Back in Blighty after just over two weeks in the States and after a mammoth sleep to try to recover from jet lag, I’ve woken up this morning to that familiar feeling of butterflies in my stomach ahead of an Arsenal game.
It’s weird because I’ve known I’ll be back home, watching the game under normal circumstances, at normal times, for the whole of the holiday, but for some reason I have had no real nerves ahead of the Wolves game at Molineux tonight. I wondered if that was because I was starting to become so blasé about The Arsenal and us winning football matches; after the victory last weekend against Chelsea – another hurdle and narrative overcome (“yeah, but they haven’t beaten any of the traditional ‘big six’ away from home yet”) – and the hammering we gave Nottingham Forest the week before, yesterday and in the run up to this game this week I’ve been feeling confident about going to Wolves and getting something. After all, their form isn’t great and they haven’t got their new manager in yet as Lopetegui doesn’t start until Monday, although he’ll be in the stands and I suspect we’ll see a few of those Wolves players out to impress tonight.
So with the respective forms of Arsenal and Wolves going into this game, I was pretty chilled about getting the result.
Until this morning.
This morning I’ve woken up and the nerves have kicked in because if we want to remain top of the table going in to the World Cup hiatus, we will need to win in the Midlands this evening. Man City play Brentford at home and that is as nailed on a home banker as you’re going to see this weekend, so by the time kick off comes at 7:45pm this evening, I suspect we’ll be in second place. So we have to respond to Man City and that is not going to be easy on a ground in which we’ve suffered in recent past. Last year we got the win but it was a tough watch after Martinelli was inexplicably sent off for two quick-fire red cards, which funnily enough isn’t the precedent that many thought would happen in the league; it seems as though Arsenal get some situations refereed in certain ways and this fixture has shown that in recent years. Remember David Luiz being sent off for the tiniest touch on a Wolves striker, with the referee Pawson sending him off and awarding a red card in what seemed like the complete ignoring of the ‘double jeopardy’ rule? I certainly do. But let’s not get too happy and excited that neither last season’s referee Michael Oliver, or the season before Craig Pawson, will be there to give Wolves a helping hand, because Stuart Attwell is the appointed ref for today’s game. Remember him? You should do, because the last game he refereed with Arsenal involved was the home defeat to Man City way back in January this year. Remember the incredibly soft penalty that was given on Xhaka when Bernardo Silva dived? Or how about being very happy to get his hands in his pocket for Gabriel to be sent off? It was an appalling performance all round on that day I seem to remember, so I’ll not be expecting any favours from another sub-standard referee.
Which means we need to make it so that no controversy can get in the way of out performance. we need to start fast, start quick, get at the throat of Wolves and impose our football on them. The good news is that our starting XI should be fresh; Arteta rang the changes in midweek and so the following players have almost had a free week off – Saliba aside – (although some came on as subs, but they won’t be too overly-exerted from the midweek):
White – Saliba – Gabriel – Zinchenko
Odegaard – Xhaka
Saka – Jesus – Martinelli
That is probably our strongest XI we’ve had this season and is the side that went to Stamford Bridge and controlled the game pretty much from start to finish, so my hope is that we can continue our good league form and the team has already put the disappointing midweek cup exit out of their minds anyway. It was a different side that lost to Brighton and I want them to prove that tonight.
Wolves have struggled for goals this season and the absence of Jimenez and Neto doesn’t help them tonight, but Podence has always looked a threat and they’ll have the beast of Adama Traore who will look to get at us in wide positions. They’ll also possibly look to bring back Hwang in to the starting line up, who scored early against us last season, which is something we want to avoid because if we can get at Wolves early and quieten the crowd, it could be a big advantage point for us. We’ve been able to do that a lot this season and my hope is that we see more of the same because if the home crowd isn’t given the chance to make noise, it has an impact on the players.
Wolves have eight goals all season, the lowest in the league, but their xG is five worst, showing that they aren’t taking their chances, also bourn out by the fact that they sit roughly mid table in terms of the number of shots they have taken this season, so it will be important for our back line to keep up it’s imperious form by not giving away any silly chances. They sit fourth in the league in terms of the number of long balls attempted and by the looks of their numbers they get most of their touches – compared to other teams – in the defensive third of the pitch. So I think they will look to sit deep tonight and look to find players like Podence, Hwang and Adama Traore, with longer balls in to channel areas to catch us out on transition.
But that will only work if when looking to play those balls, they commit bodies forward, I think. Picture this: we have the ball deep in their defensive ball and it turns over in to their possession. Unless they have left three players up top against our three (I’m assuming Zinchenko further forward in that advanced midfield role he takes up), then they will – hopefully – be hitting long without many options. However if they do manage to commit bodies forward and leave us one-v-one in our defence and their attack, that could give them some joy. But it is a risky strategy.
What is incumbent on our players is that we show them why we are top of the league. We need Gabriel’s Jesus and Martinelli to look their usual annoying selves for defenders, pressing hard and hopefully forcing turnovers. we need to get the ball wide to Saka and Martinelli as much as possible because Wolves are apparently vulnerable on the wings. So this could be a game for our forwards and I hope that Arteta and his coaching staff are thinking that this is where we may get most of our joy today.
It’s the last game before the World Cup and it’d be nice to finish off this first part of the season with a win and to be top of the league. Everyone is expecting Man City to eventually that that top spot from us but it’d be nice to get to Christmas with us top of the tree and having a few more weeks of joy looking at that table.
Over to Mikel and the boys to see if they can do it.
Catch you all tomorrow.