Facing an old foe

Posted by Sam Limbert

Back in the early 2000's, when Arsenal used to regularly win trophies, there was one team that always felt like a bogey team to Gunners fans. Bolton Wanderers caused a bit of a stir when they were promoted to the Premier League in 2001 as they started their first campaign well. The start included a 1-1 draw at Highbury, even though that era's goal machine, Francis Jeffers, scored for Arsenal that day.

Their manager was a certain Sam Allardyce. Arsene Wenger and Sam Allardyce haven't had a brilliant relationship since Bolton first emerged in 2001, with Bolton regularly causing Arsenal problems and picking up a few points against Wenger's team. The worst moment came in 2003 when the Gunners lost a two goal lead at the Reebok to contribute to missing out on a consecutive league title. Allardyce team's style of play is significantly contrasting to Arsene Wenger's, and undoubtedly frustrates Arsenal fans because he has had some success with it.

Despite Allardyce declaring that he'd be good enough to manage Real Madrid, he's in his element at a lower to middle table club, where he can get the best out of players and potentially make the top half. After getting West Ham United promoted last season, Allardyce's team have started the season well. With Arsenal losing to Chelsea last weekend, West Ham currently sit two points ahead of the Gunners.

With Andy Carroll returning from injury, the likelihood is that West Ham will put a lot ball in the air and look to play through him. Having kept a clean sheet away at Stoke when faced with similar tactics earlier in the season, Arsenal should be confident about not conceding, however I think dealing with the high balls will depend on the wellbeing of Per Mertesacker.

After the Chelsea match, I wrote about Arsene Wenger needing to choose the right options from his squad for each game. Whereas sometimes it isn't clear which players to pick, it seems obvious this weekend that if Mertesacker is declared fit enough, he should be re-instated into the backline. Partly because of the occasionally erratic defending against Chelsea and Olympiacos without the big German, but mainly because he's best equipped to deal with the likely threat West Ham will pose.

I still don't think that Per Mertesacker should be type-casted as only being able to deal with the big men up front, but he's undoubtedly good at it on the evidence of the way he kept Peter Crouch's chances to a minimum earlier in the season.

If just for defending set pieces, Arsene Wenger will have the temptation to start Olivier Giroud to give the team an extra physical presence. I've been impressed by how Giroud has challenged centre backs when defending from the front, so there shouldn't be any harm in playing him and disrupting West Ham. Without Abou Diaby, Giroud's height would benefit the team.

It's important for Arsenal to not solely focus on how West Ham will play though. If the Gunners keep the ball on the floor and look to get the in-form Podolski and Gervinho involved, then they should have a great chance of getting an important win. I'd like to see those two flank Giroud as part of the front three, and it almost goes without saying now that I'd love to see Giroud get a league goal to stop some of the flack he's received.

When Arsenal faced Stoke earlier in the season, the attacking players were yet to find some form and bed into the season, so the clash of footballing philosophies was distorted slightly. Now Arsenal's forwards are beginning to fire, Arsene Wenger's old foe presents an opposition that will make for an intriguing game. If Arsenal's big players are fit and stay true to the Wenger way, Sam Allardyce's good start to the season can be ended.

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