The arrival of experienced coach Paul Clement at Swansea City makes Arsenal’s weekend visit to Wales a little more complicated than it might otherwise have been.
Over the years, Swansea have built a reputation for high-tempo, attacking football that has seen them rise from the depths of League 2 right through to the Premier League, anchoring themselves solidly in mid-table.
This season, however, their performances have been characterised by inconsistency and a tendency to leak goals – making the Welsh side easy prey for their opponents. In fact, they currently find themselves in the midst of a relegation battle and preparing to welcome their third manager of a beleaguered campaign.
The last time Arsenal played Swansea, in October, they had just appointed Bob Bradley but the American – in his first Premier League posting – could do little as the Gunners claimed a 3-2 win at the Emirates. It was hoped that Bradley would add a little defensive solidity to the ailing Swans but it wasn’t so and, despite being given scarcely 10 games in charge, he ultimately paid the price with his job.
Unlike Bradley, however, Clement comes with a noteworthy CV, albeit as an assistant coach rather than the main man. Clement has enjoyed spells at Chelsea, Real Madrid, and at Bayern Munich where he has helped Carlo Ancelotti claim a sackful of silverware.
A blot remains on his record, however, in the shape of an ill-fated spell as manager at Derby County last season, where he was sacked in February after a run of seven games without a win.
Despite that, Ancelotti, a managerial heavyweight, has shown a great deal of faith in Clement and, clearly, the man comes with pedigree. Arsenal must be wary of the boost he will doubtlessly give to his team. The players will be eager to impress and the fans will be desperate to see a performance as the battle to beat the drop begins in earnest.
The Swans boast a team of technically gifted ball players, who have shown themselves capable of scoring goals. Given a little more discipline in defence, they may yet rediscover the form of seasons gone by, where they proved a constant thorn in Arsenal’s side.
They must not be allowed to get back into their stride. The Gunners have made a nasty habit of starting matches in the most lacklustre of fashions in the last month or so and to do so again would hand the initiative to the hosts in a big way.
We cannot keep recovering from seemingly hopeless positions so it will paramount that we make sure we begin on the front foot.
Clement is no fool and will have seen the joy teams have had in recent weeks by closing Arsenal down and pressing hard. I have no doubt that he has been working hard on just such a tactic with his team this week. Unlike at Preston, where we were – by our own admission – ‘surprised’ by the intensity, we have to be ready to fight from the first whistle.
If we go toe-to-toe with Swansea, we have enough quality in the team to brush them aside. New manager or not, the Swans have conceded 45 goals in just 20 league games – the worst record in the league.
While Clement has proven himself a talented assistant, a question mark remains over his ability to be the main in the hot seat and it could be a good opportunity for Arsenal to exploit the pressure he is surely feeling.
Given his current good form, I think it would make sense to continue with Olivier Giroud up front, with Alexis on the left. The Frenchman’s confidence is high and the Swansea defence will have a real handful should he continue in the way he has in the last half-a-dozen games.
If he is fit I would like to see Laurent Koscielny return to the defence alongside Shkodran Mustafi, although Gabriel has continue to improve in the centre back slot after a rocky few games in December and earlier this month.
Whether Hector Bellerin, who was injured in the build-up to the Preston game, is fit again remains to be seen. If not, it will leave a significant hole in our defence.
I thought Ainsley Maitland-Niles looked overawed with his task in the FA Cup match, while Arsene clearly doesn’t trust Carl Jenkinson to do the job in that position. Gabriel returning to the right is a possibility, although it does limit it us as an attacking force when he does so. Mathieu Debuchy anyone?