Arsenal have options heading into a must-win visit of struggling Newcastle
Arsenal's match with Newcastle could hold great significance at both ends of the Premier League table. Having begun the new year at the summit of the table, Arsene Wenger's men will be determined to stay there. Their excellent form across 2015 will mean nothing if they can't sustain it until May. For Newcastle, the priorities are rather different. Having finished the year in the relegation zone, their sole aim must be survival.
Despite Newcastle's poor results, Wenger was fulsome in his praise of Steve McClaren in his pre-match news conference, urging the Newcastle fans and board to show patience with the former England boss. While Wenger is a famous proponent of managerial stability, he has particular cause to want to keep McClaren in a job, having won 10 out of his 11 matches against him.
The most recent of those was the encounter between these two sides back in August. Aleksandar Mitrovic was sent off after only 16 minutes for a rash tackle on Francis Coquelin, allowing Arsenal to capitalise and secure a narrow 1-0 victory when Fabricio Coloccini diverted home Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's cross-shot. The game was no great spectacle and Wenger will have been mightily relieved to have left St. James's Park with the points.
At that time, Arsenal were struggling for attacking fluency. The Gunners looked anything but potential title-winners. However, they have since recovered from that sticky start to finish 2015 on top of the Premier League. Wenger must now sense the opportunity to land the Gunners' first league title since "The Invincibles" of 2004.
Although Arsenal's ascendance owes plenty to the failure of other teams, Wenger also deserves enormous credit for overseeing their transformation into credible title contenders. He has had to cope with the annual injury crisis, losing major stars like Coquelin and Santi Cazorla along the way. Nevertheless, he has juggled his resources sufficiently to keep Arsenal firmly in the hunt.
Wenger has intimated he will look to rotate the squad again for Newcastle's visit, so Arsenal fans can expect to see several changes from the side that beat Bournemouth. Nacho Monreal sat out the last game, meaning he is likely to step in to replace Kieran Gibbs. Wenger would dearly love to rest Hector Bellerin but a potential move away from the club for Mathieu Debuchy appears to be prohibiting his selection. That may force the Spaniard to keep playing through what must have been a draining Christmas period.
At centre-half, Wenger does have options. Gabriel Paulista came into the side for Laurent Koscielny against Bournemouth and was impressive at both ends of the pitch, scoring a thumping header as well as producing a vital block to deny Josh King. One of Gabriel's most useful qualities is his ability to dovetail with either Per Mertesacker or Koscielny, and it may be that the giant German is afforded a break this time.
In midfield, Wenger may be tempted to persist with Calum Chambers as the partner to Aaron Ramsey. Chambers shone in the unfamiliar role last time out, demonstrating the ability to win and distribute the ball efficiently and elegantly. With doubts over Mathieu Flamini's availability, this may be another chance for Chambers to state his credentials as a holding player.
In attack, the continued absence of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck severely limits Wenger's ability to shake things up. An injection of freshness may come from Joel Campbell. The Costa Rican international was a substitute against Bournemouth but has largely been preferred to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain throughout the winter. A pair of young wide players, Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide, have both featured on the bench of late but it seems far too soon for them to start a Premier League game. After all, it's essential Arsenal come away from this match with three points.
Boxing Day's 4-0 defeat at Southampton means there is little margin for further error in the festive period. Arsenal need a resounding victory not only to retain their place at the top of the table, but to restore confidence in their title challenge. 2015 was a good year for the Gunners, but Wenger and his players will be fully aware that 2016 could be much better yet.