Another tough test faces the Gunners
Arsenal travel to Old Trafford on Thursday night hoping to replicate their performance from last season, where they ran out 1-0 winners courtesy of a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty.
🗞 Read our latest team news ahead of tomorrow’s match against Manchester United 👇#MUNARS
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) December 1, 2021
Unlike last season, it is the Gunners that are flying high, while Manchester United are going through something of a crisis, with the Red Devils having picked up just 5 from a possible 24 points across their last eight games. As a result, a loss for the home side could see them drop into the bottom half of the table, and would push Arsenal eight points clear in the race for Europe.
It is hard to predict what Arteta and co. may come up against, with Michael Carrick opting to drop star man Cristiano Ronaldo for their 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, and utilising a false-9. Before that, United had experimented with a back 3, 4-2-4, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formation at various stages of the season.
The Gunners too have selection headaches. For the most part, they have had a settled side this campaign, in part due to the absence of European football commitments, and in part due to few injuries. But there are now questions to be asked.
On a good run, they will be looking to keep their performances high, and 101 take a look at four of the areas in which places are up for grabs.
Who starts at left-back
The question of who started at left-back would have been a foregone conclusion even as recently as the beginning of the season, with Kieran Tierney clearly first choice. The Scot has been absent from the side since the middle of October, though, and has been an unused substitute for the last three games.
This is due to the form of Nuno Tavares, who endured a tricky outing against Liverpool but excelled against Newcastle United, particularly in the second-half. Providing the assist for Bukayo Saka’s opener, he was everywhere on the pitch, and offers far more unpredictability than Tierney.
Nuno Tavares has run the furthest, has the highest average speed and the highest top speed of any player in the game. Exhausting just watching him.
— Orbinho (@Orbinho) November 27, 2021
However, he remains inexperienced, and as shown at Anfield, is capable of letting the occasion get the better of him. Under the lights at the Theatre of Dreams, does Arteta risk the same happening again?
Speaking on the fight for a spot at left-back in his pre-match press conference, Arteta said:
“It was a tricky one and after what happened at Anfield and some individual errors that we had, we have to be very careful with the messages that we send to our players,”
“I encourage my players to play with courage, to take risks, to make decisions and to be on the front foot and when they do that, if for any reason things don’t go our way or somebody makes a mistake, that’s when you have to show trust in the player because you want to build confidence and resilience.”
“Kieran hasn’t played in a lot of games because he was still injured and in others, because once Nuno played and played well, I think he deserved the chance to continue playing.”
With Tierney having spent six weeks without a minute of Premier League action, a choice has to be made. Will he be thrust back into the action, or will the hectic inexperience of Tavares be preferred against the Red Devils?
Creative hub or goalscoring threat?
Should Arsenal line up in the 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 hybrid that we have seen thus far this season, another major selection issue comes in the form of who occupies the space behind or alongside the striker.
So far, both Alexandre Lacazette and Martin Odegaard have taken turns in lining up in the position with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ahead of them, but Arsenal have struggled to click in the final third.
🇬🇭 Partey in midfield
🇳🇴 Odegaard comes in
🏴 ESR starts
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) November 27, 2021
Despite sitting 5th, the Gunners have scored just 15 goals in 13 games, 13th most in the league. and fewer than 20th-placed Newcastle United, against whom two of those 15 were scored.
Lacazette (in theory) offers more goal threat, as well as offering Arsenal a better option for hold-up play, whereas Martin Odegaard’s pressing is infectious and he is able to provide moments of guile against more stubborn defences.
Restored to the starting XI against Newcastle for the first time since a draw with Crystal Palace in mid-October (which, coincidentally, was also Tierney’s last outing), Odegaard struggled from the off, but was much improved in the second-half.
Despite this, there is no obvious winner, with Lacazette contributing to Arsenal’s unbeaten run that was ultimately ended by Liverpool at Anfield. Is there a way that both play?
Will Arteta drop Aubameyang?
Saturday’s performance against Newcastle United perhaps summed up where Pierre Emerick Aubameyang is at right now. Asked to alter his game, his pressing has been much better this season, and his desire to win the ball back cannot be questioned (see, for instance, the challenge that gave away the free-kick that led to Liverpool’s opener).
However, he has found the back of the net just 4 times in the Premier League. While this leaves him the joint-top scorer for the Gunners alongside Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal’s captain would surely have been hoping for, and indeed expecting, more.
How did he not score there!? 🤯
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang misses an absolute sitter for Arsenal… pic.twitter.com/hf2O1ApmgB
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) November 27, 2021
Two seasons ago, it would have been unthinkable to drop the talisman, but clearly in a rut of form, could Arsenal follow in Michael Carrick’s footsteps and drop their main man for the good of the team?
Pepe overlooked again?
When Bukayo Saka came off injured against Newcastle United, all eyes turned to the bench. But it was not Arsenal’s record signing, Nicolas Pepe, that emerged from the dugout. Instead, Arteta opted for Gabriel Martinelli, who traditionally plays off the left-hand side, to replace the English starlet.
His choice was rewarded, too, with Martinelli scoring with just his second touch of the game, latching onto a beautiful pass from Takehiro Tomiyasu.
MARTINELLI THAT’S FANTASTIC! 🤯
Incredible volleyed finish over Dubravka 🥵
Impact sub! 👊💥 pic.twitter.com/tuxkgGDXh4
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) November 27, 2021
While all eyes are on Saka amid the hope that he recovers, Arteta’s latest update gave little away:
“I am hopeful but we don’t know. Obviously it’s a really short turnaround and the player has to be comfortable playing with a little injury, so let’s see how he is in training.”
With eight games to cram in between Thursday and the end of the month, Arteta could be forgiven for choosing not to risk Saka, but the focus then turns to who replaces him.
Nicolas Pepe has not done much to further his cause thus far this campaign, and has only played 5 minutes of Premier League action since the Crystal Palace draw. Should Saka fail to return to fitness, has Martinelli done enough to warrant a start?
This article was edited by Conor Laird.
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