Will the Arsenal Starting XI Please Stand Up?

I had some interesting discussion with my followers on twitter yesterday. We mostly talked about who will start in which positions this Sunday but there was also a discussion about Theo Walcott and how many goals he will score this season.

This weekend’s lineup against Liverpool is driven mostly by attrition. Who will play? Who do you got?

Cech starts and at keeper Arsenal are set. At right back, Arsenal have a solid first choice in Bellerin and a back-up in Debuchy. Debuchy might not be happy with his position as back-up but he’s a well paid professional footballer and sometimes you get pushed down the pecking order.

At left back, Arsenal have two good options. Monreal is the starter and Gibbs is his replacement. Gibbs is better than a backup and could even start if Arsene moves Monreal to the center back position.

Center back is where Arsenal start to have serious problems. Wenger couldn’t have predicted that all three of his starting three center backs would be out with injury. He has also been working on signing a center back for a while. Exactly why that’s not coming off yet is one of those things that divides the fans: some people say Wenger doesn’t delegate, that Wenger is too cheap, that the valuations are off, that the players are too expensive, etc.

I’ve heard all the arguments and frankly, it’s old. Wenger is slow in the market, he likes to find value, and as he said the other day he treats Arsenal’s money as if it were his own. I am not taking a side on this debate because I have accepted that this is just how Wenger is. It’s sure frustrating at times. I mean, I wish we got business done last month. I wish that Wenger would just spend the money on the players that we need. But no amount of me crying into this blog or harassing the official twitter account is going to force Wenger to do anything: he’s going to do it in his own way and I accept that. Acceptance is the final stage of the grieving process.

That’s why I’m in the “the prices for players have gotten ridiculous” camp. Man City signed John Stones today for nearly £50m and Arsenal are reportedly going to spend £30m on Mustafi. I don’t know much in this world but I do know that’s a crazy sum of money for a player who is obviously talented (Stones) but has a pretty big cloud over his head. I have said it before, I like John Stones. He is a rare English defender because he can bring the ball out of the back. That’s an underestimated skill in the Premier League. Wenger has almost always tried to have defenders who can do that, play vertically, the ball on the ground, up to midfielders or forwards. Stones does that. He’s also comfortable with the ball at feet. And again, in a ball-control situation, like what Guardiola will no doubt do at City, that’s an invaluable skill.

Wenger is undoubtedly looking for a defender who offers a similar set of skills to what Stones brings. Is Mustafi that guy? Probably. The German national side play possession-based football. But his League stats are not really telling.

But buying a player isn’t going to get him to start for Arsenal this Sunday. Is it? That would be a tight turnaround. So, I think we have to look at the current team and guess who Wenger is going to start.

Gooners are very big on Chambers and I can see why. He’s similar to Stones in that he can dribble and is comfortable bringing the ball out of defense. He’s also similar to Stones in that he has a tendency to switch off defensively.

Last season in the same match against Liverpool, Chambers started and had one of the worst matches of his Arsenal career. He played passes to Coutinho, he let Benteke nutmeg him, and all around looked lost in the center of defense. He was dropped after that game and only played in League Cup matches and as a sub. In this summer’s pre-season he seemed to revert to that nightmarish form of last season: he had one “tackle” in particular which was so awful and uncommitted that I figured he didn’t even want to play center back anymore. So, it’s a bit of a surprise to hear Arsenal supporters tout him as “future Arsenal captain” and say that he’s a sure starter against Liverpool.

Chambers’ nightmare match was against the Liverpool team under Brentan Rodgers, which was hardly the kind of Liverpool team that we will see this Sunday. This Sunday, they will be pressing Arsenal and will almost certainly apply pressure to Arsenal’s center backs. But then again, who will Arsene pick ahead of Chambers? Bielik? Holding? Monreal? Force Koscielny back early?

Of all the center backs I’ve seen this pre-season, I liked Bielik the best. Yep, I’m mental and I don’t understand football. In fact, I should stick to baseball. Bielik made mistakes (they all did) but he has this calm presence about him, it’s very unusual to see a young player with that much confidence about his game. Again, he reminds me of Stones in that regard and also in his ability on the ball. He’s a converted midfielder and so his control and touch shouldn’t be a surprise. Nor his passing range.

I have to think that Arsene will start one of the two young center backs along with Monreal. He will probably start Chambers and that will prove that I don’t know anything about football (or that Wenger doesn’t think Bielik is ready to start a Premier League match). And at left back Arsenal will have Gibbs.

In front of them Arsene almost has to start Elneny and Xhaka, right? Except now you start to wonder what Wenger’s thinking: will he want more control of the game, or better shielding in front of an inexperienced and nervous back four? In the return match against Liverpool last season, when they had Klopp, Arsenal got another draw, this time 3-3, and the Gunners were absolutely dominated by Liverpool in that game, especially the final 30 minutes.

But that match saw Flamini partner with Ramsey in what was probably Arsenal’s worst ever midfield. To sort of nail the point home, Petr Cech led Arsenal in final third passes. Petr Cech, the goalkeeper, was 13/22 in the Liverpool final 1/3. Özil was 11/19. It almost feels like Wenger simply cannot play Coquelin, despite the added shielding. That means Xhaka and Eleny have to be extra switched on for their defensive duties.

Ramsey will be the third midfielder and will no doubt enjoy the Özil role greatly. He’s also a better defender (though he gets dribbled, A LOT, because he tries to tackle when maybe he should just stand his marker up) than Özil which is a bonus.

And in the front three we aren’t really settled yet either. Most Arsenal supporters I’ve spoken to want Alexis in the CF spot and Iwobi wide left but I wonder what Wenger will do here. Wenger did say he doesn’t want to play Walcott on the right because he doesn’t play defense. Those are Wenger’s own words, don’t @ me, bro.

“He is not a great defender. On the flank, today there is much defensive work asked from the players that you lose a lot of his qualities when you put him there. For me in my head I will use him more up front.”

Of course, then he played him on the right against City..

What’s weird here is that when I mentioned Walcott’s defenselessness people jumped on Ox. They said Ox is a worse defender than Walcott. I don’t know where that comes from. Ox is a much more active player up and down the flanks than Walcott. He literally tackles more and intercepts more than Walcott (always has) and while he’s not the world’s most terrific defender, he puts in his shift. The same can’t be said about Walcott, literally, it can’t be said, Wenger said so.

Arsenal’s right forward will probably be tasked with marking Alberto Moreno. He’s a player who LOVES to go forward. So, whomever Wenger picks will have a tough first day in the League. I suspect that Wenger might put Campbell on the right for his superior work rate. But that means that Wenger will almost certainly start Alexis on the left and Theo in the middle.

Personally, I like Alexis in the middle and Iwobi on the left with Campbell on the right. And I have no reason why I think that Wenger will start Theo up front other than Wenger saying he sees Theo more as a CF. I would love to be surprised and see Alexis played as the CF, I think he just offers more to the position than Theo.

So, that’s my guess as to how Wenger will lineup.

Now, finally, how many goals will Theo score? I asked in a Twitter poll (super duper scientifical) and 46% said 5-10. Only 8% said 15-20 goals and 18% said less than five. This is a huge repudiation of Wenger, who feels like Theo is ready to have the breakout season that all of us thought Theo would have two years ago. If you take all of your feelings about Walcott and put them in a pile, then dump them into the garbage, then set that on fire, you can see that the 5-10 and 10-15 (74% combined) people have a good sense of Walcott’s abilities. I am in the 10-15 goals camp. He has averaged 11 goals a season and 76 shots a season over the last six seasons.

Walcott, like all forwards, needs shots. Unless you see Walcott taking 5 shots a game, and that would mean that he is Arsenal’s number one forward option, and you see him tally 150 shots over say 30 games, he is probably not going to score you more than 15 goals. The other option is that Walcott has a real breakout conversion streak season, like Jamie Vardy had last season, and starts converting 20-25% of his shots (or he’s given penalty duties and Arsenal win a bunch of penalties).

Twelve goals is exactly what you should expect from Walcott, if he gets to take 75 shots. If he gets 150 shots, and he converts at his career average or better, you could see a 23 goal season from him. In his best season for Arsenal, he got 111 shots and scored 21 goals. That was kind of a magical season: he got more shots than ever, but not too many to be considered the number one option, and converted at a 19% rate — which was bumped up because of his League Cup goals. That is also an option, but it seems like such an outlier. Personally, I don’t see Walcott getting fewer than 10 goals this season, unless Wenger buys Lacazette or another top quality striker, and I don’t see him being Arsenal’s number one forward either. Thus, I predict he will be somewhere in the 10-15 goal range. I’m 75% confident of that.


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