Prior to Newcastle United and Arsenal taking each other on this weekend in Hot Premier League Action we sat down with pdb of The Short Fuse, SBN's Arsenal blog, for a Questin and Answer preview. Here are his answers to the questions we posed to him. My answers to TSFs questions can be found right here.
Coming Home Newcastle: You guys came very close to a stunning turnaround against Monaco. How well do you anticipate your squad handling the turnaround after a disappointing exit from the Champions League?
The Short Fuse: First off, thanks for not saying "another" disappointing exit from the Champions League!
Honestly, my main worry is of sheer exhaustion, rather than of a mental "we lost we suck season's done" kind of letdown. Arsenal played most of Tuesday's game at about a million miles an hour, and Alexis Sanchez was already tired from his season's exertions before the game, which helps to explain why he was clownshoes-level awful on Tuesday. So I'm mostly afraid that Arsenal won't have legs and won't be able to take a nap to recharge. Does St. James' have a quiet room where they can get a few minutes' rest at half time?
CHN: On the heels of such a performance against a genuine European caliber team, you all must be extremely confident of getting a result against us, right? Any chance we'll see a bit of "we'll win by showing up" complacency from you guys so that we won't lose too heavily? (Just kidding.) (Kind of.)
TSF: Arsenal have only lost three games since January, so I think right now, Arsenal would be confident of getting a result against anybody. I think the days of "we'll win because we're Arsenal" are past now - that was definitely a thing a few years ago, and it only worked sporadically, and when it didn't it was comically bad. This Arsenal team works its ass off - they got off to a poor start that lasted through about November, but since losing to Southampton on New Year's Day, the team has been rock-solid, so I'm not sure complacency is a thing with this 2015 Arsenal team.
CHN: What is the prevailing attitude of the Arsenal fan base toward Arsene Wenger these days? Frankly, we would kill for the consistent European qualification he has delivered to you. Did last year's FA Cup triumph buy him any leniency?
How much time do you have? How completely can I take over this space? The short answer is: it depends on who you ask. There is a fairly bright line between the "he's a legend, he should never leave except on his own terms" contingent and the "he's gone as far as he can go, he can't win in Europe, the game is starting to pass him by, it's time to shake hands and part ways" contingent. The former group, of which I am a member, tends to highlight what you mention - 17 straight Champions League appearances, consistent top four finishes (Arsenal have never finished lower than fourth in Wenger's tenure at the club), and all this while building a self-funded new stadium in the most expensive city in Europe and while watching some of their best players flee for teams that could back up oil tankers full of money for them.
The fact that he has kept Arsenal relevant in the conversation about the biggest/best teams in England is quite an achievement, and now that the stadium's built and the big sponsor dollars are rolling in (Arsenal took a fraction of what they were worth in sponsorship money in cash up front to help build the stadium, but all those deals are expiring or expired now, so they can get market rates for things like kit sponsors/manufacturers) they are starting to spend more than they have in the last several seasons. They'll never be able to spend at the level of the Manchester City/Barcelona/Real Madrids of the world, but they should be able to make some serious noise in the transfer markets every summer as needed.
The anti-Wenger brigade will, with some validity, point towards Arsenal's habit of falling apart in big games - not just in the Champions League knockouts, although that's the most stark example, but also at games like Chelsea away, Liverpool away, and the like over the last few seasons, when Arsenal would get tonked 4-0 or 5-0 (or, in one memorable game against MUFC in 2011, 8-2) against a top four club. Nobody knows why this has happened - whether it was Wenger's management style, the players just not being "up for it", or whatever, it got old seeing Arsenal lose so badly to teams they should be competitive with. That's been mitigated a bit this year by an utter dismantling of Manchester City at the Etihad and the more recent win over United at Old Trafford in the Cup, but the doubts still linger. Couple that with doubts about Wenger's substitution patterns and acquisitions, and the people that want Wenger gone also have a case, although in my (biased) view not as strong of one.
Overall, the volume of WENGEROUT shouts has gotten less, but it's still there. Winning the FA Cup last year indeed bought him some goodwill, and a deep run in that competition this year has as well, but there's also a predictable-yet-still-
annoyingly-entitled undercurrent of "it's only the FA Cup" to that goodwill. I have been an Arsenal fan since pre-Wenger, and I can't imagine Arsenal without him. His contract has two more years to run; I know the day of his departure is coming, but I'll be very sad when it does.
CHN: How do you expect Wenger to attack a Newcastle defensive line that is going to have at least two players playing out of position?
TSF: I honestly have no idea, because as I mentioned, Arsenal are exhausted right now, so I don't know whether they'll try to exploit those weaknesses or whether they'll just play their "typical" Arsenal game that's served them well since January. If I had to guess, it'd be the latter, but Wenger is notoriously tight-lipped about how he does things, so I can't really even read tea leaves to make a guess.
CHN: How's Mathieu doing? He seemed like a nice lad when he passed through Newcastle.
(Ed. note: My question was worded terribly as I didn't think twice about a two Mathieu squad. I certainly meant Debuchy, but this answer about Mathieu Flamini needs to see the light of day.)
TSF: Ah, the Flamster. One of the persistent criticisms of Arsene Wenger is that he refuses to buy a CDM, and makes do by either not using a defensive midfielder much at all or by plugging Flamini in and hoping for the best. Flamini is...not good. All the will in the world, but he is as graceful as a donkey on roller skates, and his touch is as subtle as an angry rhinoceros, so every time he's on the pitch most Arsenal supporters just cringe and hope he doesn't get sent off. He is a decent person, but he's bad at playing soccer, which is awkward since, y'know, that's his job and all.
(And now the Debuchy answer)
Mathieu Debuchy was a great acquisition and showed great promise, albeit very raw promise, before he tore ankle ligaments in the Manchester City game in September. He recovered from that, played a few games, scored a goal, and then had his shoulder dislocated by Stoke City in January, and is still awaiting a return. He should be back shortly, and Arsenal fans are pretty excited to see what he can do.
CHN: Newcastle are useless in the attack. Let's pretend that they're not - how would they best be able to put pressure on the Arsenal defense?
TSF: Set pieces. All day. Arsenal are better at defending them now than they were earlier in the season, but they're still not great at them. Other than that, run straight at Mertesacker - he's one of my favorite defenders and has been a rock for Arsenal, but he's really starting to show his age this season. While he's never been particularly fast, this season he's really not-fast. He's positionally great (most of the time) but can be beaten for speed pretty easily.
CHN: What is your prediction for the match?
TSF: First, my caveat: I'm really, really bad at these. That being said, though, I think a tired Arsenal will be able to win this game, but it'll be much tighter and more tense than it probably should be thanks to Arsenal's Monaco adventure. I'm thinking either 2-1 or 3-2.