Arsene Wenger has made a habit of picking the right team for the right opponent this season, and all eyes will be on the Emirates Stadium this weekend wondering who Arsenal will send out to battle against Fulham.
The Gunners came through a fierce Aston Villa fight-back last time out with great thanks to superb performances from Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and Jack Wilshere. On Matchday 22, Arsenal faces a Fulham side who will be buoyed by their 3-0 FA Cup win over Norwich City midweek, but who have only beaten Arsenal eight times from 54 matches over the last 100 years.
According to PhysioRoom.com, Arsenal have nine players out injured at this very moment in time, the most in the Premier League. Wenger's team has consistently led this table since the start of the season and there will come a time when his training methods will be questioned.
With the Gunners leading the table, however, that time is not now. Raymond Verheijen is one of the world's most foremost football coaches and fitness experts. In 2010 he criticized Arsenal's training methods to Goal.com and in 2011 he repeated his mantra to the Daily Mirror.
This season, Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool and David Moyes at Manchester United have come in for some heavy criticism on his Twitter account. Arsenal have been relatively untouched this term, but only because he feels he has said everything about them already. He did, however, predict their future success to MSN Sport in 2011.
This Saturday, Wenger must get his team to focus on Fulham and nothing else.
On Matchday 21, the Gunners were the last team to play in the Premier League. There was huge pressure on them to perform with six of the top seven having won. They edged past Villa 2-1 after a brilliant defensive second-half performance which was in stark contrast to their free-flowing and domineering first.
The team was more than aware of the fact that they were expected to stumble against Villa. Mertesacker spoke to the club's official website of the galvanizing effect this had on the team and how it will spur the team as the season progresses.
Nobody dropped any points so there was a bit of pressure. The team could feel that, but we responded. I think everyone was expecting that we would drop points, but we kept going.
It was very important to respond and for the other teams to see that Arsenal is alive and that we can respond to anything. We just look at ourselves and think we are good enough to respond to any challenge they give us.
This matchday, they will kick off before Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, who face each other on Sunday afternoon. The shoe will be very much on the other foot in terms of pressure.
Wenger was more than happy with his team's defensive performance against Villa. Both he and Mertesacker feel it could provide a valuable foundation to build upon as far as the Premier League title is concerned.
Le Prof spoke to Arsenal.com:
I would say our center-backs, our defense, kept us through that difficult period and they did extremely well. I am very pleased with that, when we are under pressure we can respond.
We had two halves, I think. One about playing and the second half was about fighting, we were maybe too cautious in the second half, they didn't want the ball enough and wanted just to keep the score.
Then we allowed [Villa] back in the game, they changed their way as well.
They made it a very direct game, a very English game in the second half and the second half was more about fighting, solidarity and we had that in our team. That's why we got three big points.
Heading into the visit of the Cottagers, Wenger will not want to break the momentum and solidarity that has grown in his team over recent weeks.
For that reason, there will not be many changes to the starting team.
Wojciech Szczesny spoke to the Independent prior to their win over Aston Villa and gave away the secret of Arsenal's success this season: There has been very few changes to the back-four at one time.
The Gunners' back-five is settled and when one player is injured, the replacement is more than capable of filling the gap on a temporary basis. With that in mind, Kieran Gibbs, who returned from injury as a substitute against Villa, should return to the left-back slot in place of Nacho Monreal.
None from Bacary Sagna, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny or Szczesny will be dropped.
Olivier Giroud will take up the centre-forward position without question.
That leaves midfield as the only contentious area for Wenger.
Mathieu Flamini is guaranteed to start in the absence of Mikel Arteta. Mesut Ozil will continue in the No. 10 position and Serge Gnabry will continue to deputize for Theo Walcott, out injured for the rest of the season, on the right side of the attacking midfield.
That leaves the left-sided attacking midfield berth and central midfield open. Santi Cazorla had a bit of a stinker against Villa. He had a rare off-day, giving the ball away constantly and losing his marker throughout. That kind of performance does not happen regularly from the Spaniard. Wenger is renowned for putting his faith in players and it would be against his type if he were to punish Cazorla for one bad day at the office. Santi to start.
The only remaining question is who to partner Flamini.
The Daily Mail is reporting that Aaron Ramsey is in contention for a spot having missed the last four games through injury. This is not the game to plunge the Welshman back in for 90 minutes, even if Fulham have been more miss than hit this season.
This is the week for long-term thinking, not short-term gain.
Wenger should leave Ramsey on the bench and continue with Wilshere, especially after he impressed so much at Villa Park.
Team to start vs. Fulham at the Emirates Stadium:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Wilshere, Flamini; Gnabry, Ozil, Cazorla; Giroud
Statistics from Soccerbase, Squawka and the Premier League
You can find me on Twitter @WillieGannon.
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