Newcastle Preview, Theo Thoughts & SKREAMER competition

Arsenal host Newcastle United today in our final match of 2012.  It’s been an up-and-down year – more on that next week – but victory today would enable us to end it with four consecutive Premier League wins.

The team news is worryingly good.  Worrying in that anything unfamiliar is unsettling, but also because a clean bill of health might encourage Arsene to keep his cheque-book closed in January.  The return from illness of Olivier Giroud gives Arsene his major selection headache: whether or not to reintroduce the Frenchman or persist with Theo Walcott in the central striking berth.

Much of Arsene’s press conference focused on Walcott’s hypothesised evolution in to a centre-forward:

“I like the signs that I have seen.  If you look at my statements, I always said that one day he would play through the middle and it grew in his brain.

He is now 23. I decided to play Thierry Henry at 23 through the middle because you have to learn a lot before. The fact that you play in other positions as well helps your technique.  On the wing you need a shorter technique against the line. Once you [then] play in the middle you can go on both sides.

From [the ages of] 19 to 23, Theo has learnt a lot. Now we will sometimes play him on the flanks and sometimes through the middle. I like what I have seen through the middle.”

I have to say I’m not convinced by this switch.  It seems odd that having resisted playing Walcott through the middle for so long, Arsene has suddenly introduced such a radical shift halfway through the season.  It looks, to me at least, like something of a desperate move, with as many as four possible motivating factors.  The first is his lack of options: Arsenal are patently lacking in quality strikers.  The second is a desire to convince Theo to sign a new deal and remain at Arsenal.  The third is to save a bit of money in January by turning Walcott in to a striker instead of bringing one in.  And the last, and arguably most worrying, is that Arsene might have been influenced by the huge consensus among the media that Walcott deserves a chance through the middle.

I don’t foresee it being a long-term solution.  Firstly, because I’m not certain that Walcott is more suited to the central role than one on the wing, but also because I don’t think Theo will be here come next season.  Arsenal still need a forward, and while Arsene insists he is preparing to be ‘busy’ in January, I am concerned he is mainly going to be busy making excuses about ‘super super quality’ and lack of value.

Today, Walcott is guaranteed to start, and my hunch is that despite all the noise from Arsene it’ll be on the wing.  Rotation is important at this time of year, and Giroud should be fairly well rested and raring to go.  Other than that, the team will surely be as we expect, with Podolski on the left flank, Cazorla joining Wilshere and Arteta in midfield, and Vermaelen and Mertesacker flanked by Gibbs and Sagna.  It’s possible that one of the centre-backs will be rested in the next couple of games, but I don’t think Arsene will take that chance today against the dangerous duo of Ba and Cisse – the former of which he has denied an interest in.  Again, a little worrying.

The fact that Arsenal had a rest of Boxing Day while Newcastle suffered a morale and energy-sapping last-minute 4-3 defeat at Old Trafford means we really have no excuses today: we ought to win.If you fancy a flutter on today’s match, then you can check out my predicted team and betting tips over at Unibet.

In other news today, I’ve got a bit of a competition for you lot.  The guys at Warrior Football have given me a pair of their new SKREAMER football boots to give away.

They’re a really lovely bit of kit.  I wore a pair myself in my final Sunday League game of 2012, and whilst the bright colours probably attracted an extra few kicks on the ankle, they feel great on the pitch.  They’re apparently packed full of scientific advances, much like the Predator was all those years ago, so fair play to Warrior for attempting to do something genuinely innovative.  You can read more about them here.

And if you fancy, you can nab yourselves a pair.  I’ll be running a competition – entry is via Twitter only, I’m afraid, so make sure you’re following me @Gunnerblog.  As we all know, a ‘Skreamer’ in football terminology is a rocket shot – a goal from distance that flies past a helpless goalkeeper.  My question is simple:

Which Arsenal player scored the most goals from outside the box last season?

Tweet me and tag your answer with #SKREAMER to go in to the hat.   You’ve got until Monday to enter.

Good luck to you, and good luck to Arsenal today.  Three points required to end 2012 on a relative high.  And three cheers for Pat Rice, who has been awarded a richly-deserved MBE.  Congratulations to him.

Gunnerblog is the brainchild of childbrained football writer James McNicholas. Aside from Gunnerblog, James currently contributes to Bleacher Report, The Mirror and ESPN.