It’s match day and a Boxing Day one in which Arsenal face a struggling Norwich side who currently sit bottom of the league having picked up two wins and four draws all season. They have found it struggling even since Dean Smith took over and even have a fair few injury and COVID problems today, but given that we haven’t heard or read about any postponement by now, I expect the game to go ahead.
And if it goes ahead then Norwich will have a fair few challenges to contend with in terms of absentees, after Tim Krul confirmed he’s tested positive for COVID. It’s a big blow for them but from an Arsenal perspective it’s good news because there’s nothing more annoying than seeing the Dutchman start to time waste on goal kicks from about the 15th minute. So whoever his replacement is I hope he can take longer than two minutes every time there is a goal kick.
Norwich are also missing Normann, Rashica, Kabak, Hanley and Omobamidele, which means they are a somewhat depleted side that we visit. Their home fans will be vociferous enough and we know how pants we have been on the road this season, but given their injuries and players missing with the virus, this should be a game that Arsenal should absolutely be winning today.
We know we seem to be poor away from home, we know we can’t take any side for granted and we know that Norwich will give us a tough game, but this Arsenal side needs to demonstrate that we’re superior in our players, our performance our confidence and our approach. Of course we all saw that we can give hope to shoddy teams like United and Everton, but my hope for this Boxing Day is that we see an Arsenal performance closer to the one in Yorkshire against Leeds than on Merseyside against the Toffees. My hope is that the confidence that looked to be bristling from this team is maintained from the recent run. We even saw how the rotated players can take confidence in to games with the win in midweek against Sunderland and so I’m hoping that we see an Arsenal side who have taken even that League Cup win as an additional confidence booster.
The question Mikel has, however, is how much rotation does he afford this Arsenal team today? There’s no doubt that today’s opponents are – on paper – not as good as Wolves and with Wolves in 48 hours being fresher given how much time they have had since their last game, Arteta may decide not to rotate today because of fatigue, but because he wants to save some players for Tuesday. Me personally I would be rotating a few and so if you’re going to play the likes of Nketiah (I’m making the assumption that Aubameyang will be nowhere to be seen) in a game then today’s one feels like the one you choose and have Laca fresh for Wolves at home.
There will also be questions over players like Saka and Smith Rowe and whether it is better to share the minutes out with someone like Pepe. Again, I’d be tempted to try that today; Pepe scored and had a decent second half against Sunderland, so he may be able to take some of that confidence in to today’s match if he plays. Plus, if it’s not working out for him you can have someone like Saka you are ready to bring on, if the need arises. There’s also the fact that the players depart for the AFCON after today and so if you’re going to use Pepe I believe it pretty much has to be today.
That’s why I think Xhaka and Partey are a sure-thing for a start this afternoon. Partey is gone after today and hopefully Sambi is back from tomorrow after his isolation but the new government rules mean just seven days isolation if you test negative having had the virus, so he may even be able to be in the squad today given he missed the Leeds game over a week ago. I’d be tempted to give him minutes towards the end of the game because we might need to blow some of the cobwebs away for him before he’s asked to play against Wolves and then City on New Years Day.
As for the rest of the side, I think most of it will pick itself, assuming fitness of Tomiyasu is confirmed today. If not then it’ll be Cedric and if we’re going to be exploited then that’s where you’d think it’ll be. But if it is Cedric then perhaps playing Pepe on that side would be a good option? I’ve always thought the two players have done better together than other partnerships and in Cedric, Pepe has a player who will create overlaps that could open up space for the Ivorian. If Tomiyasu is fit then of course he comes in but if there are any lingering doubts in Arteta’s mind then I think it’s not worth the sacrifice and we should save him for Wolves.
The festive schedule is tough but if we can get more points on the board today then we will have done our job whilst our opponents aren’t playing. We need to make sure we do it though. There is a big opportunity in front of us today to put a little bit of distance (for now) between us and the others and so what I am hoping for is a continuation of good form and not the slightly bottling performance of those games in the North West a few weeks back.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that a proper Arsenal side show up and I’ll catch thee in the morrow for a debrief.