Ahead of Manchester United’s crucial away clash at Arsenal on Saturday, we’re joined by our colleague Aaron Lerner from Arsenal blog The Short Fuse. We discuss expectations, Wenger, Özil, and tactical battles. Let’s be nice to him in the comments. He’s an Arsenal fan - he’s been through enough.
The Busby Babe: How satisfied are you with the season so far? Where are you now in the Arsenal Hope/Disappointment Cycle? #InWengerWeTrust or #WengerOut?
The Short Fuse: With how the campaign started (losing away to Stoke and getting dismantled by Liverpool), I’m quite satisfied with where Arsenal are right now. Arsene Wenger seems to have settled on a preferred 11 (although United won’t have to face it – more on this to come), and the back three of Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi, and Nacho Monreal have yet to concede a goal this season. Plus, with all the storylines about powershifts in North London and how Tottenham have surpassed Arsenal, it felt REALLY good to thoroughly outplay them a few weeks back.
I think the general mood at TSF and among Arsenal supporters is one of cautious optimism – the side have put together a nice run of results and seem to be headed in the right direction.
I’ve always been #InWengerWeTrust, and I’m still there. The question I always ask the #WengerOut people is, “Who do you want to replace him? Is that an upgrade?” Right now, I’ve not heard the name of any coach who would realistically come to Arsenal AND be a clear upgrade. I’m against change for the sake of change.
TBB: At this point, what would represent a successful season for you?
TSF: When it was clear last season that Arsenal would not make the Champions League, this season became all about getting back there. That hasn’t changed, and I think they’ll manage it. Arsenal have demonstrated they have the talent to compete for the top 4, and they have to be considered one of the favorites to do a United and get into the Champions League by winning the Europa.
TBB: Mesut Özil has been linked with a José Mourinho reunion for months. Our fans have had mixed reactions. What's your opinion on him: underappreciated genius or overrated bottler?
TSF: Mesut Özil is one of the best players in the Premier League, full stop. He gets an unfair shake because his facial expressions and body language don’t send the best message. People in the media look at that posture and conclude he is “lazy” or that he “doesn’t care.” But can you really tell those things from looking at a player on a screen?
Özil is one of those rare players that can create offense out of nothing. He sees passes that few other players see. All it takes is half an inch of space, a second for him to look up, and odds are he’ll put somebody through on goal. It would be a real shame to see him go - I think he’s more valuable than Alexis Sánchez.
TBB: If you were a betting man, would you wager that Arsenal will face both Özil and Alexis Sánchez as opponents in the league next season?
TSF: I’d get more enjoyment out of taking a stack of money and lighting it on fire than from betting that Alexis Sánchez will be back at the Emirates next season (and my return would be the same). He is as good as gone. The likely destination appears to be Manchester City, although I wouldn’t rule out him signing for PSG.
Mesut Özil’s situation is trickier. He likes Arsene Wenger. He likes living in London. He hasn’t given the same outward signs of wanting to leave as Alexis has, like getting “sick” and returning to Arsenal late. I think it’s still 50-50 or better that he re-signs.
TBB: Word on the street is that Lacazette and Sánchez won't be playing on Saturday. How should we expect Arsenal to line up? Any tactical surprises to look out for?
TSF: It looks as if Alexis will be available, so no luck for United there. The big question is who replaces Alexandre Lacazette - Olivier Giroud or Danny Welbeck. My money is on Welbeck. Giroud is a back-to-goal, hold-up style of striker. Welbeck does more running between the lines and through holes between defenders. Welbeck’s style requires less change from the team around him and less of a departure from what they’ve been doing all season, which is why I think he gets the nod. Other than that, don’t expect any changes from the Arsenal lineup.
Tactically, this Arsenal side might be a bit different from what you are used to seeing. The last few games, the Gunners have been playing with significantly more positional discipline and rigidity in their structure. They look to be more organized in defense and are playing together as a unit rather than as individuals.
It sounds weird to say but Arsenal are both pressing more and sitting deeper. What they’ve been doing is picking their moments, waiting for a bad pass or a player with his head down then surging forward to win back possession. But when those moments haven’t presented themselves, Arsenal have sat a bit deeper, maintained their lines, and kept a more consistent defensive shape.
TBB: Finally, predictions for the result?
TSF: 1-1. Romelu Lukaku has always been a thorn in Arsenal’s side, so I think he’ll get a goal. Arsenal will find an equalizer, and even though I’m not sure who will score it, I have a feeling Aaron Ramsey will be involved somehow. Much of Arsenal’s attack is predicated on the defensive imbalances created when he drives forward.
Best of luck tomorrow. Let’s hope for an exciting match!
TBB: Cheers, Aaron! Check out my Q&A over at their place here.