For Arsenal, this season was all about getting off to a good start. In 2014/15, they began poorly, winning just two of their first eight league games. That handed Chelsea a lead that ultimately proved insurmountable. Although Arsenal’s form recovered significantly in the second half of the season, Jose Mourinho is not a man inclined to let a lead slip. Arsenal’s false start cost them dearly.
Given that, it’s a serious concern that they’ve won just one of their opening three league games of 2015/16. Arsene Wenger would have looked at the fixture list and hoped to take at least seven points rather than the meagre four he has at present. Dropping five points might not seem too grave at this stage, but those kinds of margins can prove decisive in the final standings. The Gunners are just a few fixtures away from a match at Stamford Bridge which could set the tone for the remainder of their season.
Arsenal must therefore secure a positive result against Newcastle. Steve McClaren’s outfit have enjoyed a decent start to the season, securing draws against strong opposition in Southampton and Manchester United as well as demolishing Northampton in the Capital One Cup. New signings Florian Thauvin and Georginio Wijnaldum have started brightly and there is hope that a new era may be underway at St. James’ Park.
Wenger cannot afford to allow the Tyneside masses to entertain that dream for too much longer. Arsenal must go to the north-east and play with a conviction we have barely witnessed from them this season. The Gunners need to show the kind of superlative form that made them the best team in England for much of the spring.
With the continued absence of Laurent Koscielny, that task will be made more difficult. The Frenchman’s partnership with Per Mertesacker is absolutely integral to Arsenal’s defensive stability. When that pair were missing against Liverpool, chaos enveloped the Gunners’ back four. Wenger must hope the return of Mertesacker will bring some composure back to the defence.
In midfield, Wenger is likely to continue with Santi Cazorla as a deep-lying playmaker alongside Francis Coquelin. That means Aaron Ramsey will be squeezed out to the right-hand side, where he will look to offer cover for Hector Bellerin, as well as providing a goal threat with darting diagonal runs. Mesut Ozil will be the man principally charged with supplying the ammunition for the rambunctious Ramsey.
Wenger’s biggest decision will be at centre-forward. Olivier Giroud did not impress against Liverpool, so he may be tempted to install Theo Walcott as a pacey alternative, ensuring Arsenal pose Newcastle a perennial menace on the counter-attack.
However, there is another option for Wenger. He could choose to use Alexis Sanchez as his central striker, bringing him infield from the flank and thus creating room in the starting XI for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The man known as ‘The Ox’ made a significant impact as a substitute against Liverpool, bringing pace and penetration to the wings. After an excellent pre-season, Wenger might be keen to find a way to involve him regularly in the team — redeploying Alexis seems the obvious way to do that.
Whatever line-up Wenger picks, he simply must come away with three points. Arsenal have already stuttered in 2015/16. Now, they urgently need to click into gear. If they don’t find their form soon, they will be facing another uphill struggle between now and May.
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