Two weeks on from my last column and two more wins under the Arsenal belt. By the end of this month, having played three tough Premier League fixtures against Liverpool, Stoke and Chelsea, we will be able to seriously contemplate the run-in with some confidence, I hope.
What I find incredibly interesting at present, with injured players beginning to return in the coming weeks, is how Wenger will juggle and rotate his squad. The reason this is so fascinating now is actually exactly why it was equally so last season. A fascination born out of players, not even on most fans’ radars in the summer, stepping up whilst those seen as first choice are absent and grabbing their unexpected opportunity firmly with both hands. Last year it was Bellerin and Coquelin who stepped in at right-back and defensive midfield respectively.
In the summer, I suspect most of us would have had Hector third choice behind Debuchy and Jenkinson after six starts for Watford. With Coquelin, Wenger, despite what he says now, might have had the Frenchman behind Arteta, Flamini and perhaps even Wilshere in the position he made his own from February, before suffering injury before Christmas.
Until this weekend’s FA Cup victory over Sunderland, the only player given similar opportunity in 2015/16 has been Joel Campbell. Again a player most felt would or wanted to leave in the summer. Joel, like Bellerin and Coquelin before him, was third or fourth in line for one of the wide roles. Even with Welbeck’s extended absence through injury, Campbell appeared to be behind Alexis, Ramsey, Chamberlain and even Walcott for a position in the team. One could even argue had Rosicky been fit, the veteran Czech may have even been ahead of Joel in the mind of the manager, and most of the fans.
Personally, as I have mentioned in this column before, I had never doubted his ability but based on earlier outings and Wenger’s earlier mutterings, it was the attitude, work ethic and his physicality that were questioned. Well, if he has had attitude or work ethic problems in the past, I can say with 100% certainty he has not got them now. The way he fights for every ball and challenge and the sheer determination on his face when he chases back or hunts down an opponent do him enormous credit. Add to that his skill, vision and decision-making, which are improving weekly, and his eye for goal, he must be giving the management pause for thought.
There is a reason why I think this is highly topical right now though and that is because Alexis Sanchez is due back. My guess would be in time for Stoke, although he could make the bench even for the Gunners’ trip to Anfield on Wednesday. If fully fit Alexis will play, and no-one would argue on that point, which raises further selection questions, particularly given Wenger’s penchant for box-to-box work from his wide players. When all were fit he opted for Ramsey to be the player that gave his team balance. Yes, he gives a goal threat in attack, but also the engine to support and cover Bellerin and the natural instinct to tuck in and support the central midfielders when required. I was unconvinced of this set up, but it soon won me over and my faith and support for Ox has been seriously tested.
However, all the key players are not returning at once and it is just Alexis imminently, so we are safe to assume for the big games coming up Wenger will want Ramsey alongside one other in the centre. Whether this other is Arteta, Flamini or indeed Elneny remains to be seen, but whichever two the manager selects will need support from the right-sided midfielder. So the question is; who gets the position of the right. Theo Walcott, unless he’s moved up top, Oxlade-Chamberlain or Campbell?
Ox was given a few games over Christmas and New Year, and did well enough but the consistency is just not there in his decision-making and he still has awful lapses in concentration. Walcott has played most of his Arsenal career there, but last season Wenger seriously lost patience with his lack of desire for the physical battle and the defensive aspects. This season when playing wide, Theo has shown an admirable improvement in these aspects whilst still offering much in attack. Alexis certainly raised the bar in what we expected from a wide man, and in his absence our English speedster has risen well to the challenge. Despite that though IF, and it is an IF, Wenger leaves Giroud centrally, I think Campbell, who was my man of the match on Saturday versus the Black Cats, should get the nod over Theo and play on the right. It may be of course that in the away games he selects Walcott to play centrally as he did at the outset this season.
Joel Campbell, just like Bellerin and Coquelin before him, has taken his chance and earned the right to be a first-choice starter.