24 April 2014

Thursday Throwdown: Renewed Optimism

Mesut Ozil's return adds to the optimism around
Emirates Stadium
(CC Licence / Ronnie Macdonald)
Sam: After (technically) 3 wins in 8 days, Gooners have a bit more of a spring in their steps heading in to the season's final stretch. Those results, combined with Everton's shock home defeat at the hands of Tony "Redemption Story" Pulis' Crystal Palace, has left Arsenal in command of the final Champions League spot. So, Andy, what has you feeling most optimistic?

Andrew: Easily the return of two of our most important players (all respect due to Per Mertesacker). Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil have been sorely missed from the Arsenal lineup, Ramsey for his ability to push the team forward and Ozil for his creative genius on the ball. In a vacuum Ozil is the better player but Ramsey is perhaps more important to this squad because of the role he plays. No other midfielder is a good match for the box-to-box midfielder position and it shows whenever Ramsey is missing. Jack Wilshere is defensively lax (and hurt himself, currently), Mathieu Flamini doesn't have the timing for forward runs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is still too raw and unused to the position, Tomas Rosicky is better suited further up the pitch, etc.

Ozil is incredibly important because of his ability to move the ball around, retain possession, and find a killer pass. Ramsey is essential because he plays his position better than anyone else on the team could and his aggression drives the players around him on to do more. Having him back makes me feel as if the team is complete even though we are still missing several important players. Is it all Ramsey or am I making too much out of one player?

Sam: Ramsey's return seems to have been very influential, as evidenced by his goal and assist (or two, depending on your definition of assist) against Hull last weekend. It looks like he's picking up exactly where he left off before his injury, which is great news for the team at this point of the season. Without him the midfield really struggled to create, as we were forced to start some combination of Flamini, Rosicky and an increasingly past-it-looking Mikel Arteta. It is nice to have Ozil back, but I don't think his absence was felt as deeply as Ramsey's due to Rosicky and Cazorla putting in some strong performances playing a similar role.

The recent form of Lukas Podolski has been promising too. While he will never be the kind of winger to track back, his performances have improved since the Chelsea game, and his finishing has been on show again with 4 goals in 2 games. With Giroud still struggling slightly, Yaya Sanogo seemingly unable to buy a goal and Theo Walcott out, Poldi's goals are massively important in this stretch run.

Andrew: Podolski is important because of his goal scoring ability and right now that's enough to keep him in the lineup. He's clinical around net and always a danger to score with the ball at his feet, but he doesn't do enough in his all around game to make him an automatic starter. Giroud is just the opposite for me. Beautiful goal against West Ham aside (and really, it was one of the prettiest individual goals I've seen in a long time), Giroud has struggled with his finishing but has been fantastic with his hold up play, aerial ability, passing, defensive pressure up top, and so on. If you could combine Podolski and Giroud we would actually have the perfect forward for this team.

The last three results have been encouraging with Arsenal booked into the FA Cup final as well as in control of their own destiny for fourth place again, with an outside chance at third if Chelsea continue to slip without Hazard and Manchester City suffer without Yaya Toure and/or David Silva (injuries matter, who knew?). The question is, can Arsenal take advantage? We know the rest of the premier league schedule is kind but can this team, as currently constructed and still with important players missing from injury, make the most of their opportunity?

Sam: Well, if the news coming out of Stamford Bridge is to be believed, it looks like Jose Mourinho has given up on the league to focus on the Champions League. With Chelsea traveling to Anfield this weekend and Mourinho likely to rest his first-choice XI, Arsenal could have the opportunity to close the gap between themselves and the Blues by the time their game against a Newcastle side with nothing to play for comes round. Chelsea finish their season with games against Norwich and Cardiff, a similar-on-paper finish to our own, so we'd have to hope for other results to go our way. Man City face an in-form Crystal Palace, as well as traveling to Everton, who will be desperate to continue their pressure on the Gunners, so there could well be a chance of catching them. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, having looked at the remaining fixtures for the first time, I am beginning to share some of your optimism. On paper, all of Arsenal's remaining matches are winnable, so as long as the players stay fit (hey, Diaby might even return for an end of season appearance!) then there is a chance.

I suppose we should touch on the FA Cup, then. Some members of our little group are superstitious, and that is beginning to rub off on me, so I won't say too much. You can never read too much in to league performances, as the Cup final is a completely different beast, but it was encouraging to see Arsenal win - and keep a clean sheet - against a well-organized Hull at the weekend (a game which created the most relaxed atmosphere Lir has seen in a few months). With about 3 weeks to go, how are you feeling about the big game at Wembley?

Whose cabinet will the trophy be
gracing this season?
(CC Licence / Wikimedia)
Andrew: I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. Make no mistake, Arsenal are the better team by far in the championship match. However, this is everything for Hull. They are all but assured of a place in the EPL next year and they will not have a realistic chance of winning the league for years and years to come, if ever. This is their biggest and best chance to win a trophy and Arsenal will get the fight of their lives.

I want to say that with Ramsey back and that aggressive mentality reinstilled they'll take this match as seriously as they can and force a victory over determined opposition. But it's tough to predict that for a team that has struggled at times this season to go forth with all conviction. The talent is there and Arsene Wenger will put out the best possible team to beat Hull on that day in May, but I still get that pain in the pit of my stomach just thinking about it. Please tell me you feel a little better so at least one of us can be super positive all the way through this season.

Sam: While it is everything for Hull, it's nearly everything for the Gunners too. Granted, we have fourth place to fight for, but a trophy would mean huge amounts to the fans. I'm fed up of hearing how long it is since Arsenal won anything, and if the worst were to happen, I'd probably have to say goodbye to all forms of media for a long, long, time. On paper, Arsenal have enough strength to win. I thought Hull played well last weekend, and Arsenal were by no means dominant; but as long as it's a player in red and white lifting the Cup, I don't care how the team perform. Hmm, I seem to have avoided your question there: I don't really want to make any predictions, or have strong feelings either way about our chances. Maybe I'm more superstitious than I thought. My heart says Arsenal, my head is trying to avoid the issue entirely! There is one thing that I can guarantee though: whatever the result, I will be in tears and drinking lot

Andrew: I think Arsenal will win, I just know that it is going to be a real challenge the whole way through as much as neutral fans want to complain about Arsenal having an easy final game to play. Hull will bring their best and it will be difficult to withstand at times, but I believe the Gunners have the ability to see it through. If not, however, I will join you in the drinking and we may not have a throwdown any time in the near future. As always, COYG.

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