I was intrigued by Arsenal’s starting XI at West Brom. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was afforded a rest, so Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez both started on either side of Olivier Giroud. It was a proper front three, with the two wider forwards frequently rotating and drifting in to the centre to join the Frenchman.
Welbeck performed extremely well in what’s a familiar role to him. He created the most goalscoring opportunities of any Arsenal player, completed the most sprints, and racked up the third-highest passing accuracy in the opposition half. More importantly, he got the winning goal with an excellent header to end his brief barren run.
However, his long-term place in the team is far from guaranteed. Debate has recently focused on the duel between Welbeck and Giroud. Watching him at West Brom, I wondered if his real competition might yet come from Theo Walcott.
The fluid front three system Wenger trialled at the Hawthorns seems ideally suited to Walcott’s attributes. He could switch wings with Alexis Sanchez, roving infield to play off Giroud when appropriate. He doesn’t offer as much defensive cover as Welbeck, but is historically more productive in the penalty area. Welbeck will have to improve his goalscoring ratio if he is to see off Walcott on his return to fitness. My hunch is that, as last season, Wenger sees Giroud as a crucial cog in his first-choice XI.
Having Giroud and Laurent Koscielny available certainly makes the squad feel a lot stronger at both ends of the pitch. It might be a strange time to say it after Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal both picked up knocks at the Hawthorns, but I’m almost wondering if strengthening the midfield might become a bigger priority than adding to the defence come January.
With Debuchy getting closer to a comeback, we do at least have Chambers and Monreal who can offer a measure of cover at centre-half. At present, Mathieu Flamini is the only fit holding midfielder. Impressive though he was at West Brom, his erratic form this season suggests he’s not the reliable alternative to Mikel Arteta we require.
Our next opponents are a lesson in the importance of that ‘DM’ role. With Morgan Schneiderlin anchoring their midfield, they’ve had the best defensive record in the Premier League this season. It was telling that all three goals Manchester City scored against them this weekend came after his withdrawal with injury. Let’s hope it keeps him out for Wednesday too.