06 February 2014

Thursday Throwdown: The (First) Gauntlet

Giroud's form and fitness will be key
over the upcoming fixtures
CC License / Wikimedia
Andrew: Sam, this Saturday Arsenal begins the first of two murderous runs through all competitions. The Gunners will play four matches in twelve days and none of it is pretty: away to Liverpool in the league, home to Manchester United in the league, home to Liverpool in the FA Cup, and home to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. There's a slight benefit with the majority of games coming at home, but this is still a brutal stretch. What does Arsenal need to do to make it through in respectable shape and should there be any priority given to certain competitions?

Sam: Well, in terms of 'physical' shape, the squad need to get through these games without any other injuries. If Arsenal can get to the end of the Bayern game without losing anyone, then we should have players starting to come back for the second gauntlet of big games. In terms of where we stand in competitions and squad confidence, the minimum I would want is 2 wins from the 4 matches. The problem is the spread of those two wins; the games take place in 3 competitions, and a loss in either of the cup games would mean that all focus would shift to the Premier League, and of course would reduce the chances of winning a trophy this year. If I were Arsenal manager, I would focus on the FA cup and League games. With Manchester City and Chelsea playing each other, there would be less top competition in the later rounds. The Man Utd game looks more winnable every week, despite the returns of Rooney and You Know Who and the addition of Juan Mata. What games would you prioritize? And what do you reckon to Arsenal's chances in each of the four fixtures?

Andrew: It is annoying to have to be worried about injuries, but I can't say that you're wrong. If Arsenal takes another injury to the midfield, or to their center back pairing or Olivier Giroud, the team will be in some trouble when trying to finish out the season. Let us hope that nothing of the sort occurs.

Arsenal are in an awkward position this season because once again they've drawn one of the absolute top teams in the elimination rounds of the Champions League. Make no mistake, I think the Gunners can beat Bayern. But they'd be underdogs to do it and there's a reason the German team is the defending champion. At the same time, I don't think you can make it out of your group in the Champions League and then put out a ho-hum squad when you play to win or go home. It sends a terrible psychological message to the point where I believe it's off the table. The league and the FA Cup are still eminently winnable so a proper lineup should be put out for those matches, leaving us with... no competitions marginalized?

It's weird to say and perhaps a difficult argument to defend, but I don't believe that Arsenal should be throwing in the towel on any particular competition. Even though they are difficult games, Liverpool and United in the league are most definitely winnable; if the Gunners get by Liverpool in the FA Cup then there are several reasonable matchups they could draw in round six; and if they could manage to take one match or the entire tie from Bayern, it would be glorious to avenge last year's defeat and knock off the champions. Squad rotation should be implemented for sure and it is possible for the club to put out a few different midfield combinations in these games in order to give players some rest, but I'm not convinced that Arsenal needs to narrow their focus. Am I insane for wanting our fingers in as many pies as possible or is this actually defensible?

Sam: Absolutely not. I've always believed that fans should root for their team through thick and thin, and if you're lucky enough to support a top club then you should want them to win every match, and trophy, possible. However, I also think with realism, and I'm not so sure we can beat Bayern. We might nick one match, but I expect that over two legs their quality will win out. But even one win against the best team in the world can create massive amounts of confidence. Just look at what happened after the Gunners won the second leg last against them season.

Rotation is an issue for me. The squad is down to its bare bones at the moment, and the one January signing we made will be unavailable for 6 weeks. Giroud is likely to play every match, and it seems far fetched that Vermaelen will break up the Koscielny-Mertesacker partnership (tangent: when was the last time you felt so comfortable with a center-back pairing? Adams and Bould?). There is just about enough cover in midfield to get through the 4 games, and The Ox's performance at the weekend was promising enough to suggest that he slot in alongside Arteta/Flamini. Besides, Wenger is an experienced enough manager to know he can't start the likes of Bendtner, or a youth payer in the vein of Zelalem in games of this stature. I should also mention that it was announced at the time of writing that Jack Wilshere could possibly be back for the Liverpool game on Saturday; if he is, he'll likely only make the bench, but very welcome news for the midfield rotation heading in to this gauntlet.

So, if we're in agreement that Arsenal will go for the win in each fixture, how do we think it will really play out? Also, which competition do you think is the best bet for a trophy?

Andrew: The tangent you bring up is enough to fill an entire other column (hint hint?) but let me just say this: whenever Arsenal Twitter starts to freak out about only being up one goal in a match that we're dominating, I look at our center backs and think all is well. Fluke goals can happen, momentary breakdowns can happen, I understand this. But I feel so much better with a solid defense that can see out matches without the feeling of impending calamity we've had in the past.

Last year's UCL champions visit the Emirates
on February 19th
CC Licence / Doha Stadium Plus
As to how it all plays out, I'm confident while still being realistic. I think it will be difficult to go to Anfield and come away with a win, but a draw is not at all out of the question. I believe we will beat United at home, beat Liverpool at home in the FA Cup match, and then settle for a draw against Bayern. I don't like to predict anything less than a rousing victory, but Anfield has been a very tough place to play this year while Bayern are just... Bayern. They're really really really good.

If that wasn't telegraphing it enough, I might as well state it plainly: we won't advance past Bayern in the Champions League. I hope it's not the case and I don't want Arsene to put out a diminished squad as a way of conceding, but this year I think they have too much quality for Arsenal. The league is a tricky proposition because of how long Arsenal have to go to protect their lead. I most definitely believe that they can win, but it's going to be a nail biter. The FA Cup, however, is entirely winnable and I believe the Gunners have a very good chance of lifting that trophy. Manchester City and Chelsea play each other in round five and the only other mildly scary teams left in the draw are Everton and Southampton. If the draw breaks right, or even if it doesn't, Arsenal are in a good position to beat Liverpool and march on to the finals. Am I being too positive? Too negative? Annoyingly realistic?

Sam: I would have to agree with you on those results. They seem completely realistic. Four points from six in the league would be great for the title race, because, for me, the bigger challenges are Man City and Chelsea games in March. Those two fixtures could see a very minimal return in terms of points, so picking up as many as possible now is imperative. It is with City and Chelsea that Arsenal will realistically be challenging for the title with, come the end of the season. 

Playing at home three games in a row could be the key; the crowd at the Emirates should be great for three consecutive big fixtures, and a good performance and result against United will create confidence in the squad and fans that they can carry over to the next two games. Of course, three wins would have the fans buzzing for the rest of the season. Even two wins along with some good performances should create enough confidence around the club heading in to the final months of the season.  As you say, Liverpool at Anfield have been tough this season, but the Gunners nullified the British media's favorite strike partnership - the "SAS" - earlier this season, and if any defensive partnership could do it again, its Kosc and the BFG.

Well, I think we've covered everything there. See you bright and early on Saturday morning for the first of the hellish fixtures. By 10am we'll have a clearer idea of how things might progress. COYG.

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