It can at times be difficult to dress up the most pointless set of weeks in the domestic football calendar as anything other than a nuisance, but the international break is exactly what Arsenal needed following the 1-1 draw away to West Brom.
The alarm bells started ringing much earlier than the trip to the Hawthorns. Arsenal’s XI, largely unchanged for much of the past few weeks, were tiring, looking ineffectual for the entire 90 minutes, and had it not been for the stern and stubborn backline, Arsenal may not have entered this international break as Premier League table toppers.
Now, this is to assume Arsenal’s squad isn’t further ravaged by this two-week round of international fixtures. If everyone comes through unscathed, Arsene Wenger will have a wealth of options available to him by the time the visit of Norwich rolls around. Moreover, it will offer some of those who have been regulars in the starting XI over the past month or so a much-needed break.
Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott are the names most likely to return once the domestic schedule is back up and running. Each of these names could combine for a midfield three who, on some days and certainly last season, could be considered Arsenal’s strongest attacking unit. Instead of an overreliance on Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey as the forward runners, Wenger is looking to the return of a group who add pace, which has importantly been lacking, as well as further goals from the midfield.
And the brightest prospect in store for fans is the link up of Ozil and Cazorla – a midfield combination who could be one of the most productive and attractive in the league. The question of whether the two can perform in the same team should long have been thrown out the window. Last season wasn’t the first time Cazorla was pushed to the flank to accommodate another name. Manuel Pellegrini did the same in the Spaniard’s final season at Malaga, moving Cazorla about the midfield, as well as to the central midfield two, to allow for Isco to blossom behind the striker. It’s also clear that Wenger favours Cazorla on the left over Podolski, as the Spaniard offers greater balance and contrast to Walcott’s direct style on the opposing flank.
But it’s the upcoming fixtures that will most please Wenger and the strengthening squad. Norwich and Crystal Palace, on paper, should prove to be straightforward wins; they’re both certainly easier games to get through than West Brom, who have already taken the scalp of one of the Premier League’s big teams. And then there’s Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League at the Emirates, a chance to cement the top spot in the group and look to the likelihood of heading into the next round in first place.
Of course, Dortmund, second in the Bundesliga, are one of the most complete sides in Europe, but Jurgen Klopp, like Wenger, is handling an injury-hit squad. Ilkay Gundogan, Marco Reus, Nuri Sahin, Sven Bender, Sebastian Kehl and Lukas Piszczek are all missing, as well as others. If there is ever a good time to play the German side, it’s now. With a possible nine points after three games, Arsenal will likely only need a draw to go through to the next round; Marseille at home could prove to be the perfect opportunity.
Wenger has been unable to properly utilise the strength and variety of his squad. The addition of Mathieu Flamini is proving to be a vital one, allowing for Ramsey and Jack Wilshere to operate further forward while forming a solid base alongside Mikel Arteta. With the returning players, Wenger will be able to look to these four names to fill the two positions in the centre of midfield. Finally the debate about whether to bench Ramsey or Arteta will come to the fore. The strength and quality of this team means that there will be little compromise to performances and results.