When Arsene Wenger comes to pick his team for this weekend’s game with Southampton, he’ll face a tricky task. In the final few days of the transfer window, the Gunners completed the necessary work to complete their squad. However, the challenge now is to assemble the pieces correctly. With several first-team players also available for selection once more after fitness problems, Wenger must quickly find a cohesive combination to see off the Saints.
The defence is probably the easiest part of the team to pick. There are several automatic selections: Petr Cech will play in goal, while Spanish full-backs Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal are arguably the most consistent pair in the Premier League. Laurent Koscielny is certain to be at the heart of the back four, but he could have a new partner alongside him in the shape of Shkodran Mustafi.
With Calum Chambers now on loan at Middlesbrough and Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista sidelined, Wenger faces a straight choice between Mustafi and youngster Rob Holding. As good as Holding has been in this early portion of the season, Wenger won’t want to push his luck. Over-exposing the inexperienced Holding could lead to his career stalling like Chambers’ did. Mustafi’s £35 million price-tag suggests he should be able to step straight into the side next to Koscielny.
In Arsenal’s final game prior to the international break against Watford, we saw the beginning of a promising central midfield partnership between Granit Xhaka and Santi Cazorla. Wenger used three different combinations in the first three games, including the likes of Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny, before stumbling on this combination. Using two such expert ball-players allowed the Gunners to control possession against the Hornets.
However, there may be another contender for a spot in the XI. Aaron Ramsey is expected to be available again after getting injured on the opening day of the season. Having spent much of the last two years out wide, this season he has been earmarked for a return to the middle of the park. Although Wenger’s long-term aim may be to combine Ramsey with Xhaka, the Southampton game probably comes too soon. The Welshman is likely to start on the bench as Ramsey’s comeback is carefully managed to avoid a recurrence of his thigh problem.
Mesut Ozil’s position as the team’s No. 10 is guaranteed, especially after his outstanding performance at Vicarage Road. With Ozil in the side, Arsenal suddenly looked like a coherent attacking unit. Alexis Sanchez, who had looked out of sorts as a lone striker in the opening two games, began to show signs of adapting to the new role.
Nevertheless, it may be time to restore the Chilean to the flanks. With Lucas Perez acquired from Deportivo and Olivier Giroud fit again, Wenger has alternatives who are accustomed to playing as a centre-forward. Giroud is the man most likely to be given the nod—he has improved his match fitness with France over the past fortnight, and will be chomping at the bit to make his first start of the season. Wenger may deem it too soon to hand Lucas his full debut—especially if he is going to throw Mustafi into the fray at the other end of the field.
Alexis will then operate on one of the wings, with one of Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alex Iwobi on the opposite side. Oxlade-Chamberlain was particularly disappointing against Watford, so he’s unlikely to be in contention. Wenger is clearly a huge admirer of Iwobi, but the likelihood is that Walcott will get the nod. His early season form has been one of the positive surprises of Arsenal’s campaign to date.
The fact the transfer window remains open for the first month of the season means that teams look somewhat unfinished for their first few games. For Arsenal, that situation has been exacerbated by the absence of several key players due to their participation in the Euros. Finally, their team is beginning to take on the expected shape. A positive result against Southampton would add to the growing sense of momentum behind the Gunners.