Arsene Wenger will welcome back three heavy hitters for Saturday’s clash with Birmingham at St. Andrew’s. Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie are all set to be included in the squad after being rested, or in Fabregas’ case suspended, for the two-all draw at Wigan during midweek.
Mistakes by centre-backs Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny on Wednesday proved, yet again, to be the downfall of the current Arsenal side. Wenger will be hoping that his central defensive pairing can sort out their obvious communication issues for tomorrow’s match. The manager stated after the two dropped points that: “we have to take more initiative on the communication side.”
Similar problems have been the thorn of the Arsenal team in recent years, even when the likes of Kolo Toure and William Gallas were first-choice defenders.
Some fans will be calling for Johan Djourou’s inclusion for the Birmingham game, after his composed, strong and telling performance against Chelsea and Didier Drogba on Monday night. It was perhaps a surprise that Squillaci was chosen ahead of the Swiss international for the Wigan match, a decision by Wenger which ultimately lost two points for the team.
Squillaci cannot be blamed alone however. Koscielny and Emmanuel Eboue on the left hand side looked shaky throughout, and were given a troublesome time by Charles N’Zogbia, until the rush of blood which earned him a red card and relief for the back-line.
The defence chosen by Wenger for tomorrow may well be based on his counterpart’s choices up front. Johan Djourou could be the perfect foil for Cameron Jerome’s pace or Nikola Zigic’s heading ability, whilst the constant threat of Kevin Phillips’ knack of scoring out of nothing, as he did late on in last year’s reverse fixture, should be taken into account.
Gael Clichy is likely to return ahead of Eboue at left-back. Eboue may, however, battle with Bacary Sagna for the right-hand side slot, although the latter appears to have rediscovered his form, showing his defensive experience on many occasions on Wednesday.
It will be as much a mental test as a physical one for the back-line on Saturday. Birmingham are notoriously hard to beat at home; 14 of their 19 points this season have come at their own ground, with only one loss there so far. Furthermore, City seem to have an ability to ‘up their game’ when hosting the top sides; not one of the ‘top six’ has beaten them at St. Andrew’s for 18 months, a record Arsenal will need to break if they do not want to receive similar criticism as before the Chelsea game.
Alex Song’s inclusion should add much-needed strength and defensive nouse, which was missing from Wednesday night’s line-up. Also, his improved goal tally, with 4 goals in the League already this season, increases the probability of Arsenal’s many attacking moves being finished off.
Both Arsenal goals in midweek came almost immediately after Jack Wilshere’s inclusion from the bench, and fans will be hopeful of another start for the ever-improving English young gun. The injury to a seemingly sluggish Abou Diaby during the first-half to allow for Wilshere’s participation suggests the Frenchman’s return came too early. The calf strain he picked up will see him out for around a further three weeks. Arsenal will need to rely on the technical abilities of both Wilshere and Fabregas in midfield tomorrow. Denilson is also available and may be chosen ahead of either of the two, his short passing controlling the flow of the midfield.
However, against a hugely organised Birmingham defence, the Gunners may need invention from the midfielders to break the team down, suggesting only a place on the bench for the Brazilian.
Samir Nasri is almost certain to start, the only question being whether his role will be as part of the front three, or a deeper-lying position
With the return of Robin van Persie, the spark into life from Andrey Arshavin for the two goals on Wednesday night, and Theo Walcott’s clinical involvement against Chelsea before that, Wenger will have a headache in deciding his attacking five.
Marouane Chamakh and Nicklas Bendtner both have a claim for the central role, and it would seem height is a necessity against the centre-back pairing of Scott Dann and Roger Johnson on Saturday.
Tomorrow is all about a return to form for Arsenal, and more assurance from the back-line. If the team can lay successful defensive foundations, the vast array of attacking talent on offer should be able to get past Birmingham by one or two goals.
The Gunners will need to be wary of the threat of Birmingham’s all-round abilities up front, as well as Lee Bowyer’s late arrivals in the penalty area, and will need to remain composed throughout. If they can do that, any combination of players in the forward positions should earn Arsenal a much-needed away win.