With the games coming thicker and faster than a one-eyed Nicklas Bendtner on the A696, we are getting an awful lot of opportunity to break out the Roker Rolodex and get some serious Fan Focusing done.
This week are delighted to welcome back Adrian Clarke, who isn't just an Arsenal fan, but a former Arsenal, Southend and England youth team star. Nowadays Adrian is host of the exceptional "Red, White & Blue Podcast" plus providing insight and analysis to Life's A Pitch and Arsenal.com
We're couldn't be happier to have him, so we'll waste no more of your time and hand you over to Adrian...
Arsenal seem to be having a right old topsy-turvy season. Can you give us a brief summary of how it has all been going so far?
Adrian: Topsy-turvy is putting it kindly. Overall, its been a disappointing campaign so far for Arsenal. By leaving their signings until the last minute in August the squad was ill prepared for a tricky fixture list at the start of the season and poor results subsequently damaged morale badly. In fairness to the manager and the players, they hauled themselves off the floor with a fine unbeaten run before Christmas but the defence remains fragile, the midfield lacks steel and a proper goal threat, and up front the side are extremely reliant on Robin van Persie. Most observers would probably agree that the Gunners have gone backwards this year but all is not lost yet! We can still win the FA Cup, and maybe, just maybe sneak into the top four.
For many, the mere thought of Arsenal not qualifying for the Champions League is almost unthinkable, but with the top four more competitive than ever it is looking like a real possibility. They are going to make it though, right?
Adrian: It pains me to admit it but I wouldn’t be confident staking any money on a top four finish for Arsenal this season. Away from home they haven’t been hugely convincing and aside from the 7-1 hammering they gave Blackburn Rovers most of the home matches have been reasonably close run affairs too. With Van Persie and Oxlade-Chamberlain in top form Arsenal have a chance, of course they do, but when you look at the squads Spurs, Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle United possess you have to accept it will be a close run thing. There isn’t much to choose between the lot of them. I’ll be devastated if Arsenal relinquish Champions League football next season but I must confess that I am bracing myself for it.
There has been quite persistent rumblings of discontent surrounding Arsene Wenger's position for quite some time now with many Gunners fans questioning whether or not it is time for a change. Where do you stand on that particular debate?
Adrian: Like everybody else I find it hard to imagine Arsenal without Arsene Wenger but sooner or later a change will inevitably be made. Nothing lasts forever. Should a change be made this summer? I am torn over whether that would be a good or bad move for the club. He’s a brilliant manager but has he taken the team as far as he can? I just don’t know. I suspect the final decision will rest with the Frenchman himself because the board appear to be united behind him despite the murmurings of discontent among the Emirates faithful. If Arsenal fail to make the Champions League he may step aside but if they do claim a top four spot it could reinvigorate him and his players ahead of next term.
This Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain bloke seems a very special player indeed. What can you tell us about him? Should we believe the hype?
Adrian: t all depends on what hype you’re hearing. Can he become a top Premier League performer? Yes, he absolutely can. Is he the next Lionel Messi? No. Personally I think he’s a fantastic player that should be playing week in, week out for Arsenal. What I like most is his positivity. He will run at defenders with purpose and is always trying to bring an end product to his play. He delivers decent crosses and has a cracking shot on him with either foot too. I’d love to see The Ox operate behind Van Persie because he has the ability to make powerful runs in behind opposition defences as well as creating havoc in front of them but for now he’s going to do quite some damage out wide. On current form he has to be first choice.
What do you make of Sunderland this season?
Adrian: I expected your boys to finish between 8th and 10th and I think that’s where you will end up. Sunderland’s squad is strong but for some reason the drive and belief went out of the side under Steve Bruce. That’s all changed now under Martin O’Neill of course and suddenly the Black Cats look a quality outfit. What you have now is a really balanced XI. All the players look comfortable with what they’re being asked to do and that’s half the battle. Up front I do feel Sunderland are a bit powder puff but at least you’re creating the chances now. After under achieving for months I’d say the side are now producing the standard that they’re capable of.
Regarding the game itself, if Arsenal are going to win it, where do you see them hurting Sunderland?
Adrian: If Arsenal are going to win this one the midfield trio need to win the battle. We should outnumber Sunderland in the middle of the park but Song, Arteta and Ramsey must be physical off the ball and clever on it. If they are off the pace there is a danger Sunderland will over run them. Games are won in the final third though and if Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott are flying they will not only destroy the full-backs but they will create plenty for Van Persie to feed off and as we all know he’s on fire. I look at our front three and I look at Sunderland’s back four and I am quietly confident.
And, conversely, what is there about the Sunderland team that you think will be worrying Arsenal?
Adrian: The set piece threat of Seb Larsson will be a worry for Arsene Wenger, as will the intensity you’re likely to play the game at. For me, Sessegnon is the main danger man. I know I stated Sunderland’s strike force wasn’t top class but he does drop off from his marker and he makes things happen. That will be a concern because the likes of Mertesacker and Koscielny haven’t looked comfortable away from home when that happens. Arsenal’s central spine is not as strong as it should be, with midfielders and defenders being drawn out of position too much, so there could be goals in this one for Sunderland.
Finally, can we coax a prediction out of you for the game?
Adrian: Given the red hot form Sunderland are showing in the Premier League right now I think Arsenal will be satisfied with a draw and that’s what I predict they will get. I’ll plump for an entertaining 2-2.