03 March 2015

Arsenal-QPR Preview: Charlie Austin, your purple-patch has dried up...

Hot off the heels of a reassuring win over Everton at the Emirates, Arsenal have to make the intrepid, half-hour jog over to Loftus Road to face QPR, they of Joey Barton, 'Arry Redknapp, and—blast, but it's hard to get worked over a fixture against an opponent whose most villainous representative is—who? Rio Ferdinand? He's hardly a paladin, but he's certainly not the kind of caricature against whom we can summon any real bile. More's the pity. All kidding aside, at least for a sentence or two, we'd do well to be wary of a squad that boasts of a goal-scorer in Charlie Austin, he of the 14 Prem goals, not to mention an entire squad that's been resting since 21 February thanks to Tottenham's attempt at winning some kind of silverware for once. Whether this means that QPR will be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed or rusty and out of sorts remains to be seen.

At our end of things, we come off of a result positive enough to almost erase the bad aftertaste of the in-mouth vomit that happened a last week Wednesday. Without dredging up the dreary details, I think we can all agree that our last midweek performance left something to be desired. However, we rebounded well enough, seeing off an Everton side that was trying to get a stronger grip on staying up in the Prem, saving Roberto Martínez the ignominy of guiding two different clubs to relegation. At least he could claim FA Cup the first time through. However, we're done with Everton and on to QPR.

As it currently stands, QPR are just above relegation thanks only to a goal-difference superior to Burnsley's (-18 versus -20 for those interested). Burnley travel to Anfield while QPR host us. While the battle to stave off relegation will last through the run-in, it's likely that we'll face a side desperate to find a point if not three on Wednesday in order to claw its way out of danger. Any time your squad can boast one of the Prem's top-three goal-scorers, you always have a chance. I speak, of course, of Charlie Austin.

Austin has scored at home against Man City and away against Southampton, Chelsea, and [cough] Arsenal. There's enough in that to suggest that he's no flat-track bully and he doesn't shy away from the big matches. If anything, it seems, he rises to the occasion. There is one asterisk to attend, but whether it signifies caution or safety remains to be seen: over a nine-match stretch from late October to Boxing Day, Austin delivered ten goals and one assist, an impressive return. However, since then, he's managed just two goals in his last eight appearances. Does this mean that he's reverted to the mean or that he's ready for another explosion?

It's unlikely if not impossible as QPR will go into the match without Joey Barton and Leroy Fer, who have been instrumental to QPR's attack. Without them, we might find it far easier to deny Austin the service he needs to be effective. He's not the kind of striker who creates his own chances. Instead, like Andy Carroll, he depends on service from others. Without Barton and Fer, denying that service gets a bit easier.

The Prem debut of Gabriel augurs well for nullifying Austin, as the Brazilian overcame some early jitters to deliver a fine performance, all but nullifying Lukaku. If Gabriel gets the nod over Mertesacker, we should see the Gabriel-Koscielny pairing starting to round into shape; both centre-backs have the pace and physicality to grapple with Austin. Whereas Mertesacker has offered stability and experience, his lack of pace and aggression have arguably undermined us more often than his tackles and goals have saved us.

Still, there's no avoiding the fact that the onus is on us. This is another must-win, should-win match. It's more than likely that Liverpool will see off Burnley, and it might be optimistic to think that any of our other rivals will drop points in any way, shape, or form. If we can't defeat a squad on the edge of relegation, well, we don't really deserve to stay in third place, now, do we?