win over Fulham, and his goal that day remains his only league strike from open play so far this season. That is a problem, no two ways about it.
Whether you view it as a player out of form, a team that doesn’t provide enough goalscoring opportunities for its best striker, or an unfortunate combination of them both, it’s an issue we have to find a solution for. The red card for Pepe meant we didn’t have a chance to respond to what was an underwhelming first half against Leeds, but that’s not to make any excuses for how poor we were in that period. The home side took 13 shots to our 5, we have plenty to improve on.
Quite what he does today remains to be seen. There were injury doubts over Bukayo Saka and Willian, but both were in training yesterday. The former isn’t 100%, and will reportedly be assessed before the game to see if can start or not. The latter is fully fit and I expect him to start because that’s what happens these days. I mean, I hope he doesn’t, but with Pepe suspended for the next three games, doubts over Saka, and with Lacazette having played most of the game on Thursday, if Aubameyang starts in the middle – and I think he should because we don’t need him spending half the game chasing the Wolves wing-back up and down he pitch – then we’re not exactly replete with options for the wide positions.
I’d be happy to see Reiss Nelson given a chance after a good display and a goal in midweek. Arteta spoke glowingly of the progress he’s seen from the 20 year old, and I suppose the other thing he has to his advantage is his youth and the fact he didn’t take 14 hours worth of flights for no good reason. Whether that’s sufficient for him to get the nod today, we’ll wait and see.
If some attacking improvement can come from a functional midfield working behind the front three, there’s a bit of a blow in that Thomas Partey remains sidelined with the thigh injury he picked up in the Aston Villa game. The latest update says that he is ‘progressing with his rehabilitation’, and with a North London derby on the not too distant horizon I can understand the caution, but his absence today is still unfortunate. Mohamed Elneny is available again after his positive test for Covid-19.
Arteta spoke about Wolves, saying:
They are one of the most organised teams in the league for sure. They have been together for a long time, they have shown in big games against big opponents how difficult they can make it so I am expecting a difficult game against a team that dominates almost every aspect of the game I would say. They know exactly what to do.
Interestingly, for their last game against Southampton, Nuno Espirito Santo played with a back four for the first time in over 160 games, a tactical curve-ball that might just be playing on Arteta’s mind as he prepares for this one. They ‘always’ play with a back three, so your opposition planning would be based around that, and this could cast some doubts over how they’ll set up today.
However, as much as our manager might look at the opponents, his biggest issue – by some distance – is his own team and what they do. Can we create more chances and take more shots? Can we move the ball more quickly? Are we going to revert to the ‘norm’ and play out from the back again having very deliberately eschewed that tactic against Leeds? That was an interesting decision because it has been such a cornerstone of Arteta’s system up until now.
It’s going to be tough because Wolves are a decent outfit and we are struggling for form. It might well need to be a case of third time lucky; a decision that goes our way, a scrappy goal, something like that. Obviously I’d prefer an accomplished performance but if we can come away with three points later on, however we manage it, I think I’ll be happy enough with that.