Arsenal welcome Crystal Palace to the Emirates on Sunday as the Eagles look to adapt to life under new manager, Sam Allardyce.
Often, teams enjoy a small bounce in form in the initial period after a new manager arrives, with the theory being that players set out to impress their new manager and add that few extra per cent to their games.
Certainly, Allardyce’s side started competently enough, taking a point from a trip to fellow strugglers Watford on Boxing Day. In that respect, they are not a side that can be taken lightly.
I expect Allardyce will attempt to do much as Tony Pulis did at the Emirates, in that he will set up in a way that makes his team extremely difficult to beat. That’s not to be disdainful, it’s just the reality of the Premier League in 2016.
I am expecting, therefore, for it to be a tough game for the hosts but it is certainly not a game in which we can afford to drop points. There is no question that Arsenal are the better side and a win has to be the target in the match likes this.
Be that as it may, it is unlikely Arsenal will be able to cut through the Eagles with the ease with which they dispatched Stoke City or West Ham – one suspects Allardyce is too canny an operator for that.
I have a feeling we will need plenty more of the sort of football we served up in the second half against West Brom, and with largely the same team, too. Although Allardyce’s strength lies in set pieces, his team’s certainly does not, and Olivier Giroud should be well placed to exploit that.
Palace conceded four set-piece goals in a 5-4 defeat against Swansea earlier this month and the playing personnel available to Allardyce remain the same as those fielded by Alan Pardew.
The key for the Gunners will be getting the right sort of service into the Frenchman. That’s not to say we should bombard Palace for 90 minutes, but we do have some excellent options on both wings and more should be made of their ability to get to the byline.
Where are the dangers?
Christian Benteke and Wilfred Zaha are the principle threats – the former because of his power, pace, and ability in the air, and the latter because of his excellent form from wide positions this season.
Arsenal’s full-backs have struggled against pacey wingers this year – I think of Swansea’s visit to the Emirates and the trip to Paris to take on PSG most prominently – and Zaha provides exactly that sort of threat.
Whoever starts ahead of Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin will need to be as switched on as they can be to the threat from wide.
Beneteke is also a mercurial talent – as likely to go missing as he is to score a hat-trick – so we can ill-afford to allow him the space and time to make an impact, particularly if Palace are going to focus on set pieces.
If Arsene and Steve Bould are sweating over anything tonight, it may be the potential headaches these two could provide.
In his pre-match press conference Arsene Wenger said that Shkodran Mustafi had returned to the first team squad, which is a huge boost to a defence that has suffered a little in recent weeks.
Whether the German slots straight back into the starting XI is another matter, particularly after a muscular injury, and the manager may well opt to play Gabriel alongside Laurent Koscielny, simply to give Mustafi a few more days.
Whoever he selects, I hope there has been extensive set-piece drilling on the training ground this week.
The only other change I see the boss making may be Alex Iwobi. Up against a team like Palace, who will almost certainly try to compress the play through the middle, the talents of the Nigerian are a little nullified.
It may be better, therefore, to slot Aaron Ramsey into the midfield to bring a bit more energy or, if fit again, either Theo Walcott or Alex Oxlade Chamberlain would enjoy using their pace against Palace’s shaky defence.