Arsenal vs. Sunderland: How the Gunners Should Line Up for Victory
That was one of the duller Arsenal matches in recent memory, the first of two 0-0 draws to begin the season. The Gunners only came close to scoring a couple times and hardly ever looked like conceding.
Much has changed since that day in late August, however.
Carl Jenkinson will not start at right back, in all likelihood, having ceded that role to Bacary Sagna when the Frenchman returned from injury months ago.
On the other side of defense, Kieran Gibbs is injured and will be for the next month or so. Thus, new signing Nacho Monreal will cover for him at left back, and if his inaugural performance against Stoke last weekend was a portent of anything, Monreal will easily adapt to life at Arsenal.
But the most glaring difference between the 18-man squad that Arsene Wenger named at the start of the season and the one he is likely to bring on Saturday is the present fitness of Jack Wilshere.
Since returning from an injury layoff that lasted well over a year, Wilshere has proven his worth to this Arsenal team and then some. His mazy, light-footed, pinball runs through midfield and into the opposition's defense are unique and extremely difficult to defend.
At the age of 21, Wilshere is already becoming a leader for the Gunners by standing up to feisty opponents and sometimes carrying the team with dogged, tireless displays of pure determination. See Arsenal's FA Cup third-round replay win over Swansea as Exhibit A.
Even before his man-of-the-match performance for England against Brazil, praise for the versatile young midfielder had been flowing from his high-profile admirers.
Though Steven Gerrard does not "want to put any pressure on him," he called Wilshere a "one-off," who has "the potential to become one of the best in the world." (ITV)
Arsenal legend Liam Brady even grouped him with Glenn Hoddle, Paul Gascoigne and Wayne Rooney.
So it's fair to say that, despite his midweek exertion, Wilshere will have a place in Arsene Wenger's starting XI.
Speaking of which, the manager faces several difficult decisions about how to best utilize his assets for a game that Arsenal need to win. As with every other fixture in the schedule, they cannot afford to drop points once again, as Wenger has acknowledged.
The annoyance of the recently played round of international friendlies could throw a wrench or two into his plans, as every player must come back healthy and without significant fatigue to be cleared to play.
Not all of Arsenal's players jetted off to play for their countries, however.
Mikel Arteta stayed home once again, as one begins to wonder if Vicente del Bosque has stared at the sun too long and therefore cannot see the brilliance of the Basque maestro in front of his eyes. Better for Arsenal, though.
Thomas Vermaelen was an unused substitute in Belgium's match against Slovakia, indicating that he has recovered from a recent injury and is match fit. As captain, he is much more likely to be recalled to the side.
Abou Diaby, meanwhile, was left alone by Laurent Blanc, who recognized that risking a player more fragile than expensive China in a pointless exhibition match is not a particularly intelligent thing to do.
Taking these international absences into account, here is what is probably Arsenal's most likely starting lineup.
One can argue about which center-back pairing is best, but this looks to be just about the Gunners' strongest squad. With almost all of the of the defense fit and Monreal keeping Andre Santos safely on the bench, Wenger has a solid, quality unit that can keep clean sheets if it cuts out silly mistakes.
Diaby might get the nod in midfield, but it seems unlikely. He looked off the pace against Stoke, which is forgivable of a man who has been out of the game for so long and was facing one of the sternest physical tests in the world.
With Arteta rested, the Spaniard should be even healthier than he was last weekend, as he jumped right into the starting lineup after missing six games. Occupying the pivote role, he will allow the midfield to tick nicely.
Jack Wilshere will do his usual magic tricks in the center of the park, allowing Santi Cazorla to return to the fold at the tip of the midfield trio.
Cazorla only played a fraction of the Stoke game and 45 minutes of Spain's midweek win, so he should be rested enough to make a big impact again for Arsenal.
Wenger has even easier choices to make up front, with a first-choice lineup clearly established at this point.
Theo Walcott has proven very effective and threatening on the right wing since signing his new deal, humiliating left backs with his pace and newfound drive, despite his hankering for Olivier Giroud's striker position.
When Arsenal played Sunderland on the first day of the season, Giroud made his first appearance for the club off the bench, missing a golden chance to win it late on.
Now, he's a totally different player. Prior to last weekend, the Frenchman had scored five goals in three games during a breathtaking one-week period. His combination of technical ability and power in the air adds a truly dynamic dimension to Arsenal that the Gunners cannot get from anywhere else.
And despite sitting out for most of the Stoke fixture, last week's match-winner Lukas Podolski should return to the starting lineup after his energetic and threatening displays in recent matches.
International duty should not be a problem for Poldi, as he did not put in a full 90 minutes for Germany against France.
There are no guarantees with Arsenal these days. The team has oodles of quality on paper, and we can see it plainly when everyone decides to show up and play their best game.
But too often, the wheels come off against inferior opposition in games that the Gunners absolutely need to take points from. Whether due to inexplicably inept finishing or, more commonly, comical errors at the back, they have lost or drawn several matches in this fashion.
Sunderland will provide a good litmus test for the side. Against a decent mid-table, though slightly below average team, Arsenal are capable of taking three points if they play with abandon up front and care at the back. And the math of the table dictates that they must do so.
A professional performance from a superior group of players should get the job done.
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