Building on the good work of his predecessors, Michael Laudrup has taken Swansea to the level of the best mid-level teams across Europe. As their win against pretty formidable Valencia side – albeit an out of sorts one at the moment – showed, this game in Wales will be at least as competitive as almost any away game in the Champions League group phases that Arsenal have contested in recent years.
On the other hand, it’s also a fact that Laudrup’s side is yet to win at home in the Premier League. That their two opponents have been likely title contenders in Manchester United and Liverpool is all the more reason the Gunners need a big performance and the three points. They have to match or better the results of their direct rivals.
An 11 game winning streak in away games across all competitions is a strong record to have but it won’t mean much if the Swans record their first home win. The thing is, once a club starts talking about a title challenge in the League, the degree of consistency required shoots up. Obviously, there is more leeway in terms of dropping points for a team that finishes third or fourth than one that sits at the top. Teams will come at you and try to go past you with all their might, and you have to show you can stay one step ahead. If not now then very soon we will have to see how the Arsenal players respond to that pressure.
By now we are all familiar with Swansea’s playing style. They keep the ball on the ground, build from the back through quick passing and constant movement, are fluid in attack with excellent understanding between different individuals which enables combination plays involving multiple players, many of their players are capable of finding the back of the net as well as the final ball, and they work pretty hard as a team to close the spaces down when defending with an excellent goal keeper behind their respectable back four.
The issue with them is one of consistency. They can do it all but can they do it all the time against all opponents. And it’s here that the quality of individual players comes to the fore. Swansea don’t have the budget of the big clubs so they have to rely on top quality scouting and judgment from their manager. It works for the most part and that’s the reason I put them alongside most mid-level European teams. But there are noticeable mistakes in their games too. At both ends of the pitch. There are times when you watch one of their games and feel they deserved more from it. For example, the score in their opening day defeat against United flattered the visitors. But revisit the decisive moments dispassionately and it seems a fair result.
This is important for the Gunners because there will be mistakes from both sides in this game. And it will be decided in favour of one that produces the more decisive moments. Look back at the battles between these sides over the last couple of years and you’ll see that most of them have been settled by mistakes that were punished. Starting with Arshavin pouncing on Vorm’s error almost two years ago, to Thierry Henry’s irresponsible mislaid pass followed by calamitous defending by the Gunners, to the two away wins shared by the sides last season, almost every game was decided by errors that proved expensive.
This could be an interesting game tactically. Arsenal have struggled to dominate possession in many games, which has worked out well for them because the unit has worked cohesively in defence. Part of the reason was that in Arteta’s absence the starting eleven just didn’t have the right balance to play the possession game with too many players lacking positional discipline. So it will be interesting if the Gunners try to change the system once the Spaniard is back. Then again, Arsenal played a pragmatic defensive game in last season’s win at the Liberty Stadium even with Arteta in the side. It is part of the aforementioned 11 game run and that style could just be perfect for this game because it minimized mistakes. Cut out the gifts and force the hosts into producing something special for their goals. If they still score a couple fair play to them. But chances are Laudrup’s side will conceded more openings than they create if the Gunners can retain their defensive structural integrity and work rate.
In a way there won’t be, or shouldn’t be, anything extraordinary about this game. Michu is a threat from his Number 10 position. His runs into the box have to be tracked and his ability to play one-twos needs to be countered. The tricky and pacy wide players should not get space to run into. Bony is the kind of striker who doesn’t need too much time or space to get his shot away. So the central defenders have to be very tight to him without getting rolled. Rangel will get forward and Arsenal’s lack of a proper left sided winger who tracks back consistently could pose certain problems. It can also be dealt with if Mertesacker and Co. do what they’ve been doing – reading the threat and attacking the balls put into the box. Swansea will create one-v-one situations against defenders and Koscielny-esque hara-kiri moments have to be avoided. The point is you are not going to see much in this game which makes you go, “Hang on, where did that come from!?”
While surprises from the Swansea attack are unlikely, I don’t expect Arsenal to keep a clean sheet in this game.
In attack though, the Gunners will have to continue with their inventive ways. Arsenal do not have players who will be able to get in behind the defence regularly in the absence of Theo Walcott. We’ve seen different kinds of goals this season that we don’t often see. Whether it was Gibbs arriving at the back post, or Ramsey timing his runs and receiving passes at the right moment, or the set-pieces against Stoke, or some well-worked counter-attacks, Wenger’s side have found a way to breach the defence against a diverse set of opponents even in games where it’s been hard work. They will need that combination of patience, practice, and precision to break Swansea down.
Many of the first team players got a good break during the midweek Capital One Cup game where the youngsters ground out a result with the help of senior pros in defence. The starting line up for this game should have a more familiar feel. Barring unexpected injury news, there should be two main questions for Wenger to answer – Should Arteta start after his cramps against West Brom and is there a place for Gnabry in the side.
My answer to both questions would be yes and that would mean only one change to the side that won against Stoke at the Emirates last week.
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Özil, Arteta – Gnabry, Giroud, Wilshere.
There is an option to shift Wilshere to the right and bring Monreal in on the left. I think Jack could be excellent cutting in from the right while Özil would love to drift out wide to fill the gap as that seems to be his preferred flank. Those two have worked some excellent combinations and it might be even more exciting this way. Monreal can arrive into the box late or dart in behind to the back post. In theory this is a thrilling option but it’s not always the same in practice. I doubt Wenger will go for it.
He could also put Flamini on the right. Gnabry is very good but he isn’t at the level where he is going to take Premier League defenders on or make darting well-timed runs behind the defence. So if it’s going to be a conservative job on the right he might as well give it to a player more naturally suited to that. But that line-up with five midfielders just doesn’t feel right to me and I, for one, would love to see Gnabry get more and more playing time at this level.Follow @goonerdesi
I didn’t cover the West Brom game because there wasn’t much to say. It was an enjoyable victory but with so many changes made by both managers reading too much into the performances would be counterproductive. Probably the only thing to say is that Eisfeld could make a great career as a SuperSub if he so chooses and his manager sees that as a role for one of the players on the bench of seven. More on that some other time.