17 May 2013

Arsenal vs. Newcastle preview

On the face of it, we really should just be able to show up at St. James's Park on Sunday and have our way with a depleted and listless Newcastle. However, it's a revealing indictment of our season that our last few months' run is not enough to instill enough confidence to actually do that, and we therefore find ourselves wondering and worrying. All season, we've shown an ability to play to the level of our opponent, whether it's a 2-0 away win over Bayern or a 0-1 home loss to Blackburn. We've see-sawed back and forth so many times that it feels impossible to know how we'll show up.  Even the fact that we've taken more points from Prem matches than any other team since February has not been enough to assuage our fears. However, we still go into Sunday's penultimate match in firm control of our destiny and on enough of an upward swing that serious plans are being made for a 3rd-place playoff game.

That said, we still have some business to tend to on Sunday. I firmly and enthusiastically welcome Olivier Giroud back from his three-game suspension after his red-card against Fulham. He brings a creative edge that our attack has lacked (an odd reminder in the aftermath of winning a match 4-1). I'd like to see him restored to the central striker role, flanked by his BFF Podolski on the left, Walcott on the right, and Cazorla playing from the center. Poldi and Walcott have recently gone on little runs of their own, with Walcott scoring in three consecutive matches and Poldi netting twice against Wigan. We won't debate whether Cazorla had three or four assists against Wigan playing from the right. The four of them could very well slice Newcastle's defense six ways from Sunday. It's in the midfield, of course, that deeper questions arise. With Arteta likely to sit, there have been many calls for Wilshere to come in, but I feel I must repeat my calls not to rise to the bait. Even with a vital three points hanging in the balance, I simply don't believe we can take risks with Wilshere's ankle. I'm willing to forego his presence on the pitch, believing we can win without him. If we can't defeat Newcastle at this point without him, we don't deserve to keep 4th place, simple as that.

No, please don't play Wilshere. I say this as one who goes weak in the knees when he is on the pitch. The boy's a beast. That's precisely the problem. He's still just 21, and he plays with the recklessness of one who may never play another game. If we throw him on, all it takes is one clumsy tackle to end his season and knock him out for a significant portion of the 2013-14 campaign. Don't do it, Arsène. Instead, play Rosický there. Yes, Coquelin is available, but he hasn't played since February. If he was close to match-ready, I believe we would have seen him come on in some of our more-comfortable wins such as those against Wigan or Reading. Even if he has the quality (and I believe he does), the chemistry is still enough of a question that I trust Rosický out of position more than I trust Coquelin. With Rosický and Ramsey holding down the defensive midfield roles, I feel very good indeed.

Across the back, the Kos-Per partnership looks set to continue, and I'd like to see Gibbs come back on the left. Nothing against Monreal, but Gibbs looks more and more to be emulating Ashley Cole each week, bombing forward while tracking back with the best of them. If he truly wants to emulate Cole, of course, he'll have to work on his charisma. He currently has some, and that just won't do if he wants to supplant Cole as England's best and least-pleasant left-back. He's already outperforming that [content deleted] and has only that [content deleted]'s reputation to overcome.

On the right, give it to Sagna. By "it", I mean the starting position and the captain's armband. If he does end up leaving in the summer, we can then claim that we're continuing the proud tradition of seeing the captain leave each year. In all seriousness, Sagna is among the longest-serving Gunners we still have, and it would be a fitting tribute to his contributions to this club and his reputation as one of the Prem's best right-backs (even if his form has suffered in this campaign). Give him the armband. If it ends up as his swan-song, we could do worse.

The Szcz looks to finish the season between the sicks, and so much the better. His return from the benching has worked out well. Fabianski's demotion, I mean injury, may be harsh, but Szcz is our first-choice keeper and has seen three clean-sheets and five wins in five matches. Each keeper owes his run in part to the defensive displays in front of him, to be sure, but Szcz has done enough to reclaim the starter's role. In fact, I'm looking to him (and the back-line) to keep one more clean sheet.

At the risk of going out on a limb, I foresee a 3-0 win with goals from Giroud, Walcott, and Podolski. I won't go so far as to predict another three assists from Cazorla. We really should be able to steamroll Toon. I like them and all, if only for the flimsy reason that my first real (non-American) beer was a Newcastle Brown Ale. I know there's no direct connection, but it marked a huge upgrade from the swill I had been drinking up 'til then. Knowing that Newcastle is safe from relegation, then, I harbor no remorse over running roughshod over the club on Sunday.

Come on, you Gunners. Just one more. Three points. Get 'er done!