Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere give Arsenal late selection headache

Theo Walcott, Arsenal

Theo Walcott, Arsenal

With the top four already sewn up, the final game of the season against West Brom offered Arsene Wenger a chance to experiment with his starting lineup ahead of the FA Cup final. Out came Olivier Giroud, who had not scored in seven games, to be replaced by Theo Walcott up front. Fellow Englishmen Jack Wilshere and Kieron Gibbs also started, in place of Aaron Ramsey and Nacho Monreal respectively.

Jack Wilshere Arsenal

Jack Wilshere, Arsenal

With West Brom already ‘on the beach’, Walcott excelled and took full advantage of his starting birth by scoring a 33-minute hat-trick. The first goal in particular – an emphatic top corner finish – was a reminder of what he is capable of. It’s often overlooked that Walcott has 75 career goals for Arsenal, many of them coming the wing rather than his preferred position as striker. Giroud’s role as more of a traditional target man has made him a focal point for the team’s style but Walcott did not look out of place on Sunday and laid down the best case possible for a start in the Final, with his rampant first half performance.

 

Yet herein lies the conundrum with Walcott; it is really only against mediocrity that he is unplayable. More than most, he is guilty of going missing in the big games but he can turn it on when playing the lesser sides. One game springs to mind, a 7-3 thrashing of Newcastle in December 2012. Amid contract speculation, Walcott ran riot, scoring a hat-trick and providing two assists. That evening was the perfect opportunity for him to record an individual display that would see him “sign da ting” the following month. Even with Giroud’s recent goal drought, he remains the safer option for the big occasion having scored against both Manchester clubs and Liverpool this season.

Jack Wilshere also enjoyed an impressive performance against West Brom, scoring a spectacular half-volley that became a late winner of Match of the Day’s “Goal of the Season” with a little help from the Arsenal Twitterati. Like Walcott though, Wilshere has returned from injury at a difficult time when the Arsenal line-up is fairly entrenched following their ten game unbeaten run in the League, since losing to Tottenham in February.

Wilshere is unlikely to usurp Francis Coquelin or Santi Cazorla in the deeper midfield positions, or the fluid attacking trio Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey. Although he started the season well, looking particularly effective alongside Ramsey in September’s 2-2 draw against Man City. Wilshere was also one of England’s stand-out players in their run of games last year, playing at the base of Roy Hodgson’s diamond and drew praise from his former critic Paul Scholes.

However, as so often has been the case so far in Wilshere’s career, a promising period in the team was cut short by injury. Since returning to fitness, his best games have come from the bench and played in the right of midfield. Here, Wilshere has shown the verve and creativity fans have come to expect from him but it is not the central position he prefers to operate in.

Arsenal made a big PR stunt of their ‘British core’ in 2012, as Wilshere, Ramsey, Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all signed new contracts together. However, two and a half years on, the picture looks rather different. While Ramsey is one name who continues to be a pivotal figure for the club, the others have struggled with injuries and with consistency and it seems he may be the only Brit in Arsenal’s starting line-up on Saturday, despite the promising returns of Walcott and Wilshere.

 

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Hugo avatarHUGO GREENHALGH is co-founder and editor of The False Nine and a contributor to Eurosport and When Saturday Comes. He can be found following his favourite clubs: Arsenal and Dulwich Hamlet. Follow Hugo on Twitter.

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Arsenal’s England stars can overcome Manchester United

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will look to add to his goal for England in midweek

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will look to add to his goal for England in midweek

There was a time when an Arsenal-Manchester United game would provide a strong indication as to which of these two teams would go on to win the title. But those days are long gone; Arsenal’s decline from the very elite of English football has been slow and painful while United’s has been far more pronounced, swift and, dare I say, far more entertaining (from the outside looking in, at least). This lowering of the stakes in recent times has contributed to the feeling that the fixture isn’t what it once was.

However, one gets the impression that more has changed than just the league positions of the sides. Arsenal and United used to provide fiery contests; there existed a real rivalry and a deep-seated hatred between the two. Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira would engage in ninety minute-long sledging matches, both managers would constantly seek to get the upper hand over the other and even a young Cesc Fàbregas once threw a slice of pizza across the tunnel! It was the Premier League at its most intense and, arguably, its most fun and we’ve certainly lost something as, one by one, the protagonists of those fantastic games have departed.

 

Arsenal v Manchester United Betting Odds:

Arsenal win 23/20

Manchester United win 11/5

Draw 23/10

(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

While far from the big ticket it once was, the fixture remains among the most eagerly-anticipated of the season. And while these two massive clubs are no longer fighting one another for the title, the games are perhaps more intriguing than ever, with this Saturday’s match at the Emirates a case in point. The visitors Manchester United go into the game just a point behind Arsenal in seventh and only two adrift of a Champions League berth. It seems perverse to think that, after such a turbulent start to the season, United should be so close. Manchester City appear the only side capable of mounting a credible title challenge to José Mourinho’s rampant Chelsea so a top-four finish and a return to Europe’s top table for Louis van Gaal’s men this season would surely constitute a success.

The hosts, though, head into the game at something of a crossroads. They have made a disappointing, although not completely disastrous, start to the season and while yet another top-four finish is well within their grasp it looks like any league-winning aspirations they harboured have all but disappeared by mid-November. A red-hot run of form will be required to turn the Gunners into even an outside bet for the title and it’s hard to see where they can acquire that sort of consistency.

 

Still, there would be nothing like a win over United to finally kickstart their season and beside long-term absentees Laurent Koscielny, Mathieu Debuchy, Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck is the only fresh injury doubt for Arsène Wenger to contend with after the international break while Theo Walcott could make his long-awaited return to the starting line-up. What’s more, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will play off the back of excellent performances for England at Celtic Park on Tuesday and Alexis Sánchez will seek to continue his breathtaking form. He has been without doubt the brightest light for Arsenal this season and if Wenger can get Welsh lynchpin Aaron Ramsey back to anywhere near his best by Saturday teatime, their fans will be confident of getting a result. The team certainly owes them a performance after the catastrophic collapse at Swansea a fortnight ago.

They are likely to face a significantly weakened Manchester United side too. The Red Devils will definitely be without Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard while van Gaal will have to check on the fitness of no fewer than eight of his players. Luke Shaw, Michael Carrick, David de Gea and Ángel dí Maria all picked up problems whilst on international duty and face a race against time while Phil Jones, Rafael, Radamel Falcao and Jonny Evans are all returning from longer-term injuries and will have to be assessed closer to the game. At least Chris Smalling is back from suspension though, eh?

 

As for the outcome of the game itself, it is of course extremely difficult to call as with any contest of this magnitude. United have the offensive players to outscore any opposition when they’re in the mood, it’s just hard to gauge when they are going to click. Juan Mata will hope to start in light of United’s injury problems and will have a point to prove having only played a peripheral role so far this term. But it is impossible to ignore the aforementioned injuries; United’s defence in particular has been decimated and it is hard to see how a potential back-five of Lindegaard, Valencia, Smalling, McNair and Blackett would be able to cope with a strong Arsenal side.

There is no doubt that on their day Arsenal possess one of the division’s most potent attacks and this, coupled with United’s crippling injury list, surely makes them favourites. But write United off at your peril; if history has taught us anything it is that games between these two sides can often decided by the tightest of margins.

Don’t expect the most blood-and-thunder of clashes on Saturday. The mood on the pitch at the Emirates is likely to be more cordial than in recent years and we are certainly more likely to see a heartfelt Robin van Persie-focussed reunion in the tunnel before the game than any Keown-esque taunts during it. But we can expect a fantastic match and one which could provide the victor with valuable momentum as we approach a hectic winter schedule.

 

Betting Instinct tip – The last three league meetings between the sides have produced a combined three goals. Back fewer than 2.5 goals at 21/20 with AllYouBet.ag

 

Jack C avatarJACK CHATTERTON is a student and long-suffering Spurs fan, who has written for In Bed With Maradona and  Sabotage Times, among others. You can read his miscellaneous and quite modest blog, or follow him on Twitter