The four Arsenal selection headaches Mikel Arteta faces against Manchester United

The four Arsenal selection headaches Mikel Arteta faces against Manchester United

Another tough test faces the Gunners

Arsenal travel to Old Trafford on Thursday night hoping to replicate their performance from last season, where they ran out 1-0 winners courtesy of a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty.

Unlike last season, it is the Gunners that are flying high, while Manchester United are going through something of a crisis, with the Red Devils having picked up just 5 from a possible 24 points across their last eight games. As a result, a loss for the home side could see them drop into the bottom half of the table, and would push Arsenal eight points clear in the race for Europe.

It is hard to predict what Arteta and co. may come up against, with Michael Carrick opting to drop star man Cristiano Ronaldo for their 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, and utilising a false 9. Before that, the side have experimented with a back 3, 4-2-4, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formation at various stages of the season.

The Gunners too have selection headaches. For the most part, they have had a settled side, in part due to no European football commitments, and in part due to few injuries. But, there are now questions to be asked.

On a good run, they will be looking to keep their performances high, and 101 take look at four of the areas that places are up for grabs.

Who starts at left-back

The question of who started at left-back would have been a foregone conclusion even as recently as the beginning of the season, with Kieran Tierney clearly first choice. The Scot has been absent from the side since the middle of October, and has been an unused substitute for the last three games.

This is due to the form of Nuno Tavares, who endured a tricky game against Liverpool but excelled against Newcastle United, particularly in the second half. Providing the assist for Bukayo Saka’s opener, he was everywhere on the pitch, and offers far more unpredictability than Tierney.

However, he remains inexperienced, and as shown at Anfield, is capable of letting the occasion get the better of him. Under the lights at the Theatre of Dreams, does Arteta risk the same happening again?

Speaking on the fight for left-back in his pre-match conference, Arteta said:

“It was a tricky one and after what happened at Anfield and some individual errors that we had, we have to be very careful with the messages that we send to our players,” 

“I encourage my players to play with courage, to take risks, to make decisions and to be on the front foot and when they do that, if for any reason things don’t go our way or somebody makes a mistake, that’s when you have to show trust in the player because you want to build confidence and resilience.”

“Kieran hasn’t played in a lot of games because he was still injured and in others, because once Nuno played and played well, I think he deserved the chance to continue playing.”

With Tierney having spent six weeks without a minute of Premier League action, a choice has to be made. Will he be thrust back into the action, or will the hectic inexperience of Tavares be preferred against the Red Devils?

Creative hub or goalscoring threat?

Should Arsenal line up in the 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 hybrid that we have seen thus far this season, another major selection issue is who occupies the space behind or alongside the striker.

So far, both Alexandre Lacazette and Martin Odegaard have taken turns in lining up in the position with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ahead of them, but Arsenal have struggled to click in the final third.

Despite sitting 5th, the Gunners have scored just 15 goals in 13 games, the 13th most in the league. and fewer than 20th placed Newcastle United, against whom two of those 15 were scored.

Lacazette (in theory) offers more goal threat, as well as offering Arsenal a better option for hold-up play, whereas Martin Odegaard’s pressing is infectious and he is able to provide moments of guile against more stubborn defences.

Restored to the starting XI against Newcastle for the first time since a draw with Crystal Palace in mid-October (which, coincidentally, was also Tierney’s last outing), Odegaard struggled to begin with, but was much improved in the second half.

Despite this, there is no obvious winner, with Lacazette contributing to Arsenal’s unbeaten run that was ultimately ended by Liverpool at Anfield. Is there a way that both play?

Will Arteta drop Aubameyang?

Saturday’s performance against Newcastle United perhaps summed up where Pierre Emerick Aubameyang is right now. Being asked to alter his game, his pressing has been much better this season, and his desire to win the ball back cannot be questioned (see, for instance, the challenge that gave away the free kick that led to Liverpool’s opener).

However, he has found the back of the net just 4 times in the Premier League. While this leaves him the joint-top scorer for the Gunners with Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal’s captain would surely have been hoping for, and indeed expecting, more.

Two seasons ago, it would have been unthinkable to drop the talisman, but clearly in a rut of form, could Arsenal follow in Michael Carrick’s footsteps and drop their main man for the good of the team?

Pepe overlooked again?

When Bukayo Saka came off injured against Newcastle United, all eyes turned to the bench. But it was not Arsenal’s record signing, Nicolas Pepe, that emerged from the dugout. Instead, Arteta opted for Gabriel Martinelli, who traditionally plays off the left-hand side, to replace the English starlet.

His choice was rewarded too, with Martinelli scoring with just his second touch of the game, latching onto a beautiful pass from Takehiro Tomiyasu.

While all eyes are on Saka and hoping that he recovers, Arteta’s update gave little away, saying:

“I am hopeful but we don’t know. Obviously it’s a really short turnaround and the player has to be comfortable playing with a little injury, so let’s see how he is in training.”

With eight games to cram in between Thursday and the end of the month, Arteta could be forgiven for choosing not to risk Saka, but the focus then turns to who replaces him.

Nicolas Pepe has not done much to further his cause thus far this campaign, and has only played 5 minutes of Premier League action since the Crystal Palace draw. Should Saka fail to be fit, has Martinelli done enough to warrant a start?

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Premier League table

# Team MP D P
1 Chelsea FC 13 26 30
2 Manchester City 13 20 29
3 Liverpool FC 13 28 28
4 West Ham United 13 8 23
5 Arsenal FC 13 -2 23
6 Wolverhampton Wanderers 13 0 20
7 Tottenham Hotspur 12 -6 19
8 Manchester United 13 -1 18
9 Brighton & Hove Albion 13 -2 18
10 Leicester City 13 -3 18
11 Brentford FC 13 0 16
12 Crystal Palace 14 -1 16
13 Aston Villa 13 -3 16
14 Everton FC 13 -4 15
15 Leeds United 14 -7 15
16 Southampton FC 13 -7 14
17 Watford FC 13 -6 13
18 Norwich City 14 -20 10
19 Burnley FC 12 -6 9
20 Newcastle United 14 -14 7
Player Team Goals
Salah, Mohamed Liverpool FC 11
Vardy, Jamie Leicester City 9
Mane, Sadio Liverpool FC 7
Jota, Diogo Liverpool FC 7
Antonio, Michail West Ham United 6
Raphinha Leeds United 6
Dennis, Emmanuel Watford FC 5
King, Joshua Watford FC 5
Pukki, Teemu Norwich City 5
Wilson, Callum Newcastle United 5
Cornet, Maxwel Burnley FC 5
Sarr, Ismaila Watford FC 5
James, Reece Chelsea FC 4
Fernandes, Bruno Manchester United 4
Gallagher, Conor Crystal Palace 4
Ronaldo, Cristiano Manchester United 4
Toney, Ivan Brentford FC 4
Smith-Rowe, Emile Arsenal FC 4
Benteke, Christian Crystal Palace 4
Aubameyang, Pierre-Emerick Arsenal FC 4

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