After finishing outside the top four in the Premier League for the first time since 1996, Arsenal face one last battle this weekend, one that could provide a happy-ish ending to their turbulent campaign.
They face Chelsea in the FA Cup final at Wembley on Saturday, and taking on the champions and the best and most organised team in the country will be no easy feat. In addition, Arsène Wenger’s pre-match press conference on Wednesday wouldn’t have filled the Gunners fans with much pre-match hope.
There was some good news surrounding the fitness of Alexis Sánchez, with the Chilean recovering from the hamstring strain he suffered against Everton.
Alexis Sanchez set to start FA Cup final against Chelsea as Arsene Wenger reveals extent of Arsenal's defensive… https://t.co/DZbO4eoEfe
— Premier League News (@UnofficialPL) May 24, 2017
“He needs to go through some tests at the moment. We’ll see how well he comes out of that,” revealed the French coach.
“Knowing the player, knowing his commitment to the club, he’ll do everything to be fit for Saturday.”
You must believe that even if he was on crutches, the striker would take his place for the final, in what could be his last game for Arsenal.
In all competitions, the former Barcelona forward has scored 29 goals in 50 games. Without him, the chances of the Gunners lifting the trophy disappear with him. However, he will not be the biggest injury concern going into Saturday’s game.
Laurent Koscielny was sent off against the Toffees and has been handed a three-game suspension, ruling him out of the final. Then, on Wednesday, Wenger revealed that Brazilian defender Gabriel will miss the next two months, possibly the start of the new campaign.
“Gabriel is out for six-to-eight weeks,” he said via Sky Sports News. “We had a scare about his cruciate, but it is only medial knee ligaments so positive is that he avoids surgery. But of course, he is out now until the beginning of August.”
The bad news doesn’t stop there, with German defender Shkodran Mustafi also a doubt.
“Mustafi, we have some worries because he is still sick at the moment. He has not trained yet.”
“This just shows you how unpredictable football can be. We played at home where your mind is on attacking, and it is a day when we lost two centre-backs.”
If the 25-year-old is ruled out of the game, it leaves the Gunners with just one natural central defender that has played more than five league games this season.
Rob Holding is 21 years old, and with 810 minutes of Premier League action under his belt, he could be the leader of the Arsenal defence against the league champions.
What options do Arsenal have in defence?
One plus point against Everton was the return of Per Mertesacker from injury. It was the German that replaced Gabriel and with just 37 minutes this term, he could be thrust into the starting line-up.
Due to his lack of football this season, the change to 3-4-3 from Wenger could be the ideal way to deal with his lack of match sharpness. Putting the 32-year-old in the centre and have Rob Holding on his right and Nacho Monreal playing the left centre-back role.
Hazard vs. Mertesacker next weekend pic.twitter.com/49naN0bi79
— #ChampionsDaily ? (@CarefreeDaily) May 21, 2017
That would give the veteran more mobile cover on either side, leaving the former Werder Bremen defender to battle through the middle with Diego Costa.
Although a year older and recovering from injury, it’s worth remembering what the German brings to the Gunners back-line.
He made the fewest tackles per 90 minutes last season out of all the centre-backs. Which is what you want from that position. Having to make tackles through the middle suggests you are out of position. That also corresponds with his lack of fouls per 90.
Gabriel and Koscielny make more interceptions and clearances, but what is interesting is the deterrent he is in the air.
Due to his towering size, teams are reluctant to play the ball high near him, meaning he has to win fewer battles in the air.
He wins 76.6 per cent of his aerial duels, compared to the French defender at 64.7 per cent.
Whoever plays beside him needs to be competent in the air, because teams will avoid trying to challenge the German.
Would Arsenal be better playing with four?
“It’s unbelievable and unpredictable and we are hit hard in a position where we need to be strong on Saturday,” admitted Wenger. “We have to find solutions and hopefully I can find those solutions.”
“I have to decide on Saturday [whether to change to back four] and we’ll test that in training until then.”
The fitness of Mustafi will likely force the Arsenal boss into a decision. Without the younger German, the move to a back four does make sense. You play Holding beside Mertesacker and provide protection with Monreal at left-back and Héctor Bellerín on the right.
Wenger’s biggest problem is finding a way to stop the defensive issues he had while playing a four, an issue that forced the coach to change tactics.
Going three against three with Chelsea as the opponents could be a huge mistake. Especially as Arsenal don’t have an N’Golo Kante ahead of them providing support.
Francis Coquelin is not at the same level as his countryman, Granit Xhaka has his issues and there is no one in the Gunners central midfield role who would challenge for a game at Stamford Bridge.
Bellerín has struggled as a right-back, looking re-born as a wing-back, with his positioning sense often found wanting when there is a lack of protection behind him.
It’s a huge decision for the manager, perhaps one of the last he will ever make in charge of the North London club.
Arsenal’s Alternative Option
Safety might come in numbers, but as fragile they might be in a 4-3-3, matching Chelsea’s 3-4-3 could be a mistake. Maybe, the solution comes with a new look and going 3-5-2.
It would give Chelsea something to think about if Wenger could pair Sánchez with Olivier Giroud. Back threes don’t like taking on two forwards with wingers advancing too. It would utilise Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as an attacking wing-back, let Kieran Gibbs push on, but try and outnumber the Blues in midfield by going three against two.
That would allow Wenger to keep the three-man defence that has worked so well, battle in the midfield and challenge Antonio Conte’s defence.
There are still a few days to go before the French boss must decide, it may look bleak, but strength in numbers could be the best way forward this weekend.