Arsenal faces an odd scenario as it closes its Premier League campaign against West Bromwich Albion Sunday at Emirates Stadium.
comfortable but not totally secure in a third-place league finish,
which would allow the Gunners to avoid a Champions League qualifier in
August. Comfortable thanks to a three-point advantage over Manchester
United; not totally secure because two bizarre results, say a 3-0
Arsenal loss and a 5-0 United win at Hull, would see United pip Arsenal
for third on goal differential.
Then there's the matter of the FA
Cup Final against Aston Villa six days later. Manager Arsène Wenger will
likely decide Sunday's personnel to set the stage for a top performance
from his first-choice team in the cup final. Given that many of those
preferred players have looked less than energetic in Arsenal's last
three matches, Wenger has to weigh giving them a rest against the risks
of upsetting the team's chemistry and perpetuating the team's
indifferent recent form.
After a run of eight consecutive wins
between February and April, the Gunners have won only one of their last
five matches. In the three of those matches, Arsenal failed to score at
home against opposition organized to foil the Arsenal attack.
standard operating procedure for West Brom manager Tony Pulis, who has
saved another team from relegation by instilling discipline in defense.
It will therefore come as no surprise on Sunday when the Baggies allow
the Gunners possession, force them into crowded central areas, hope for a
moment of brilliance from leading man Saido Berahino, or try to catch
the Gunners napping on a set play.
These principles have paid off
in West Brom's recent matches. The Baggies are unbeaten in their last
five, including wins over champions Chelsea on Monday and Manchester
United at Old Trafford.
These results--and the manner West Brom
have achieved them--will give Wenger, his staff, and his players plenty
to contemplate. In particular, West Brom pose a significant aerial
threat: 15 goals from headers is tied with West Ham for most in the
league. Meanwhile, Arsenal have conceded the league's largest proportion
of goals from headers (35 percent).
Given all these dynamics,
Wenger's team selection will be interesting. He only introduced two new
starters against Sunderland on Wednesday--left back Kieran Gibbs for
Nacho Monreal and midfielder Jack Wilshere for Francis Coquelin--but
those changes were not the ones most observers expected. Defender
Laurent Koscielny, midfielder Santi Cazorla, and forwards Alexis Sanchez
and Olivier Giroud all seemed likelier candidates for a game off.
we expect all four to get a break on Sunday? Wenger has suggested not.
"Will I rest one or two players?" he asked in his pre-match press
conference. "Certainly." But he didn't say he'll make wholesale changes
to inject energy.
Now, Wenger probably wouldn't admit plans for
major lineup turnover. The last time he made more than two outfield
changes between league matches was between the early February loss at
Tottenham and the home victory over Leicester three days later.
selections against Leicester might, in fact, help us anticipate some
changes for Sunday's match. Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky have a solid
chance of repeating their starting appearances. Both came on as
substitutes against Sunderland on Wednesday, when they introduced
quickness and drive to the Arsenal attack. Expect them to do something
similar from the outset against West Brom.
We might also see
Gabriel replace one of the two center halves. The Brazilian's
aggressiveness in the air and alertness to counterattacks would help
offset West Brom's two major threats. The aerial threat might also
encourage Wenger to prefer the more imposing Calum Chambers to Hector
Bellerin at right back.
Also of interest is the choice in goal. In last season's final match
against Norwich City, Lukasz Fabianski got the nod in preparation for
his start in the FA Cup Final. Will similar thinking give Wojciech
Szczesny the start on Sunday?
Whatever the selection, energy and tempo
should be the priorities. Arsenal have the talent to end the campaign
successfully; the questions are about imagination, vigor, and will. West
Brom will present a test of all three.