The Clean Sheets: Dissecting the Gunners

The Clean Sheets: Dissecting the Gunners

This article is part of our The Clean Sheets series.

After an unnecessarily long layoff, Andrew Laird and Nick Pitner return with their latest email conversation, this time chatting about one of their favorite topics: Arsenal.

Laird: So it looked like the only thing that was going to slow Santi Cazorla down was the return of Mesut Ozil from his knee injury.

Well, Ozil returned to the starting XI last week and Cazorla dominated Aston Villa, bagging a brace and picking up an assist. And Ozil had a goal and an assist, the second straight game he's found the back of the net. Could Cazorla's excellent play mean he stays in the No. 10 and Ozil becomes more of a goal-scoring threat?

Another interesting playing-time battle will be Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez. Maybe I'm a little pessimistic, but I'm not sure how the two of them play together. Do they put Walcott out wide on the left and have Sanchez on the right, with Olivier Giroud in front and Ozil and Cazorla behind them (I would love that)?

That, of course, leaves Danny Welbeck back on the bench.

We can get into the defensive rotation later, but how do you think Arsenal is going to line up now that (almost) everyone is fit (**knocks on wood 1,000 times**)?

Pitner: With a full stable of attackers finally back fit, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is posed with a problem that most managers would be happy to have - figuring out which top-class players to deploy.

However, for fantasy owners, the situation is a bit trickier to navigate. As Wenger has mentioned, Cazorla is currently enjoying "the form of his life", so I would be shocked if he's moved from the No. 10 role right now. As a result, I think Ozil will be pegged on the left, where he played commendably for Germany at this summer's World Cup.

Yes, Ozil prefers to play as a No. 10, and he's proven to be one of the world's best at the position in recent seasons. However, Cazorla has just been too good lately in that spot.

I don't necessarily think this is a bad development for Ozil though. Sure, he's at his best in the middle, but as opposed to the early season, when Arsenal experimented with a 4-1-4-1 position (with Ozil on the left), the Gunners have recently reverted to more of the 4-2-3-1 look that was so successful last season.

Given that slight formation adjustment, Ozil is now less isolated on the left, giving him more freedom to switch with Cazorla and drift inside when he desires. That dynamic allows both players more space to move about and create chances, as we saw Sunday against Aston Villa.

One player sure to be on the receiving end of those chances is Walcott, who has always played on the right side for Arsenal. In contrast, star signing Alexis has shown he can play pretty much anywhere - just get him on the pitch and he'll do the rest.

However, as you mention, it might be tough at first to play both Walcott and Alexis together. That's because, at this stage in his return, Walcott's all-around game could use some sharpening. Meanwhile, because Alexis is so magnificently talented, he often attempts attacking maneuvers that few would dare to take-on. While these crafty moves sometime result in spectacular plays, they also cause him to give the ball away more than some of his teammates.

With that in mind, I think having both Alexis and Walcott playing together right now could disrupt Arsenal's possession-based attack to some respect.

In the long-run, however, I believe they'll definitely comprise Arsenal's starting wingers, as their directness, speed, and goal-scoring ability would be unmatched league-wide.

Given Walcott's and Ozil's return to the fold, I'm guessing you're right in thinking that Welbeck could be the odd man out. When healthy, he's likely to be Olivier Giroud's chief backup at center forward, although youngster Chuba Akpom is quickly gaining opportunities, especially as the club looks for him to sign an extension before his current contract runs out this summer.

Laird: Sticking with Arsenal, what's your call on who should start in goal? I've never been the biggest Wojciech Szczesny fan, and while I was glad they brought in David Ospina to light a fire under the Polish keeper, it seemed like an incredible long shot that the latter would win the job outright.

Thanks to Szczesny's Marlboro Man move in the Southampton dressing room, we've now see Ospina go out and post clean sheets in three straight Premier League matches, including that great win against Manchester City at the Etihad. That figure matches Szczesny's season-long total, though he needed 17 games to get there. Heck, Emiliano Martinez posted two clean sheets in four matches, including a shutout of Southampton. Maybe Szczesny can lead Arsenal to a second consecutive FA Cup.

Moving slightly up, I love the addition of Gabriel Paulista, as defensive depth has been a real issue for Arsenal this season, especially in the middle. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are very solid together, but Koscielny has battled an Achilles injury all season and any break is a plus for him. Calum Chambers was thrown in there for a bit, as have Nacho Monreal and Mathieu Debuchy, with none working out well enough to make a difference. I still can't believe Wenger bought a player he needed during the window.

And on the outside, what's your thought on Kieran Gibbs v. Monreal on the left and Chambers v. Hector Bellerin on the right?

Pitner: I think Ospina has to be Arsenal's starting keeper for the time being. Szczesny's horrendous New Year's Day outing, followed by his shower-smoking incident, created an opportunity that Ospina has taken full advantage of. Yet to concede a goal, the Colombian has done nothing to warrant returning to the bench.

Meanwhile, compared to last season, when Szczesny tied for the Premier League-high in clean sheets for a goalkeeper (16), the Polish international's record of 21 goals allowed on 66 shots faced this season is horrendous. Maybe some time out of the lineup can motivate Szczesny to prove himself once again.

When it comes to Gabriel, I'm also very pleased by the signing. He's a Koscielny-type defender who's quick and aggressive in winning the ball back. That style pairs nicely with Mertesacker, who tends to let the action come to him before intervening.

I've read Chambers described as a "Per-shaped" defender, and totally agree. From his time at right back, Chambers' relative lack of agility has been exposed, which makes me believe he's best suited for a central role in the Mertesacker mold.

With Chambers' stock sliding, fellow 19-year-old Bellerin has grown more impressive with each match, highlighted by last weekend's goal and clean sheet versus Aston Villa. The former Barcelona academy product certainly fits Arsenal's style of play and could be a steal in fantasy leagues considering his cheap price in most formats.

On the opposite flank, I think Monreal has been an underrated commodity this season, as he's not only filled-in commendably as an emergency center-half, but has excelled in his usual left-back role. In fact, Monreal has been so steady that it appears he's ousted Gibbs as Wenger's first-choice at the position right now.

As we've shown, there's a multi-layered discussion when it comes to selecting Arsenal's starting XI on a weekly basis. After having such an injury-riddled squad until this point in the campaign, the Gunners' newfound depth is a fantastic development. And we haven't even mentioned Francis Coquelin...

Laird: What a strange story Coquelin is. He said in an interview this week that he had NO IDEA that he was even being considered for a loan recall when it happened, and now he's the best defensive midfielder they've had in years. Who needs Sami Khedira?!?

It's silly to think that he's the end-all answer to their defensive midfield issues, but he's certainly playing well now, which allows Aaron Ramsey to roam a little more.

Speaking of which, has anyone seen Ramsey?

Pitner: He's had a tough time with injuries here and there this season, so hopefully an extended period of health can help him return to his best form. Until then, I'll leave you with this:

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Andrew M. Laird
Andrew M. Laird, the 2017 and 2018 FSWA Soccer Writer of the Year, is RotoWire's Head of DFS Content and Senior Soccer Editor. He is a nine-time FSWA award finalist, including twice for Football Writer of the Year.
Nick Pitner
Nick Pitner writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire. He supports Arsenal FC, the Green Bay Packers and the New York Knicks, while specializing in those respective sports in his coverage for the site.
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