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Up for the Cup

Charlie George scores one of a brace against Citeh in the 1970/71 FA Cup 5th Round 2-1 “massacre” at Maine Road, Manchester. From www.citytilidie.com

And so to an FA Cup fourth-round tie at the Oillands, where the colour of money is sky blue.

There is a story that Manchester City plays in sky blue and white because when its predecessor club, Ardwick AFC, was in financial straits, Freemasons bailed it out. As a condition or a thank you for the money, the team ditched their red and black shirts for the then colours of Freemasonry. Only circumstantial evidence supports this story. Yet if it is true, the apple has never fallen far from that tree.

Our FA Cup record against City is excellent: played five; won four. The lone loss was in the first tie at the Manor Ground in 1904 when we were still Woolwich Arsenal. City went on to win the Cup for the first time that season, beating fellow Lancastrians Bolton Wanderers 1-0.

The next encounter was a semi-final at Villa Park in 1932. We won 1-0, Cliff ‘Boy’ Bastin scoring against a City side containing Matt Busby, later to have a storied managerial career on the red side of Manchester. However, at Wembley, we lost the notorious’ Over The Line’ final 2-1 to Newcastle United.

The three remaining games will be within the living memory of the more senior members of this fine establishment, at least those not having senior moments. 

A Charlie George brace got us through a fifth-round tie at Maine Road on our way to the double in 1971. That was our fourth FA Cup success. The next time we played City in the Cup would be in 2017, on our way to winning the Cup for a record-breaking 13th time and a 20th appearance in an FA Cup Final, also a record. 

That was the first season in his managerial career that Pep Guardiola did not win a trophy. We had dispatched his team in the semi-final, 2-1, after extra time.

The fifth meeting was also a semi-final, played behind closed doors in July 2020 during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored goals in those days, and a brace saw off City again. Another brace brought our 14th FA Cup at the expense of the mob from the Bus Stop.

So history suggests good things happen after beating City in the Cup. Now, correlation is not causality, and the sample size is small. Most of all, the condition is testing, beating City. Outside the FA Cup, you have to go back 16 games, to December 2015, since we have done that in any other competition, a 2-1 league win at the Emirates in which Theo Walcott scored his 100th goal for the club.

The opposition

Emirati petrodollars have assembled the most expensive squad in the Premier League, valued at shy of £1 billion. However, money buys quality throughout a squad unless you are congenitally bad at spending it (Exhibits A and B: the Mancs and the Chavs). City is not. It is hard to think of many significant missteps they have made in the transfer market. Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko were all sold as they entered the prime of their careers without the City squad being left noticeably weaker by their departures (whereas ours has benefitted hugely from the arrival of the latter two. Let us hope that City bitterly regrets those sales come May).

In Pep Guardiola, they have the most innovative manager in the world, or at least until Super Mik dethrones him — and Arteta has a ways to go to catch up with his friend’s 30-some major trophies.

City will likely line up in a nominal 4-3-3, although Pep has been more varied in his formations this season, even using a back three on occasion. But that means little. He uses the same possession plus positional play blueprint that Arteta has adopted and developed. However they line up, City will morph into 3-2-5 with the ball and 4-5-1 without it, not that Pep tolerates City being out of possession for long. 

Cup keeper Stefan Ortega and Erling Haarland up front will be the only fixed points. Between them will be some combination of Kevin de Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden (if fit), Jack Grealish, Ilkay Gundogan and Rhodri in front of a defence of Kyle Walker (with the impressive young Rico Lewis being rested), Manuel Akanji, John Stones and Nathan Ake. That would still leave a bench of Lewis, Julian Alvarez, Cole Palmer, Kelvin Phillips, Sergio Gomez, Joao Cancelo and Aymeric Laporte to call on. Serious depth.

Any one or more of them could start if the master micro tactician sees a scintilla of an advantage to be gained by negating an Arsenal strength. Given that the two teams will be playing to the same blueprint, the game could turn on which one is better at closing down or exploiting the pockets of space between the other side’s defence and midfield to nullify the overloads. We shall need Partey at his most imperious, Ødegaard at his most creative and Xhaka at his most Xhaka (and Gabriel to keep Haaland in his pocket). This will be a game of two teams trying to out-possess, out-pass and out-overload the other. Intensity will be all.

The Arsenal

This game rounds out a demanding January that we have so far navigated more satisfactorily than many may have secretly expected.

I feel that Arteta will go with a close approximation of his strongest team available to keep the momentum from last Sunday going and because Pep will probably do the same.

Cup keeper Turner will likely replace Ramsdale. Trossard for Martinelli is a possible rotation, but I’ll punt that Arteta will stick not twist. White or Tomiyasu at right-back will be a question. If Mahrez played on the left, I would say Tomi to start, but Benny Blanco might be the better man to blank de Breuyne and Grealish, although second-guessing Pep’s team selection is a fool’s errand. The human chess match will come as the two managers make substitutions and tweak their in-game tactics.

Thus, to start:

Turner

White, Saliba, Gabriel, Zinchenko

Partey, Ødegaard, Xhaka

Saka, Nketiah, Martinelli

More rides on the outcome of this game than which club progress to the Fifth Round. Both managers publicly disassociated the Cup tie from the league games, but both know that the winner on Friday lays down a marker for the subsequent two matches that may decide whether the title ends up north or south of Watford.

The ‘holic pound

The gentlemen of the turf have City as odds-on favourite, so any away win offers decent odds. A scintillating 2-1 victory to the men in red and white looks appealing at 15s. 

There will be 7,802 travelling faithful, loud and proud, packed into the top two tiers of the South Stand. At the end of the game, may they be looking down on the City fans below in every way.

Enjoy the game ‘holics, near and far.

Red, Red Wine

The Team turned up and you could tell they meant business. Sure, there were some guys who would be missed. In a season as long and demanding as this, that will always be the case. The commitment to do it for them was physically observed. But there were shades of the old days. Some truly Storey-like, calm-but-deadly serious commitment; some Bergkampesque fluidity and speed of movement in the warm-up. Some of the practice routines were well worn and commonly understood. Move into position; Grab the target; Pour. You could see that many there knew when to hold and when to pass. Kick off. The red stuff flowed.

But enough of the third pre-match GFH get together of the season, held in the now traditional favourite restaurant of our very own Bathgooner. There was a game to be played and this was why we were here.

Arriving at the ground, the pre-match crowd was equally clearly up for it. The mob at the bar of Block 10 of the North Bank were in great voice. 

The game kicked off and it was a pretty even affair. Early on United fashioned a break with the man with the most punchable face in football, Bruno Fernandes, in a one-on-one with Ramsdale. The keeper clearly got to the ball first. Of course that wasn’t to stop the man with the worst case of labyrinthitis outside of N17 hitting the ground as though Lee Harvey Oswald was shooting at him from the Blackstock Road Book Repository. The referee manged to recover his composure, stop laughing and wave play on.

To their credit, United had come to play and, despite not getting too close to us never gave up on their press. They soon earned their reward when Partey was pressed and lost the ball to Rashford who moved forward like silk and applied the steel with an unstoppable shot down to the right-hand side of Ramsdale. An excellent goal. Frankly, he should play for Arsenal.

United fans were ecstatic. It took a few seconds, but the home crowd really lifted it. I remember George Graham describing what the crowds were like when you went “up north” – never giving in, always behind the team.   Ødegaard and Zinchenko visibly appealed to the crowd. The request was heard. The link between manager, team and fans was evident. The crowd roared their support.

Saka was running at Shaw and United weren’t giving him the kind of support that, for example, Newcastle did. Perhaps because United are a club which has a proud history of playing on the front foot which, were they to change their approach it would actually be called out by the media.

It didn’t take long for the team to repay the faith shown by the crowd. After 23 minutes, following a super period of play, Zinchenko, in an advanced inside left position, pushed the ball forward cleverly to Ødegaard who in turn pushed it wide for Xhaka to put in a teasing cross from the left. On its flighted path to the far post Eddie ghosted in front of his nominal marker, Wan Bissaka, and headed home. Well-worked and well-deserved. It is almost like Ian Wright has been mentoring him….

The next flash point was when Saka was fouled for the umpteenth time by his supposed marker, Shaw. Arteta dared to question the omnipotent intellectual midget with the whistle and received a yellow card. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as Ollie might say.

Half time came. It had been breathless. Suitable refreshment was needed which was, fortunately, supplied to your reporter by a Canadian Gooner who managed to sneak it into the stands in a way that would have made James Bond proud. You know who you are and it was both welcome and needed. White, who had been booked, presumably for actually turning up and playing in red, was replaced by Tomi. We started at a fearsome pace and after 53 minutes, Saka scored what will be one of the goals of the season. The ball came out to the right of the United penalty area, and Saka came inside Eriksen and hammered a low, unsaveable shot into the right-hand inside netting of the goal. It was a thing of beauty. Saka is becoming increasingly unplayable.

After 58 minutes United won a corner and there followed a calamitous mix up between Ramsdale and the defence. The ball dropped to Martinez who, to his credit, propelled himself towards the ball like a missile and forced it home.

Again, the crowd immediately rose to the occasion and roared their support. There followed a sustained period of Arsenal pressure, resulting in Saka nearly scoring an identikit goal to his first, in the 70th minute. After 82′ Martinelli, who had toiled to no little end against a resurgent Wan Bissaka was replaced by the new boy from Brighton, Trossard; shortly thereafter the Pillsbury Dough Boy tribute act that is Shaw was finally booked by the referee, who had by this time miraculously regained either his sight or his access to his whistle. From the resulting free kick Eddie had a reaction shot which de Gea saved with equally smart reflex save.

The game crept towards the end and Arsenal were pushing for the win. In the 89th minute some patient build up play resulted in the ball coming to Trossard who turned and played it to Zinchenko on the left wing. He crossed and the ball cannoned off the hapless Fred, towards Eddie who performed something of a pirouette in order to direct the ball into the net. Cue chaos in the ground. We had done it. Justice had been served.

Credit where it’s due. United came to play, unlike Stokecastle United. They gave it a go and weren’t good enough. We played with a power and passion which described an underlying belief in the mission and the club’s ability to bring it to fruition.

Red, Red wine, goes to my head…..

Sunday afternoon, in the last game of the season’s opening half, Arsenal will get the chance to avenge  their one and only defeat to date when they host the Red Devils of Manchester.  In early September Sunday’s guests beat the Gunners 3-1 in the reverse fixture thanks to two second half counterattacking goals scored by Marcus Rashford after Bukayo Saka had scored an equalizer.  Thomas Partey was unavailable that day due to injury, and our weakened midfield looked uncertain at times.  The game turned after Martinelli’s opening goal was ruled out for a dubious foul in the build-up after a pack of angry Mancs surrounded the referee demanding a VAR check.  Needless to say, the authorities never sanctioned United, but I digress.  Arsenal need to maintain their focus, prove their maturity once again, and prevent United from catching them out at the back as they did last time.

During the World Cup break, Arsenal’s critics were predicting that Arsenal would fall away after the season resumed.  So how have the Gunners fared so far?  I’d say that three wins and a draw in four matches doesn’t sound so bad, and certainly not when Arsenal have maintained their five point lead over second placed Manchester City while having played one match fewer.  The critics will be saying that Arsenal’s fixture list wasn’t difficult but those three wins were over 5th placed Spurs and 7th placed Brighton as well as relegation-threatened West Ham, and the draw was with 3rd placed Newcastle, so it’s actually been a quite rigorous test for Arsenal so far this month.

On January 14th press reports suggested that Arsenal were confident of completing the Mykhailo Mudryk signing in time for the Ukraine winger to make his debut in this game but the very next day Chelsea signed the player in question.  A few days later, transfer window frustration had receded and Arsenal announced the signing of left winger Leandro Trossard who is in the prime of his career, has 25 Premier League goals to his name, and promises to provide needed depth in Arsenal’s attacking positions.  Here’s hoping we get a glimpse of him on Sunday.

The Opposition 

The third-placed Red Mancs are on an excellent run of form having defeated Burnley and Charlton to get into the League Cup semifinals after dispatching Everton in the FA Cup.  In the Premier League they are undefeated since the World Cup break, pulling 3-0 home clean sheets on Forest and Bournemouth, a 0-1 away clean sheet on Wolves, a 2-1 derby win against Citeh on January 14th, and Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace.  Prior to the Palace game United had won nine games in a row in all competitions equalling their longest run since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.  Despite failing to score at Palace, Rashford had scored eight goals in his previous seven games.  

Coach Erik ten Hag deserves a lot of credit for turning United in a positive direction in a short time, notably by forcing out the negative influence of Cristiano Ronaldo just before the World Cup, but also by easing out the previously untouchable Maguire from United’s starting back line.  The signing of Casemiro boosted the effectiveness of United’s midfield, but his suspension means we may see Fred or McTominay instead.  Keeper David de Gea commented: “It’s a big blow to lose Casemiro for Sunday.  Now we are missing one of our best players for a big game and it is a big loss for us.”  How very sad for them.

In the United defence, young left back Tyrell Malacia has shared that position with Luke Shaw.  Martinez and Varane were first-choice centre-backs until the World Cup, but ten Hag played Shaw there until the Argentine came back from his national side celebrations for the Palace game, and Shaw returned to left back.  Diogo Dalot had taken over on the right side for most of the season but Aaron Wan-Bissaka has returned with Dalot missing the last few games due to injury.  Early this week the Mancs signed giant Dutch loanee Wout Weghorst, the Burnley forward who began the season at Beşiktaş.  He started against Palace on Wednesday but his partnership with Rashford didn’t seem to produce ten Hag’s desired result against a packed defence.  I expect another of United’s pacy mobile forwards like Garnacho or Elanga will replace Weghorst to increase their counterattacking threat with Arsenal on the ball.

Arsenal XI

The signing of Trossard gives the Arsenal squad additional attacking depth, and alleviates concerns about the length of time they will be missing Gabriel Jesús as well as the possibility of any new injuries along the front line.  It remains to be seen if Arsenal’s transfer window will bring cover for Thomas and Xhaka in midfield.  With a FA Cup match against Manchester City looming on Friday, and the resumption of Europa League play a little over a month away, it is good to have capable players like Tierney, Tomiyasu and Trossard available but Arsenal should line up against United with this settled side: 

Ramsdale

White  Saliba  Gabriel  Zinchenko

Thomas  

Ødegaard  Xhaka

Saka  Nketiah  Martinelli

The ‘holic pound

Between the Gunners’ September loss at Old Trafford and last April’s win at the Grove, the last two league encounters between these clubs resulted in 3-1 wins to the home side, making another such result either more or less likely in a statistical sense.  I’m tempted to predict another 3-1 home win but my gut tells me this one is going to end up 1-0 to the Arsenal with William Saliba powering home the winning header in the second half, and the Arsenal fans to erupt in Saliba song.

To those who are attending, please be sure to cheer Arsenal on to victory but don’t neglect to let us know how the singing went, and may the revenge be filled with merriment.

Enjoy the game, ‘holics. 

A magnificent first-half performance from The Arsenal, followed by a more pragmatic second half, was enough to see us do the double over the old enemy for the first time since 2014.

There was just so much to like about today that I hardly know where to start.

Did I mention that we’ve beaten the shower from the wrong end of Seven Sisters Road for the second time in the league this season?

Oh, I did?

Well, fair warning, I’m probably gonna do it again…

The match started at a traditionally fast pace for us but the Tiny Totts also resisted the temptation to start as they usually do – as though they have spent the last 30 minutes listening to Richarlison provide them with a step-by-step guide to his special method for waxing his nether regions and are suffering from all the trauma one might expect such an abomination to provide. The horror, the horror.

Instead, they showed that they were well up for the challenge of playing against the league leaders, at least initially. And make no mistake, playing against this team is one hell of a challenge. It soon took its toll.

After a feisty opening few minutes the Arsenal press forced an error, and a clever flick from Gabi provided Eddie with his first chance of the match. The young man’s left-footed shot was thwarted by a good save from Lloris, and it set the pattern for his failing to make the most of his chances today. What is fantastic to see is that even without a goal our junior striker is putting in far more complete performances than many of us thought possible and proving such a handful for quality defences (and this one today, starring Eric Dier).

Despite this initial save, Lloris had not set a pattern of excellence. On fifteen minutes, Partey played a ball over the top, Saka cut in from the channel and his deflected cross bobbled nicely for the ex-France captain to smother it into his own net. Lovely stuff.

Halfway through a half that we dominated with an absolutely sublime team performance was a moment of sheer class from TP5 that was a couple of inches away from being one of the all-time great derby goals. Chippy would have loved it! Unfortunately, his volley from outside the box crashed into the post. Watch the spin on the ball as it arrowed to the goal. The technique was outstanding and even at this level there are few players capable of hitting a ball like that. It was one moment picked from a fantastic performance from a player who has become perhaps the most irreplaceable cog in Arteta’s machine.

We pressed forward, and Romero finally got a yellow card for about his fourth nasty foul. His deal with the devil has been good for him though, as he managed to shit-kick his way through the rest of the match without receiving his marching orders.

He did however showcase the other side to his game a few minutes later. As well as kicking lumps out of better players, he is also able to turn his back as one of the best players in the league smashes a ball past him and into the corner from 25 yards. Ødegaard wheeled away having done the damage. What a player – he was simply magnificent today. He was a joy to watch, playing the game in a beautiful spirit inversely proportional to the snide, shameful way Romero played.

The Norwegian is growing as a captain, becoming more vocal, and his calm, respectful manner, coupled with a steely determination that should not be underestimated, is an example that his teammates are latching onto. He is playing so, so well. And his class on the pitch is matched off it. What a guy.

The away fans managed a round of “Tottnum Hotspur – You’ll always be shit” that was clearly audible on the telly. Excellent work everyone.

We did give Kane a chance with a header just before half-time, but Ramsdale was having none of it all day, even though Kane is an unfortunately excellent player and had a decent game.

There was a strange kerfuffle when it looked as though Craig Pawson had awarded an undeserved yet crucial penalty against us as the half ended. Strangely, he decided not to do so. I hope the poor chap is okay and recovers swiftly from whatever malady has thrown him so far off his game.

Harry Kane was very confused that he hadn’t been given a chance to score from the spot. Then again, Harry Kane gets very confused by childproof paracetamol bottles. How are you supposed to open them, witchcraft?

The second half was tougher. Saka was quieter. Having run them ragged in the opening 45 (when he wasn’t having the shit kicked out of him, obviously) he joined most of our players in having a less effective second half.

The exception was Rambo, who made a string of saves. If we are going to win the league, we will need days when our keeper steps up and wins us points. He has had a good season but today he stood out and I hope he builds on this performance as he is a player who has a much higher ceiling than we are currently seeing. He won a deserved MOTM today, the LWCs actually managing a decent collection of chances, even if their overall play was not great.

Richarlison came on and reached his usual level of integrity and sporting fair play. After twenty minutes of this, as the match ended, he unnecessarily engaged Ramsdale as he went to get his gloves, and sparked some reaction from the Spurs fans, one of whom stood on an advertising board and kicked out at our keeper. To be fair, this one idiot is not representative of most Spurs fans and I don’t think any of us need to be clutching our pearls. The guy is a moron who should be banned and all proper football fans will agree on that regardless of their allegiance – ’nuff said from me.

We didn’t let it mar a great performance and result. The players went and celebrated a fantastic three points with the faithful.

Apparently, that was the second time we’d beaten them in the league this year. I’m sure I saw that mentioned somewhere.

It also puts us 8 points clear at the top of the Premier League.

I’m looking forward to hearing from all the usual suspects in the Drinks, and I extend a special invitation to any lurkers or first-timers to come and have your say on a great day for the club.

St. Totteringham will be here before we know it!

Mikel’s Boléro

Given the somewhat manic urge of our age to reduce expressions and experiences to purely mechanistic modalities of biological explanations, lately there have been attempts at “explaining away” the throbbing vitality of Boléro’s incessant rhythmic pattern and melodic motif to be the outcome of the neurological disorder of progressive aphasia which had marked the beginning of Ravel’s rapidly progressing dementia, likely to have expedited by a severe automobile accident when he was in his fifties. Much to Ravel’s surprise, Boléro became his most famous composition in his lifetime, and after his untimely death had gained significant popularity, and remained his most recognized work. A lifelong Ravel fan, I listen to his peerless piano pieces like Miroirs or Gaspard de la nuit more frequently, but the power and magic of Boléro remains undeniable.

Boléro is no longer, or rarely so, performed outside its purely orchestral interpretation, though it was first publicly performed as a ballet, choreographed by the great Polish dancer Bronisława NiżyńskaIts essential rhythmic and melodic predictability is complemented by a gracefulness of movement that is mesmeric because of its inevitability.

In footballing terms, I suspect something like that is what Arteta and his coaching team are aiming for: an essential consistency and predictability of structure and shape on which graceful movements are built like layers of melodic motifs, driving towards the inevitable crescendos of attacking brilliance. If Arsène’s best teams were sometime compared with the improvisational philosophy of jazz – where great players in a group align on some fundamental rhythmic, harmonic and melodic ideas to then express their originalities in manner that is singularly individualistic but never at the expense of the collective – I find Mikel’s meticulous attention to every detail and the exquisite structural control more akin to classical compositions. It is worth noting though that these two different approaches are not always mutually incompatible: Ravel was a lifelong fan of jazz music, the love for which he openly admitted, in his solitary trip to US – recalled in a poetically imagined novel by Jean Echenoz that I highly recommend to anyone remotely interested in the enigma of Ravel’s life and music. He spent significant amount of time with Gershwin listening to jazz in Harlem, and jazz greats over the years have professed their undying love of Ravel.

And I don’t know about other Arsenal fans outside this wise, understanding and friendly universe of Goonerholics, but I personally have fallen in love with this Arsenal team almost as much I was in love with the great Wenger teams, in days of jubilations and heartaches alike. I now look forward to the next match with an eager anticipation, I enjoy the sublime moments to my heart’s content, and when things don’t really work out as planned, I still feel proud of how the team (and Mikel on the sidelines) behaves collectively in a manner that shows a great combination of humility and determination. I don’t really know why the various people on the anti-Arsenal media and establishment are all about, but I find the behavior of the youngest team in the league coached by the youngest manager as passionate but impeccable. 

And to be honest, that consistency of football quality, that unique combination of confidence and humility, that passion and togetherness, those magical moments of exquisite movements on and off the ball, those innovative interpretations of traditional positions, the technical composure on the ball, the repetitive but unstoppable ways of reimagining the space on the football field…those are enough for me as a football fan and as an Arsenal fan.  Watching Arsenal gives me genuine pleasure once again and sitting on my living room on the other side of the ocean, it also brings me great joy to see how this Arsenal team is making Faustus Junior feel so proud, and how he senses the connection between the fans on the ground and the player growing. 

I don’t know who we will or will not sign in this window, and I don’t know whether we will or will not win the league. But whatever happens, I am looking forward to how this composition evolves in time over the years, as much as I look forward to how it unfolds in the confined space of the football field every few days.

Our away form has been very good this season in the league, though not as record-breakingly impressive as the home form. We have won all but two of our away matches, a rather unfortunate loss away at United and a draw away at Southampton who have over the years gave us, and many other top teams, enough trouble in their home ground. But probably no away match in the league calendar carries as much of an emotional association as the one that we are going to play on Sunday. It has been quite a while we have won there. The 2013/14 league season was the last time, when Tomáš Rosický’s stinging outside-of-the-right-foot (trademarked Rosický?) volley from the right side of the penalty box – following a sharp exchange with Oxlade-Chamberlain – gave us a 1-0 lead in the second minute that we protected with a strong defensive display led by captain Per Mertesacker (ably assisted by two other leaders in Arsenal defense, Sagna and Koscielny), excellent keeping by Szczesny, and a disciplined midfield organized by one Mikel Arteta.

Our last year’s away loss there was dispiriting not only because it ended our Champions League qualification chances but also the manner of loss itself: a combination of naivety and tiredness from our part and some inexplicable, but sadly not entirely unexpected, refereeing decisions. Whereas we don’t have any control over the latter, and officiating in the English game has now entered a surreally nightmarish state of affairs, we don’t have any reasons to be tired yet and have had ample opportunity to learn from last year’s mistakes.

This is exactly the kind of match where we will miss Gabriel Jesus, not only his technical abilities and big match nous, but also his street-wise professionalism, and his relentless menace and whirlwind energy. Another chance for Eddie Nketiah to show us all again how much he has come along, and I think he will cherish playing against them the way Saka or ESR do.

The rest of the team more or less pick themselves. In the Tierney or Zinchenko debate by stance is unequivocal: both. :–) I think they do not quite replace each other but offer somewhat complementary qualities. If both are fit, I suspect Zinchenko will start ahead of Kieran as the Ukrainian’s interpretation of the left back role allows us better control over the midfield, allows Xhaka to operate better as an attacking force, and thereby unleashing more of Martinelli’s abilities on and off the ball. It does make us a little bit more vulnerable against speedy wingers and fullbacks down our left side, so Gabriel needs to be at his best, and so does Saliba who typically ends up covering a wide area on both sides of Ramsdale’s goal.    

Ramsdale

White – Saliba – Gabriel – Zinchenko

Partey

Ødegaard – Xhaka

Saka – Nketiah – Martinelli

Captain Ødegaard – November-December PL player of the month – had a relatively subdued game against Newcastle at home the weekend before last, and this is a perfect match for him to forget that blip, especially given the fortnight of match rest he has had.

It was wonderful to see Emile Smith-Rowe back on the pitch on Monday’s FA cup away tie against Oxford. He is too rusty to start in this match but let us hope if he were to be introduced later in the game it is only to give him more match practice, after we have already secured a strong lead.

A win in this match would not only strengthen our position on the top of the league but would also give us an extra boost of confidence before a run of games against strong opposition. The North London Derby is known for its often-chaotic nature where form may matter for little if you don’t keep your composure. I believe (hope) that Arteta and his coaching team will prepare the squad mentally to see through the difficult patches of the game and make our undeniably greater quality count at the end. A 3-1 away victory at this ground hasn’t happened in a long time, but tomorrow can bring in a new era of such results.

Enjoy the match everyone. Come on Arsenal!

P.S. Given that I started this preview with a musical reference, and especially to Boléro, let me also take this opportunity to sympathize with other Jeff Beck fans in our readership. He was a guitarist’s guitarist, and for us complete novices and amateurs, the skill, versatility and expressiveness of his playing were a source of wonder and inspiration. Like all true genius, he always sounds ‘…at a slight angle to the rest of the musical universe’ (to paraphrase E.M.Forster’s remarks on C.P. Cavafy).

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