We’re now into December. We’ve somehow travelled through our traditionally difficult November relatively unscathed and sit 2nd in the league with our results this time around markedly better than last time. Last November we played Bayern, West Brom, Norwich (away) Sp*rs and Zagreb (home) and ended up with a total of 2 points in the league and 3 points in the Champions League. This time we’ve played Ludogorets, Man Utd (away), Sp*rs, PSG and Bournemouth (home) as well as a league cup tie which we lost. We ended up with a total of 5 points in the league and 4 points in the Champions League as well as having advanced a round further into the EFL cup. We’re a lot better off than last season but now go into a run of quite tricky fixtures leading up to Christmas, and this will be a really defining point in our season. We’re coming up to the half way stage of the season and a real place to take stock of what our title challenge might look like…
The next three league games bring us Stoke at home, Everton away just 3 days later followed by Man City away on the weekend. Three massive tests following our Champions League qualification surprise of finishing top of the group. Thank you kindly Ludogorets! How on earth did that happen???? How on earth? Though obviously we’ll take it. I digress…Stoke are now playing some great football (weird I know) and scoring some good goals, however have also retained the darker side of their game through the likes of Charlie Adam and Ryan Shawcross etc etc. Thankfully we’re playing them at home where we traditionally do well against them so a win here is essential if we are to stay in touch at the top come Christmas. This is quickly followed up with what I can only describe as an unpredictable Everton side. They drew against Man Utd albeit a little fortuitously, and hilariously I might add, but they are capable of great football as well as frustration. Lately it’s been more frustration than free flowing football, but Koeman for some reason loves playing Wenger and really loves stopping teams playing football so expect a Gareth Barry led monstrosity on Tuesday evening. Finally we play Man City away who are more than capable of blowing us away with the attacking depth at their disposal. Yes they’ll be missing Aguero and Fernandinho, however they still have the likes of Silva, De Bruyne, Iheanacho, Sterling, Nolito and the newly motivated Yaya Toure available. Plenty to plan for and be worried about.
The fact is, with the games that lie in wait, we really must take a minimum of 5 points to not lose too much ground and 7 points if we are to stay in touch with the leading pack. If we manage to get 4 points it wouldn’t be the end of the world but would leave us needing a really strong Christmas period and even better January – the fixtures ‘look’ kind, however fatigue is something that brings out the worst in our performances so it could get messy very quickly. The key here is managing our squad appropriately. The midfield will be the factor that gets us through this tricky period and I feel like Wenger has now had enough time to know which of the options he can be comfortable with for each scenario. We’ve played a variety of different teams now that play both defensive, counter attack, possession based and park the bus football so he will have seen which combinations work best for which scenarios. A West Brom at home seems like one for a Ramsey & Xhaka partnership as opposed to Bournemouth away where winning the ball back will be vital so Coquelin comes back into the fore. Options. For once it’s a luxury that we can afford.
The final factor in all of this will be our front man/men. I feel as though everywhere else across the pitch we will be able to give minutes to most and keep them content. Perez in his first season has seen minimal game time mostly due to injury and Xhaka is taking his time to bed in so they won’t be too disheartened. The wide men will be in and out of the team simply because a young Iwobi cannot play every week and The Ox and Theo seem to need to continually prove themselves so there will be game time aplenty. It’s how to manage the Alexis vs Giroud situation that will cause Wenger a headache (a nice one to have). Alexis wants to and will play every week, Giroud looks a frustrated figure on the sidelines and keeping him happy will absolutely be required. He will be played from the start in some games, where Alexis will shift to the left side, however it’s not likely that he’ll play in the big games. Yes his future will be something he is thinking about, but that will be in the summer rather than January so its a case of playing him in games tactically. I have a feeling he will play alongside Alexis for the home games vs West Brom and Palace rather than Everton and Man City for example. Wenger is a master of handling his players over the course of the season so he’ll need to pull out all the stops to manage the big man to keep our season on course, Giroud is the final piece of our intricate fixture puzzle.