Mohamed Elneny and Rob Holding? Starting a Premier League match? In 2020?!?!?
After last season’s FA Cup triumph and with the transfer window that followed, few expected (or wanted) either of those two to be starting the opening match of the new Premier League season.
This is not because either player is particularly bad, just that there were supposed to be brand new shiny central defenders and midfielders joining the club, either shuffling the aforementioned duo further down the pecking order or seeing them moved on entirely.
Two new signings made their debuts at Craven Cottage, with both Willian and Gabriel Magalhaes arguably the Gunners’ two best performers on the day. The former Blue weighed in with two assists, while the central defender got himself off the mark with a towering header (erm, shoulder).
A 3-0 win was fairly routine stuff, but nevertheless a good starting point for the rest of the campaign. Can you read too much into a casual win over a side who, already at this stage, looked locked in a relegation battle? You can, but only in a negative way.
We’ll do neither, and instead work on that classic notion of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
Clean sheet, three goals and three points on from their travels in west London, Arsenal host West Ham in the northern quarter in a game many fancy them to claim the spoils from. David Moyes’ side fell (crashed) to a 2-0 home defeat to a side featuring Andy Carroll, with fan revolt and clueless ownership working hand in hand to create a spectacularly sour outlook at the club.
Securing the double over the Hammers last season shouldn’t be overly heralded, as the Gunners were fortunate on both occasions to secure victories. Yet with confidence at an all-time high since Mikel Arteta took charge, there is no need to chop and change, even if the fns may crave their club record signing and academy stars to get the nod.
Back three should remain as is – not that there’s much choice, since everyone else is crocked – with Kieran Tierney keeping his place on the left side of the back three and Gabriel making his home debut. William Saliba is clearly not at the level required just yet to be starting Premier League fixtures, given that he was let out entirely of the squad to face Fulham. His time will come.
In midfield is the interesting conundrum. Elneny, who is probably still up for sale if his price is met, has performed admirably in the last two fixtures, offering actual progression in his play. In all of his prior matches, it’s hard to pick out one instance where he contributed at either end of the pitch. In his last 180 minutes of football, he’s been seen as the deepest player when the goalkeeper has possession, as well as the furthest forward midfielder in the final third.
Is he Arsenal/top four material? He isn’t, no. It’s more a case of an average footballer having a few good games due to superior coaching. Elneny is obviously not a long-term solution. He is, however, playing well, and in a formula that appears to be working. Why not start him against West Ham and leave Dani Ceballos for matches in which a touch of added guile may be needed to play Arsenal out of trouble? Liverpool on matchday three, for example?
Up front the evergreen Willian is a shoo-in to start after his man-of-the-match debut. Nicolas Pepe finally started looking like he was coming good for Arsenal at the end of last season, his FA Cup final display perhaps being his finest to date.
Now though, he’s at risk of being left behind should Willian continue on his current vein of form – well, it’s one game, but y’know – as the 32-year-old offers far greater diversity in attacking phases than the Ivorian does, whether that is patrolling across the back four or hugging the touchline to allow for the wing-backs to occupy the channels.
In attack, Eddie Nketiah has shown great promise, but with Alexandre Lacazette getting on the scoresheet at Craven Cottage, his spot in the team must be kept. Rarely do we see strikers rely so heavily on confidence. When he’s got self-belief, there is an added bite to his style, yet when he’s down in the dumps, he couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo.
All of that neatly summarises where Arteta is with his team. Sitting atop the Premier League table, the onus will be on the side to maintain that position for as long as possible, before the big guns eventually steamroll their way past.
Harder opposition than the Hammers come next after Saturday, so for the time being, keep the unbroken team as it is can keep the momentum up. Simple, right?
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