With the FA Cup Final looming, Arsenal gave its fans the perfect Premier League sendoff in the 4-1 drubbing of West Brom. This looked like a title-winning side, perhaps with the exception of David Ospina, who looked particularly skittish in goal. The fluidity among Mesut Özil, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Alexis Sanchez was what we dreamed about all summer. They had smiles on their faces as they knocked the ball across the pitch with alacrity not common in the EPL. But there was a certain sadness to the beauty of Sunday’s match. For this team never fought for the title and finished appropriately 12 points back.
This season was lost right when it began. Three successive draws to Everton, Leicester City and Manchester City spelled doom for the Gunners. A lot of that was down to injury and players coming back late from the World Cup, but ultimately, the blame must fall on the players for not performing. Per Mertesacker, Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey’s early season struggles have been forgotten, but those three were among many who did not play up to the expected level in the early going.
The defense was horrible for much of the first half of the season. No game stands out more than the 3-2 defeat to Stoke in early December when Arsenal made Bojan Krkic look like Lionel Messi. Defensive lapses were paramount and the team could never quite make up for them. That game could act as a metaphor for the season. Down 3-0 in the first half because of disorganization in defense, Arsenal made a comeback. But like against Monaco and like in the season as a whole, they could not make it all the way back.
One area that must improve next year is the team’s mental fortitude. Far too often, Arsenal let the other team grab multiple goals from spurts of momentum. Think about the end of the first Monaco match. 2-1 would have been surmountable, but carelessness made it 3-1 and suddenly, the hole was too deep. Or against Anderlecht. Arsenal must to a better job of stopping the bleeding. Every team will get punched in the mouth. But the champions don’t allow one hit to derail them completely.
I’m not saying this season was a failure. In fact, I think it was probably the team’s most promising in years. But what it frustrating is knowing what could have been had they lived up to their potential. What if Yaya Sanogo wasn’t playing so much in the opening weeks? What if Mesut Özil and Jack Wilshere stayed healthy? What if the defense wasn’t so paper thin in the early going? The what if’s abound.
After the FA Cup, I will give the squad members grades for the season and assess what can be done to improve next year. For surely, Arsene Wenger will know the time is now to challenge for the title. The squad is young and full of talent. A full season of strong play must be put together.
But before completely turning the page to next year, the focus must be on the FA Cup, which will hold massive importance for the morale of the team and the fan base. A loss to Aston Villa would be embarrassing. Let’s avoid that at all costs.
The question I want to address today is team selection. A week ago, the first team in a game of this magnitude would have seemed pretty obvious, especially given that Wenger played the same starting 11 for much of the run-in. However, dazzling displays from Theo Walcott and Wilshere on Sunday demanded attention. Those two by all means merit a spot in the team. But starting them would involve massive risk.
I don’t think I want to start Wilshere. He could come in for Santi Cazorla or Aaron Ramsey, but that would be incredibly harsh on those two, who aren’t in bad form. While Jack’s been great in recent weeks, I worry that he hasn’t played enough with Francis Coquelin to be able to do the necessary defensive duties in the middle of the park. I’d be more okay with him playing on the right, but everyone knows that isn’t his best position. The last thing I’d want to see is him starting in place of Coquelin. That could be a disaster. I say bring him on after 65 minutes for one of those three depending on the score. Even in just 25 minutes, he could be impactful.
However, I am leaning towards favoring Walcott over Olivier Giroud up top. Giroud has been in poor form the last month and his confidence has suffered, plus he has been especially predictable in his movement. Sure it’s valuable to have his physicality and hold-up play, but with Aston Villa likely to employ a counter-attacking philosophy, I think Arsenal will do much of the building through the midfield, thus negating his importance. Walcott offers something different. Something that Villa haven’t seen much of this year. Özil and Cazorla found him on runs that opened everything up on Sunday. There won’t be much space, but Arsenal has the talent in midfield to find him anyway. Starting the slighter Walcott would be a gamble given how few games he’s played up top, but it’s one worth taking.
Regardless, this duo will see plenty of the field, even if they start on the bench. They can play the roles of Tomas Rosicky and Yaya Sanogo, who changed the final a year ago with their energetic appearances.
The other two decisions involve goalkeeper and left back. Last year, I was in the camp that wanted Wojciech Szczesny to start given his form, but this year I think Wenger should go with the Pole because of his policy to start the #2 in Cup games. David Ospina simply hasn’t been good enough to merit a change. However, seeing that Szczesny didn’t start on Sunday like Lukasz Fabianski did a year ago, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ospina in net. Wenger is sending quite a message against smoking. And at left-back, Nacho Monreal better start. He’s been so consistent all year. While Kieran Gibbs has seen the field recently, it would be foolish to overlook the Spaniard.
Perhaps most interesting of all will be seeing who makes the bench. For somebody like Rosicky, being omitted from the squad could be especially insulting, even with a new contract. It will likely come down to him or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. I’d give the nod to the veteran Rosicky. The Ox didn’t look himself on Sunday, and Wilshere could offer the type of game-changing drive that the Ox normally does.
Here are my ideal lineup choices. Starters: Szczesny, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Cazorla, Ramsey, Özil, Sanchez & Walcott. Bench: Ospina, Gabriel, Gibbs, Flamini, Rosicky, Wilshere & Giroud