Under normal circumstances this evening’s game against Wolves would be hyped up as a ‘European six-pointer’ of some kind. If Arsenal win, we close the gap on the 5th place team to just three points. Lose and they’ll sit 9 points ahead of us with five games left to play. I mean, those are still the exact circumstances but it’s harder to make it sound exciting because of the context the game is being played in.
Nevertheless, this is a real test for Mikel Arteta and his team. You might think of Man City as a test, but it’s not really. It’s more an affirmation of what we already know, they are miles better than us. We have to be realistic about where we are and who our main competitors are – and Wolves are certainly that.
They’re a strong, exciting team capable of playing some excellent stuff, with a clutch of dangerous players who can hurt you from various areas of the pitch. That’s not something that has passed Arteta by either, saying in his pre-game press conference:
They compete really well, a really clear gameplan of how they want to expose their opponent, very solid defensively and with some really good talent in forward positions that can win the game at any moment. A very complicated side.
It’s been interesting in recent weeks to hear the Arsenal boss talk about how he’s set up his side with a nod to the opposition. Not just to stifle them, but to try and expose what he feels are their weaknesses, thus creating chances for the attacking side of his plan to be implemented. I wonder what he’s thinking about tonight’s game. Obviously it can’t just be about stopping Wolves, but of the four teams we’ve played since City, they’re the most tactically difficult to deal with, I think.
The team on Wednesday night against Norwich was picked to rest some players ahead of this one. I don’t expect to see Alexandre Lacazette start, for example. His chance to take a step forward and rebuild some confidence against the side bottom of the league wasn’t taken, and I think we’ll see the fresher, sharper, faster Eddie Nketiah tonight. Nicolas Pepe got a run out at the end, but he too was rested and as part of our game plan tonight will involve counter attacking, he’ll be a key part. And it goes without saying that our main goal threat will come from the captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
It’s hard to look past the back three again, for various reasons, but most of all because it suits the centre-halves we have. Personally, I’d like to see Rob Holding come in for Sead Kolasinac on the left hand side of it. His passing is better, more ambitious, and that’s a key factor for me. Outside them, it’s got to be Kieran Tierney assuming his fitness is ok, while on the right he’s got Hector Bellerin, Cedric Soares and Ainsley Maitland-Niles to choose from.
Midfield options might be light with the continued absence of Matteo Guendouzi – I’m making the assumption that nothing has changed since Wednesday, but perhaps some accord has been found – so Xhaka and Ceballos will probably be called on again to replicate the performance level they showed the other night. We should also see a return to the team for Bukayo Saka, while Lucas Torreira is available again and should make the bench. It won’t be easy.
The last three games have restored some positivity. I’m not going to downplay those results at all, there’s no sense of entitlement from me about winning – particularly at the moment. Hopefully we can continue that this evening. Last season a trip to Molineux was a real low, coming just after that shambolic home defeat to Crystal Palace and part of that dreadful run which saw us miss out on the Champions League by a single point. We go into this one in slightly better form, so let’s keep fingers crossed that’s something that impacts the result too.
Now, a few bits and pieces to get through to finish us off. First up, a new contract for Gabriel Martinelli. This wasn’t like the Bukayo Saka one, there was no danger of him running down his deal or anything like that – he had years left on his initial one. Instead, this was to recognise the way he played this season, and to reward that development with a salary more commensurate to his contribution. He has more goals than Lacazette, and the same amount of assists, yet is paid a fraction of what the Frenchman earns.
That’s understandable, given he wasn’t quite expected to be as effective this season. Nobody really thought a kid coming from the Brazilian fourth division would hit the ground running the way he has, and his new deal is well earned. It also cements him and Saka as two key pieces of our future, and hopefully it won’t be too long before we see him again after his recent knee injury. That they nominally, at least, play in the same position – or are considered to by many – is another interesting aspect to this, because I suspect the manager has thought about how he’s going to use them both in the same side.
You have to think this is also related to Arteta’s comments about what he wants to do in the job. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the candour of the manager in recent weeks when it comes to rebuilding. A couple of weeks ago he insisted that the squad had to be improved if Arsenal were to make progress and start the process of catching the best teams in the league, and he was straight to the point again yesterday too.
In an interview with Sky Sports, he said:
I know that the situation that we have at the club and the context that we are in, but the club know my plan. In January, the situation was that we had to fill some gaps and give some stability to the squad.
“Now is the moment to make another step forward and improve the squad and the players that we have. The gap between the two top teams and the rest is really, really big and everybody is trying to catch up.
The competition is between six, seven, eight, maybe even nine clubs now to fight for those positions, so we have to be very smart and we have to be very decisive when we make our decisions.
I don’t know what I need to add to that – nobody needs to read between the lines, do they? In the best way possible he’s putting it up to the club to back him. When he was hired Josh Kroenke said, “He knows our expectations and those of our fans around the world are high and we are confident he can play a lead role in taking the club back to the levels we all demand.”
So, if the expectations are high, and the challenge is to try and restore this club to one which can compete with the best, you can’t be half-arsed when it comes to squad building. In that I include player retention – something we’ve seen with Saka, Martinelli and quite possibly Aubameyang soon; recruitment, which is going to be so, so important; and departures, because there are some players who, even if they’re willing to try hard and get on Arteta’s boat, need to go for us to rebuild properly.
I especially like that even though things are up in the air, unclear re: the transfer market and all the rest, Arteta is still absolutely clear about what he wants. The executive committee have signed up two teenagers to new contracts this week, something we can rightly be pleased about, but this has to be just the start of their work – not something they can rest on their laurels over.
Catch you later, have a good Saturday.