Arsenal head into their least favourite month of the campaign in recent years with a daunting February schedule ahead of them.
Gunners boss Arsene Wenger has stated his plans to rotate his squad for upcoming fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester United in the Premier League on either side of their clash with Liverpool in the FA Cup.
These are followed up by the first leg of their tie with European champions Bayern Munich in the last sixteen of the Champions League all within the space of 11 days, kicking off at Anfield on Saturday lunchtime.
“Mentally we are prepared and we have shown a great response throughout the season when we had difficulties. Physically we are prepared as well,” insisted the Frenchman.
“It depends how many injuries we have because we need to rotate and it’s important that we have as many players available as we can. Big injuries can of course question the end of the season.”
It is undeniable that the Arsenal manager will have to utilise his squad effectively this month but what will be the key changes he looks to make for the tough month ahead?
Undoubtedly the biggest problem Wenger will have to cope with in the next 11 days is in his central midfield and specifically his holding midfield role anchoring between defence and the attacking lines. Mikel Arteta is fit, according to the boss but the 31-year-old Spaniard has taken a couple of knocks in recent games and cannot be expected to play all 360 minutes against those four teams.
Mathieu Flamini is suspended at a most inconvenient time for the manager and he will miss the next three games in FA competitions and Aaron Ramsey is injured until March at the earliest as well as new loan signing Kim Kallstrom.
I would expect Arteta to start against Liverpool in the Premier League and Manchester United in the Premier League but I would expect him to miss the FA Cup clash with the Reds.
Against Bayern Munich for which Flamini will be eligible to play I would expect both of the midfield anchors to feature during that game as it will be especially important the Gunners concede as few goals at home as possible to give them a chance of taking the tie to the Bundesliga champions in March at the Allianz Arena.
In the games Arteta starts, I would expect him to be withdrawn before 90 minutes to give him something of a rest and perhaps the boss will utilise Jack Wilshere in that position once he is full fit (he could be available this weekend) and perhaps the boss will even turn to Oxlade-Chamberlain to cover Arteta’s role if necessary.
Another possible conundrum for the manager is that he still only has Olivier Giroud as his first-choice up front. Nicklas Bendtner will likely be used as cover if need be as well as possibly being handed a start in the FA Cup clash with Liverpool and, if the Gunners are ahead in the their Premier League clash with Manchester United, I would expect Giroud to be relieved before full time by the Dane.
Wenger also now has the option of Lukas Podolski who tends to be used as a substitute and rarely remains on the pitch for 90 minutes when he starts (that has happened just twice in his Premier League career so far). I would expect Podolski to be used on the left flank as he has been predominantly but he could be moved more centrally if Giroud needs a rest and I would expect Podolski to get a good run out against his old club Bayern Munich.
The Arsenal back four have been superb this term and certainly improved over the last 12 months with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny proving to be a solid and reliable pairing at centre back. Bacary Sagna has suffered some injuries in the last couple of seasons and I would expect Carl Jenkinson to play 90 minutes in the FA Cup and possibly even get a run out against Manchester United at the Emirates.
In the left-back position, Kieran Gibbs has been in fine form this term as has his competitor Nacho Monreal and with both of them experiencing injuries here and there, I would expect them to be used equally as well as in tandem, one behind the other, if Arsenal are looking to protect a lead in the course of the next four games.
Meanwhile, Mertesacker is so important to the back four and the stability he brings as well as leadership capabilities I think the German could start all four games with perhaps the exception of the FA Cup possibly. I think if there is going to be rotation at centre back it will likely be the skipper coming in for Koscielny almost certainly in the FA Cup and perhaps against the Red Devils as well.
Mesut Ozil is going to need a rest of sorts over the next four games and I would expect that will come in the FA Cup rather than against Bayern Munich. I would expect him to play most of the game this weekend as well as much of the game with United at the Emirates with a rest for the FA Cup to keep him sharp for the visit of the Bavarians three days later.
In his absence, I would expect Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky to be used as well as in unison with him but I wouldn’t expect to see all three on the pitch at the same time for the next 360 minutes of football, I think that’s unlikely. Rosicky’s pressing game will be required against Bayern Munich especially so I would expect Cazorla to play against United and feature against Liverpool this weekend and again in the FA Cup with Rosicky coming on for him where necessary. All three of them can and likely will feature wide as well as centrally in attacking areas.
The wide areas are another position where Wenger will have to be strategic given Theo Walcott is out for the season. The strong return to fitness and form of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will be a huge boost and the youngster can also be deployed in central midfield but I would expect him to rotate in and out of the team with Podolski on the left and young Serge Gnabry on the right in place of Walcott.
Jack Wilshere has also been proven dangerous on the flank and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him moved where necessary as Aaron Ramsey has been in recent seasons. I expect Gnabry will play in the FA Cup and possibly against Manchester United as well with Oxlade-Chamberlain playing this weekend after his brace against Crystal Palace and I expect Podolski to play wide left against Bayern Munich. Cazorla can play wide left as well as the Monreal if the Gunners are protecting a lead.
My line-up predictions, (barring injuries/suspensions) for the next four games would be something along these lines:
v Liverpool (PL)
v Manchester United (PL)
v Liverpool (FA Cup)
v Bayern Munich (CL)
image: © wonker