As the cliche goes, if there is has been constant among Arsene Wenger's lineups this season, it is inconsistency.
Predicting who will start up front for Arsenal in any given match this season has been an act of folly. At striker alone, Lukas Podolski, Gervinho and Olivier Giroud have all been trotted out in the starting XI.
Due mostly to injuries, we have had the opportunity to see many of the club's key players' versatility. This, of course, shows the depth that will need to be used at some point during any season.
Take the recent Chelsea match, for example. When Abou Diaby went down within the first half hour, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on to replace him. But he was not a like-for-like replacement; Aaron Ramsey, starting on the right wing, seamlessly took Diaby's place and left Oxlade-Chamberlain to terrorize Ashley Cole.
The defence has been a bit of a carousel too, but for all the right reasons. While Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson have been ever-presents on either flank, Wenger has been able to rotate Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker.
It really is too bad that Vermaelen has the armband, though. Without that symbolic piece of cloth strapping the Belgian down to the left center-back spot, Wenger would have the freedom to choose his defenders based purely on form.
Nevertheless, it is not a bad problem for the manager to have. Each center-back has his own strengths and weaknesses and Arsenal have not had the luxury of playing to matchups in seasons past.
As always, though, the glamour and intrigue lies further up the pitch.
It will be interesting to see, for example, how Jack Wilshere is integrated into the side as Abou Diaby returns at about the same time. Will Wilshere be mostly a cup player to allow him to get his bearings again, or will first-teamers immediately see their playing time drop?
How does Aaron Ramsey factor into all this? The Welshman has done very well in place of Diaby, so Wenger might opt to very gradually phase in both injured midfielders and rotate them based on form when they are all fit.
Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla, however, are automatic starters when healthy. If either one has an issue, Arsene Wenger's selection headache is relieved a bit, but a worse team is inevitably on the pitch.
Up front, things get even more convoluted. With several combinations of wingers and strikers, Wenger can truly mix and match as he chooses.
Usually, he has gone with a trio of Lukas Podolski, Gervinho and Olivier Giroud, but that is very much subject to change based on who Arsenal are playing.
Personally, I do not believe in playing Gervinho at striker. I realize that Wenger has a proven track record of converting wingers to outstanding center-forwards, but, unlike Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry, the Ivorian does not have the frame to lead the line.
Moreover, his inconsistency and individualistic play hurts the team too much to merit a regular starting place. In a good run of form right now, the right wing is probably going to be Gervinho's home for the foreseeable future.
I see nothing different for Lukas Podolski on the left. Though it was his first Premier League game, he did not look at all comfortable against Sunderland in the season-opener when played at striker, and his excellent work rate has turned the left wing into one of Arsenal's greatest strengths.
Striker is the position that generates the most debate, but it ought not to. To me Olivier Giroud was before the West Ham game and still is by far the best option at Arsene Wenger's disposal.
His combination of size, strength, technical ability and work rate are unequaled in Arsenal's squad and can be touched by only a few in the Premier League. When he plays (especially for the full 90 minutes), he gives the Gunners what nobody else in the team can.
He cannot and should not, of course, play every match—and he doesn't need to. While not the best options, Gervinho and Podolski could certainly deputize competently, as they already have this season.
Theo Walcott, however, cannot. I have gone hundreds of words without mentioning Walcott simply because he has become a virtual squad player this season. His only start in the league came on opening day against Sunderland, and it was a torrid display.
His blazing speed and peculiarly excellent finishing skills on low across-the-body shots are much better used off the bench.
While Walcott is frustratingly ineffective when defenses sit back and neutralize his pace, his fresh legs are almost indefensible when used in the right circumstance late in a stretched game.
Indeed, I expect him to occupy this role for much of the season—or as long as it takes him to sign a new contract. Either way, Gervinho's fine form will keep him out of the starting XI, as will the development of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Certainly, Walcott must not expect to be given the chance at striker that he so desperately craves. Beside the fact that he is simply not well-rounded enough, he would have to play alongside Olivier Giroud to be effective and Arsene Wenger has not routinely used a two-striker formation in years.
Therefore, sticking with the manager's traditional 4-3-3, Arsenal's best formation when key players return in a month or so could read something like:
Wojciech Szczesny; Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Kieran Gibbs; Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby, Santi Cazorla; Lukas Podolski, Gervinho, Olivier Giroud
To preemptively address some vitriol I'm likely to receive in the comments: Thomas Vermaelen is not as good a defender (and that is, first and foremost, his job) as Laurent Koscielny or the in-form Per Mertesacker; Jack Wilshere will not be ready for primetime a month from now after over a year on the sidelines; and Bacary Sagna should be able to win his place back from Carl Jenkinson based on consistency.
Of course, changes can be made before any game to suit any opponent and each lineup is subject to potential injuries that are impossible to predict.
But that really is the beauty of this Arsenal team; even leaving young internationals Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey on the bench, Arsene Wenger is loaded with options to a sterling starting XI.
While some more tinkering will necessarily be done, this is a core that can take Arsenal to the Champions League and beyond.
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