Nine days after we beat Wolves, we’re back in action today with a 3pm home game against Brentford.
Let’s start with team news, and Bernd Leno is back from his bout with Covid, while Takehiro Tomiyasu is back in full training and ‘in contention’ according to Mikel Arteta. There has clearly been some caution over him, to ensure he’s back to full fitness. His last appearance was on January 20th, almost a full month ago, so if he starts today we have to assume we’re not taking any risks – otherwise you just stick with Cedric and give Tomi the extra time to recover fully.
The only other issue we have is the suspension of Gabriel Martinelli which robs us of an attacking option, but in terms of replacing him, it seems fairly obvious that Emile Smith Rowe will start on the left hand side. He’s our top scorer this season, and hopefully he too has put some of the fitness issues behind him. Beyond that, I think the team picks itself, so we should see:
Ramsdale, Tomiyasu/Cedric, White, Gabriel, Tierney, Partey, Xhaka, Odegaard, Smith Rowe, Saka, Lacazette.
Martinelli’s absence means we have even less than usual on the bench from an attacking perspective – although perhaps we might see an Academy youngster get a chance there. Eddie Nketiah is essentially a Lacazette replacement, while Nicolas Pepe is the most obvious option if we need a goal. The manager was asked about him and his chances of playing, and pointed to how effective he was in the second half of last season:
He had a brilliant end of the season last year, he can replicate that. We need him. We need him at his best because everybody is going to contribute. We are a really short squad at the moment and we need him. Hopefully, he’s understood that we want to play him that we don’t want a player like him sitting on the bench and not using him. The moment I have a chance, I want to give him a chance.
I do think there is a slight incompatibility between player and manager, but the main problem Pepe has is that Bukayo Saka plays in his position. Nevertheless, in his two full seasons before this one, he has made significant goal/assist contributions in the ‘run in’, or certainly after the new year, so hopefully he can get some minutes and do the same again this time around. What will happen in the summer is a discussion for then, really.
As for today’s opposition, their recent form worries me a bit. Not because they’ve been good, but because they’ve had 5 defeats and a draw in their last 6 games. I think back to the Everton game earlier in the season and their form was terrible but somehow we contrived to give them points to provide a nice filling for their shit sandwich when you looked at results either side of that.
I do accept that could be me being a bit fatalistic, because I think we absolutely have what it takes to win this game, and it is exactly the kind of fixture we have to win to cement our top four credentials. It’s why dropping points against Burnley a few weeks ago felt so egregious. I also think there’s an element of payback to this fixture that I’d certainly be focusing on if I were preparing to the team for this game.
Not with Brentford themselves, but for everything that went with that opening game of the season. We had four players out with Covid but nobody cared. Brentford played well and disrupted a team which wasn’t experienced enough up front or physically ready at the back. Arteta spoke about Ben White at his press conference yesterday, and he was a player in the spotlight that night as he was beaten to a few headers, his price-tag hung over him in instant judgement.
Then there was the Sky Sports element, seeing their pundits dancing and cavorting with the home fans was hard to stomach. Let me be clear, the Brentford fans had every right to celebrate as much as they wanted. The first Premier League game at a new stadium and they beat Arsenal – go mad, why the hell not? But you expect some measure of objectivity from broadcasters, even if the lines between sport and entertainment have become increasingly blurred. These are all soft factors I know, and the reality is this Arsenal team should be up for it based entirely on the importance of the game itself and the points on offer, but a little reminder about things like that don’t hurt.
Ideally we can get into this game quickly and score early. All the rest we’ve had means fresh legs but so too the potential for a lack of rhythm. Coming out of the blocks fast and getting on top would energise the crowd, and hopefully set the scene for the three points we have to take from this one.
For more, there’s a preview podcast over on Patreon right now, and remember you can join us later for live blog coverage of the game, plus all the post-game stuff on Arseblog News.
Until then, take it easy.